In the 1930s and ’40s, when NYPD paddy wagons were carting citywide arrests downtown for processing, freelance news photographer Arthur Fellig was either fraternizing with cops or at his bedroom window, across the street from Police Headquarters in Lower Manhattan. Tipped off about bloodstained crime scenes in the middle of the night, Fellig would race to snap pics for the big newspapers before the police arrived. He relished being called “Weegee” for his ability to materialize instantaneously, like the answers on a Ouija board.
In a recent graphic novel, Weegee: Serial Photographer, the Belgian cartoonists Max de Radiguès and Wauter Mannaert dramatize the middle of Weegee’s prolific career. Inspired by the photographer’s legacy, the comic — newly translated into English by Conundrum Press — recreates scenes that monopolized the front pages of papers such as the Herald Tribune and the New York Post. Weegee’s photography scoured a city that teemed with jewelry-draped socialites and dead gangsters strewn across tavern doorways. Ethical practices never seemed to get in the way of a good Weegee photo; Serial Photographer examines his knack for orchestrating pictures as well as his insatiable appetite for notoriety.
As the book opens, we see Weegee lug his Speed Graphic camera through a crowd gathered around a corpse at Midtown’s Tudor Cinema. Mannaert — whose characters’ spirited expressions and careful renderings of tenement facades are indebted to Will Eisner’s — washes the sequence in inky shadows worthy of the era’s gangster films. He blackens the space under his photographer’s hat, save for an exaggerated nose and receding chin. De Radiguès’s script, meanwhile, is reminiscent of the curt captions in Weegee’s 1945 monograph Naked City, where a shot from this incident appears. “Poor chump, wasn’t his night,” Weegee mutters of the body. Mannaert’s sinister composition proves apt: Before the cops arrive, Weegee repositions the corpse to heighten the drama. Then he snaps his photo.
While the actual Tudor Cinema photos depicted a car crash death — not the shooting imagined by de Radiguès and Mannaert — the point is that some of Weegee’s pioneering photojournalism, developed for wire services in the darkroom of a car trunk (craftily shown here within a stretch of wordless panels), was often staged. His unscrupulous practices became well-known over the years. More surprising is the comic’s portrayal of a vulnerable man starved for fame.
At times, Mannaert and de Radiguès spike the book’s dialogue with unnecessary melodrama and conjure silly nightmares. The latter are freed from the main story’s panel grids. In drawings set loosely on the page, Weegee becomes a burly, sweaty murderer, bushy eyebrows and pronounced jowl intact. I prefer the book’s attempts at realism, which follow the glory-hounding photographer through detail-rich illustrations of Greenwich Village, where he pines aloud for museum shows and uptown approval.
Serial Photographer depicts a man as obsessed with capturing the perfect image as with promoting his own. The authors take liberties similar to cartoonist Box Brown’s in his clever Andre the Giant book, but draw heavily on Weegee’s ludicrously boastful 1961 autobiography. Mirroring his real patronage of prostitutes, the comic book Weegee confesses his hunger for fame to a sex worker named Irma. When his car’s police-band radio interrupts sex with her — and a subway train rolls over elevated tracks darkened with dense, scratchy lines — it brings to mind Weegee’s account of making “uninhibited love” to a nurse, “with the police signals and fire bells on, keeping time.”
He gripes, in the comic, about being a “small-time photographer” who needs “everyone in the Big Apple to worship” his photos. Not surprisingly, he ensures that all in earshot hear his war stories, while keeping them apprised of his publications. Weegee’s marketing was as impressive as his pictures, and Serial Photographer‘s emphasis on that aspect of his career is well-founded.
“Weegee” wasn’t just a nickname drawn from Ouija boards. It’s also a riff on and re-branding of “squeegee boy,” the snide nickname he got as a photo lab assistant before his freelance days. The real Weegee cherished fawning 1937 profiles of him in Popular Photography and LIFE. In 1938, he distributed selfies taken in a police wagon with the caption “My Studio.” In 1940, Manhattan’s Photo League Headquarters hosted a Weegee exhibition.
For six years beginning in 1940, Weegee was contracted by a mostly progressive, image-centric tabloid called PM. The relationship, which afforded him bylines, official photographic essays, and column inches to muse on his work, aligned nicely with his promotional, fame-seeking nature. As Jason Hill writes in Artist as Reporter, the photographer’s pictures at PM “were to be as much the news — the thing at hand, the matter of concern — as they were the medium for reporting that news.” PM editor William McCleery would pen his monograph’s foreword, and Weegee got his own glowing, four-page feature in the paper while he was contributing in 1941. The article was paired with a photo he snapped of his apartment similar to the one that ran in LIFE — it revealed a celebratory “trophy wall” behind Weegee’s bed plastered with newspaper tear sheets of his photos and bylines. Following all of the exposure at PM, the Museum of Modern Art bought photos and he was suddenly freelancing for Vogue.
Serial Photographer‘s creators stage a fancy book launch party for Naked City toward the comic’s close, but have Weegee hoisting his bulky camera and flash bulb at a rooftop crime scene immediately afterward. He brags to a slender-faced detective about his newfound work at glossy magazines, seemingly hell-bent on proving himself. “It was time I got some of the recognition coming to me,” he reasons. The sequence hearkens back to the phone call he has with a cop early on in the comic, standing inches from the trophy wall that appears throughout the book.
“I’m the best photographer in this damn town,” Weegee says into the receiver. “Nobody takes pictures like I do.”
And nobody worked harder to sell that news than Weegee did.