Take a Trip Back in Time to “Weegee’s Bowery”

Photo: Weegee, [Shop window of tattoo parlor, New York], ca. 1943.

“Sure. I’d like to live regular. Go home to a good looking wife, a hot dinner, and a husky kid. But I guess I got film in my blood. I love this racket. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. It’s funny. It’s tough. It’s heartbreaking,” the great photographer Weegee said. Born Usher Fellig in 1899, what is now the Ukraine, he was renamed Arthuer when the family immigrated to New York in 1909. He first took up photography at age 14. By 1935, he quit his day job—and how blessed we are for it.

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As Weegee told Bomb Magazine in 1987, “In my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.”

Weegee, Norma Devine is Sammy’s Mae West, 1944

Weegee was the best kind of journalist: he was a man of the people, for the people, and he did it right. He understood the gritty glamour of his milieu and the power of the photograph to tell the story instantaneously. He bore witness with the eye of an artist and the speed of a professional, always he first on the scene. “News photography teaches you to think fast,” Weegee observed, and at a time when newsprint was the main mode of visual communication, he dominated.

Back when Weegee walked the streets of New York, the Bowery was Skid Row, a den of iniquity littered with concert halls and brothels, beer gardens and flophouses that bordered on the notorious Five Points neighborhood. To add to the ambience, the Third Avenue El ran above the city streets, creating a backdrop that was as film noir as the 1930s and ‘40s could get. It was a time and a place that encapsulates everything that was Old York, from the fleabag hotels to the all-night missions for the down-and-out transients who took to the streets.

Weegee, [Shorty, the Bowery Cherub, New Year’s Eve at Sammy’s Bar, New York], 1943

New York has always been known for its radical culture clashes, creating a multi-layered experience for one and all. And so it was that everyone came to Sammy’s, a nightclub and cabaret, that ran from 1934–1976. Prohibition had just ended, and everyone was feeling the vibe, making for the ideal subjects to photograph for the master.

In celebration of those heady days and nights, the International Center of Photography presents Weegee’s Bowery in the ICP gallery at Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, NJ, now through August 5, 2016. The exhibition features 39 prints from ICP’s holdings of more than 20,000 Weegee photographs, distilling the ultimate cocktail, the kind designed to knock you off your feet. Weegee himself appears in a number of the photographs, letting you know this photography thing goes both ways.

Weegee, Under the Third Avenue El, 1943-45

All photos: © Weegee / International Center of Photography.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.