Weegee is certainly one of the most infamous street photographers in history. Although he never called himself a street photographer (he worked as a press/news photographer) his obsession with capturing people was unparalleled. With no formal photographic training, he covered some of the most gruesome murders (and shots of everyday life) around New York City from the 1930’s to the 1940’s. Armed with a portable police-band shortwave radio, he was always on the beat for new stories to cover– and he even had a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car. This allowed him to get his photos to the newspapers as quickly as possible.
Weegee is also famous for the use of his 4×5 Speed Graphic large-format press camera and flash– which added even more drama to his gritty black and white photos. He was certainly one of the forefathers of shooting street photography with a flash (back when they used flashbulbs). He generally shot his camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet (and didn’t always know what kind of photos he got until he processed them).
Many street photographers are under the false impression that shooting with artificial light in street photography is just a recent phenomenon. It started as early as 1887, in which the journalist Jacob Riis started using flash power to document destitute people on the streets. Certainly Weegee has had a strong influence on shooting flash in the streets to photographers such as Diane Arbus, William Klein, and Bruce Gilden.
If you want to learn more about the philosophy behind Weegee’s work
Note: some of these photos are gruesome and NSFW.
1. Get the shot
Weegee’s main profession was a freelance photographer. He often slept in the park, in his car, or other places–listening to the police radio for murders, fires, or other events of interest to photograph. This would allow him to capture the scene before any other photographer. He would then sell his photos to the newspapers to earn his living.
One of the most important parts of his job was to get the shot–and Weegee emphasizes the importance of acting quickly. He explains in this 1958 interview:
“The subject is news photography. This was the most wonderful experience for any man or woman to go through. It’s like a modern Aladdin’s Lamp, you rub it and, in this case the camera, you push the button and it gives you the things you want. News photography teaches you to think fast, to be sure of yourself, self confidence. When you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.”
Street photography is very similar. You have to think fast, because when you see an interesting person or a scene unfold, you almost never have a second chance to capture it. Not only that, but self-confidence is also of upmost important (both in terms of using your camera and approaching people).
Sometimes when Weegee covered murders, he could take his time:
“Now the easiest kind of a job to cover is a murder, because the stiff will be laying on the ground, he couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental, and he would be good for at least two hours. So I had plenty of time.
Other times, he had to work extremely quickly–especially when the time is of the essence:
“At fires, you had to work very fast.”
Weegee also mentions the importance of working quickly, that once the moment is gone–it is gone forever:
“And my, I think the definition of a news shot would be this, a news picture editor. I once photographed and did a story on Stieglitz, truly a great photographer. And we started talking about things and he said, ahh… he said “Something happens, it’s a thousandth part of a fleeting second. It’s up to the photographer to capture that on film, because like a dying day, the thing will never come back again.”
So how can one better “get the shot”? Well Weegee was originally called Weegee (because it sounded like OUIJA board)– in the sense that people thought he arrived at a murder scene (before it happened). Very much like the psychic powers of a OUIJA board.
However Weegee says that was all nonsense–and that his secret was always being ready with his camera, “…just in case”.
MCBRIDE: Well, the reason they said he was like a Ouija board, it is because he’s psychic, he can pick up crime where there are no indications at the moment. He’ll just go to a spot, and there’s a feeling inside him. Isn’t that it, Weegee?
WEEGEE: That’s right. I can sense it. I hover around a neighborhood knowing something is gonna happen.
MCBRIDE: You don’t know what exactly?
WEEGEE: No — I can’t — I don’t know what, but I’m all ready with my camera, just in case.
When it comes to news photography (and especially street photography) time is of the essence. Time is ever-so-fleeting, and once a “decisive moment” presents itself to you– it will often never show its face again (in the same context).
Therefore the practical idea is always be ready with your camera, no matter what. Mind you that Weegee was working with a massive 4×5 press camera. It is tons heavier than a modern day DSLR.
Not to put unnecessary pressure on you
but think to yourself when you see an interesting scene: “I might never see this again.” Think to yourself: what are you willing to risk to get the shot? Are you willing someone yelling at you? Someone potentially becoming physically aggressive to you? Someone threatening to call the cops on you?
Know your own personal limitations
but if you don’t want to regret having not taken a photo, just go for the shot. And remember, always have your camera ready with you.
2. Create your opportunities, don’t wait for them
For his news photography, Weegee wouldn’t wait for the opportunities to come to him. Rather, he would create his own opportunities.
Like a stray wolf–he was always on the prowl. He didn’t just sit back and wait for the stories to come to him. He would deliberately seek out his stories. Weegee shares his working method:
“And, I have found covering stories as they happen – in my particular case I didn’t wait till 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. For two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over the police teletype, I would go to it. And the idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers.
In choosing his stories, he didn’t necessarily just go for what was gruesome (murders, fires, etc) but he would often go for what had a deeper meaning (politics, families, etc):
And naturally, I picked a story that meant something, in other words, names make news. If there’s a fight between a couple on 3rd avenue or 9th avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares, it’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news, and the papers are interested in that.”
It is easy to complain that where we live isn’t very interesting– and that there isn’t much street photography to shoot. Those of you who live in suburbs may sympathize with this idea. I know I personally felt like that when I first moved to East Lansing in Michigan.
However the funny thing is that even street photographers I know who live in Los Angeles, Paris, New York, or even Tokyo get bored of where they are. So realize that it doesn’t really matter where you live– make your own street photography opportunities.
In East Lansing, there aren’t that many interesting people to photograph (mostly students). Therefore, I have been shooting more urban landscape (like Lee Friedlander) around the Lansing area (the rougher part of town). I have also been making 1.5 hour commutes (one way) to Detroit, to photograph the people and landscape there as well.
So once again, there are always opportunities to photograph. The only thing that matters is how hard you are willing to hustle to get those shots.
3. Be flexible with what you shoot
Weegee made his living as a freelance photographer–so he often shot a wide gamut of subjects. Although he is infamous for photographing death and violence– he also photographed society events (like balls for rich socialites). He didn’t see that as a downside, he took it in stride and made the photos interesting as well:
“I covered all kinds of stories from Murder Incorporated to the opening of the opera to the Cinderella Ball at the Waldorf. In other words, you take everything in stride. The same camera that photographs a murder scene can photograph a beautiful society affair at a big hotel.”
I know a lot of street photographers who work as commercial or wedding photographers full-time. Either that, or street photographers who have day-jobs totally unrelated to anything ‘creative’ (think accountant, corporate lawyer, or service worker).
However realize that you don’t have to just shoot street photography to get better at it. John Goldsmith (one of the finest contemporary street photographers I know) makes his living doing commercial work. He recently shot commissioned portraits for the Vancouver Foundation–and the posed photos he got were very much in the “street photography aesthetic.” Just because the assignment wasn’t street photography doesn’t mean he can’t incorporate his own style and vision into his corporate work. You can also see my interview with John here.
Therefore regardless of what you make your living–take it in stride. If you are an engineer by trade– I am sure that your technical knowledge of taking photos (and sense of form and composition) will be strong. If you are a teacher, I am sure you are able to internalize knowledge better (and also pass it on) when it comes to street photography. If you work a boring office job– perhaps it is your hatred of your day-job that allows you to be more creative in your own personal street photography work (and you can always shoot on your 30 minute-1 hour lunch break).
4. Capture the context
Robert Capa once said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” However it is not always best to be too close. Sometimes it is even better to take a step back– to get more of a context of a scene.
For example, Weegee was covering a murder scene. Instead of just getting close to the action, he took a step back to make the photograph more interesting:
“There was another photographer there, and he made what they call a ten foot shot. He made a shot of just a guy laying in the doorway, that was it. To me, this was drama, this was like a backdrop. I stepped back all the way about a hundred feet, I used flash powder, and I got this whole scene: the people on the fire escapes, the body, everything. Of course the title for it was “Balcony Seats at a Murder.” That picture won me a gold medal with a real genuine diamond, so that was it. In other words I try to humanize the news story.”
By Weegee taking a step back and letting everything in
he could tell more of a story through his photos. It helps you humanize the scene–and helps your viewers connect with the image.
Often times close is better– often times it isn’t. My humble suggestion is to try to work the scene in several different ways. If you have the time and chance– try to take multiple photos of a scene. Get a photo of a scene or person close-up, then take a step back. Re-compose, try to add different elements into the frame (to add more context) and even try different angles and perspectives (taking a step to the left or right, crouching, or even standing on your tippie-toes).
5. Look the opposite way
Many street photographers like to shoot when there is a certain event or festival in town. Although it can be tempting to just photograph the interesting scene at hand– it can often be more interesting to turn your camera the opposite way– to the spectators.
Even Weegee would often turn the camera the other way and photograph the less obvious (which to him, made more interesting photos).
For example, instead of just photographing another burning building, he was more interested in the people it affected–and photographed the people instead of the fire:
“Of course I ran into snags with the dopey editors. If it was a fire, they’d say, “Where’s the burning building?” I says “Look, they all look alike. I says look, here’s the people affected by the burning building.” Well some understood it and some didn’t.
In one case I went to a tenement house fire, here’s a mother and daughter looking up hopelessly. Another daughter and baby are burning to death. Now, at a fire, what happens, those that are lucky to get out of the burning tenements gather in the street, of course.
And then the firemen start counting noses. They want to see how many people are there, and I notice also at this particular fire the aid to the Chief came out and he says “Boss, this is a roast.” meaning, somebody, one or more persons had burnt to death. That’s what the firemen call a roast. And I saw this woman and the daughter looking up hopelessly, I took that picture. To me, that symbolized the lousy tenements, and everything else that went with them.”
I think the best street photographers are the ones who are able to photograph things that are less obvious. For example, if you are traveling to Rome or Paris, don’t photograph the Colliseum or the Eiffel tower. Rather like Martin Parr, you should photograph the tourists themselves (and see how ridiculous they look in a certain context).
I also think a photo that Richard Bram shot during a Thanksgiving parade in NYC 2013. You can see him in-action in the In-Sight film published by Nick Turpin
in which he photographs the people watching the parade (who are obvious to Richard photographing them).
So whenever in doubt
sometimes looking the other way can be more interesting. And always remember in street photography, the more humanistic and emotional your photos are– the more they will generally resonate with your viewer.
6. Look for people with character
One of the things that Weegee was fascinated with is looking for fascinating characters. He photographed tons of people– and if he saw someone that he didn’t find that interesting, he knew instinctively.
For example, his friends would often spot out drunks passed out on the ground and tell him to take a photo. Weegee declined, knowing that they weren’t interesting to him–and didn’t have enough character:
“I will walk many times with friends down the street and they’ll say “Hey, Weegee. Here’s a drunk or two drunks laying on the gutter.” I take one quick look at that and say “They lack character.” So, even a drunk must be a masterpiece! I will ride around all night, or all year, looking for a good drunk picture.
Weegee was a perfectionist. He wanted the photos he took to interesting–not only to himself, but to his viewer. So he would refrain from taking cliche and boring photos of people he thought were too “ordinary.” He recalls the story in which he made his favorite photo of a drunk person:
One of the most beautiful ones I got after riding around two years. Then I made my drunk picture. It was a guy on (Amsterdam avenue?) one Sunday morning about 5 o’clock, he was sleeping underneath a canopy of a funeral undertaking parlor. Now that tome was a picture. Of course the obvious title would be “Dead Drunk.” So, in other words, I am a perfectionist. When I take a picture, if it’s a murder or it’s a drunk, it has gotta be good.”
One of the great things nowadays is that we have the luxury of digital. Imagine Weegee shooting with a massive 4×5 press camera. Not only did he only have one exposure per shot (and had to reload it afterwards) he also had to deal with lightbulbs that would burn out after photographing. Therefore whenever he took a photo, he generally only had one shot to get “the shot.”
With digital, we can sometimes become a little too careless and overshoot things that aren’t that interesting. One quote that comes to mind (from Invisible Photographer Asia) is: “Editing beings in the viewfinder.”
Therefore even before you take a photo, really think to yourself: is it interesting? Is it worth taking a photo of? Does this scene look like all the other scenes I have seen, or is it inherently different in some sort of way? Does this person I want to photograph have personality and character in their face? Are their clothes interesting? Are they boring? These are some questions you might want to ask yourself before photographing.
And remember, don’t aim to just take boring and mediocre photos in the street. Strive to be more selective in finding interesting characters and scenes– and strive for perfection.
7. Capture faces
One thing that I find street photographers doing too much (when starting off) is photographing people’s backs. Granted, there is nothing wrong with taking photos of people’s backs (sometimes they can make interesting photos, especially when leading lines are involved and they are walking into the distance).
However at the end of the day– we as humans are genetically programmed to be attracted to human faces. Even newborn babies can identify faces, as it is a survival mechanism.
Therefore when it comes to photographing people in the street– realize that (not always, but generally) having people’s faces in the photo are more interesting.
Weegee knew this concept very clearly:
“When a person gets in trouble and they get arrested, the first thing they do they cover up their faces, and the editors don’t like it. They say “Don’t give me any excuses, give me a picture so my, our readers can see what the person looks like.”
They often say that “eyes are the windows to the soul” and some of the most memorable photos are the ones in which the subject is looking straight at us (and we can see their face, expression, and eyes). Think of the Mona Lisa– with her sly gaze looking at you (you are not quite sure what her expression is). Or the deep gaze of Steve McCurry’s “Afghan Girl.” Her turquoise-colored eyes look straight through you–and pierce you in the heart.
I know it can be difficult to photograph someone’s face (especially if they are walking ahead of you). The easy thing to do is photograph their backs. But think to yourself: what is more interesting, the back of someone’s head or in front of their face?
To take my own photo for example, here is a comparison of a photo I took of a man for my “Suits” project (from the back and in front). Which do you find more interesting?
Some practical advice how to photograph someone’s face: If you are walking behind them, quickly pace up the street and walk ahead of them, then turn around at the right moment and photograph them head on. If you are taking photos with permission– you can even get more intimate images by telling your subject to look straight into the lens. This will then give your viewer the sense that your subject is looking straight at them.
8. Make people feel comfortable around you
Although the majority of street photography is shot candidly– know that all the photos you take don’t have to be candid. Sometimes interacting with your subject and getting them to feel more comfortable around you and open up to you can make more interesting photos. Not only that, but it is often more humane.
For example, Weegee tells one story in which he was trying to photograph a woman didn’t want to be photographed. He shares how he got her to feel more comfortable by connecting with her on a more human and personal level
which made her accept in being photographed.
Weegee starts off by saying that he wants to first talk to her, instead of photographing her:
“For example, a woman.. the New York cops arrested a woman who was wanted for 25 thousand jewel robbery in Washington, D.C. The woman, being a dope, was naturally captured. And she was in the cell downstairs in the basement of the Manhattan police headquarters. I went down, she started to cover up, I says “Look lady, save your energy. I’m not gonna take your picture. All I want to do is talk with you.”
Without surprise, the woman is suspicious of Weegee and his motives:
“She says “No, I know what you want, you want to take my picture. Why should I let you? So my friends, relatives and mother can see it on the front pages of newspapers?”
Weegee then starts to reason with her– saying that he wants to photograph her in a more humanistic and honorable way:
“I says “Now wait a minute lady, don’t be so hasty. You have your choice. Do you want your picture to appear in the papers, a rose gallery picture with your number underneath it? Or, would you let me make a nice home portrait study of you using nice, soft lighting like Rembrandt would have done?”
Having said that, the woman feels much more comfortable with him:
“Talking and (knocking?) with her, I convinced her that was the only logical thing for her to do, to pose for a picture. Now that was a good catch I’d say for me, besides the New York cops.”
Weegee concludes by sharing the importance that you can disarm and uncover your subjects by treating them like human beings, and reasoning with them in a personal way:
“Anyway, this showed that by arguing with people you can get ‘em to uncover. people are reasonable, even jewel thieves.”
I shoot a lot of street photography candidly, but I also like to photograph with permission. Often when I photograph candidly, I feel that I am not able to capture someone’s true personality and character. After all, most of the time it is just a grab shot in the streets without getting to know a person and their background and history.
Therefore when I see someone interesting on the streets that I want to get to know better– I first start talking to them (even before asking to take a photograph). I ask how their day is going, what they are up to during the day– to disarm them and feel more comfortable. After we make a connection– and for chatting for a few minutes, I then generally ask to take a portrait. Sometimes they say no, but the majority of the time they say yes.
When they do say yes, I have more time to work with them. I can move them around a bit (to find a simpler background) and to even make them laugh or look serious– in an attempt to show different wavelengths of their personality. Sometimes the posed photos are interesting, sometimes they aren’t. However I feel that even though I don’t get an interesting posed portrait in the streets– I still value the human connection that I make with them. And that is what matters the most.
You can see an article I wrote, “How to Direct Your Subjects When Shooting Street Portraits.”
You can also see a series of street portraits I shot in Chicago (POV) here: Chicago Street Portrait POV Series.
9. You don’t really know what you get (until you try)
Weegee often shot in the middle in the night–in complete darkness and with the crude (and horribly inaccurate) wire-finder of his 4×5 press camera. Therefore he wasn’t always 100% sure what he got when he photographed. He only would discover what he got once he processed his photos.
He explains in an interview:
MCBRIDE: I should think when you are taking pictures, you’re oblivious. You don’t really know what else is going.
WEEGEE: Oh absolutely not. I just look through the wire- finder in my camera and as a matter of fact, when I really see the picture is when I’ve developed the film. Then I really see what I’ve have done.
Weegee continues that when he photographs, he is often caught up in the moment:
“I really seem to be in a trance when I am taking the picture because there is so much drama taking place or will take place. I mean, you just can’t hide it — go around wearing rose-colored glasses. In other words we have beauty and we have ugliness. Everybody likes beauty, but there’s an ugliness. When people look at these pictures of people sleeping on the fire escapes, and kids and little girls holding cats, they just won’t believe a thing like that has happened.”
There is so much chaos in the streets and in public places. I think it is due to the chaos (and lack of control we have as photographers) which makes street photography the most difficult type of photography. According to Magnum Photographer David Hurn, there are only two things we can control: where to stand, and when to click the shutter.
Therefore know that there is a lot of uncertainty when you click the shutter. You won’t always be 100% sure of all the elements that will be in your frame. The small little detail in the back of the frame can often make or break your shot.
However you won’t really know what you capture until you try. Whenever you see a scene that you find might be potentially interest (and you have an itch to photograph it)– I say go for it. As my buddy Charlie Kirk often says, “When in doubt, click.”
99.9% of the time you aren’t going to get anything interesting. But that .1% you do get something interesting–it is worth it in the end.
Once again, the downside of shooting digital is that you often can over-shoot a scene (which makes editing a nightmare after). However at the end of the day, I think it is better to take more photos of a scene or a person than fewer. Especially if you shoot digital (you have no downside). I shoot film, and I still try to take at least 5-10 photos of a person or a scene if possible. I have even shot an entire roll (36 photos) of one person or scene if I thought it was interesting enough.
10. Get to know your neighborhood damn well
As I mentioned earlier in this article, photographers tend to complain that where they live/photograph isn’t very interesting. However I find that the most interesting photography projects doesn’t really depend on where a photograph lives or photographers. Rather, the most interesting projects I have seen are generally when a photographer gets to know a place extremely well. This can be his/her own neighborhood or somewhere else.
The reason why Weegee’s photos were so good is that he knew New York City like the back of his hand. He knew every street corner, where the action was, and where interesting things may happen. This is what gave his almost supernatural powers in terms of “predicting” where interesting things would happen (even before they happened).
In an interview Weegee shares how he is always on the streets, driving around, and his knowledge of the blocks and people of NYC:
MARY MARGARET MCBRIDE: Who’s always been madly in love with New York City, but maybe Weegee, I’m not quite as much in love with it as you are. The way everybody talks about you and this book, this beautiful book that you’ve done, I think maybe you not only love it better than I do, but you know it a doggone sight better than I do. You’ve been studying it how long?
WEEGEE: Well, all my life, down on all the streets, I know ‘em all because I drive all night long. I know every block, every sign-post, every cop, every beggar, every . . . everything.“
When it comes on working on a photography project (or any project for the matter)– the deeper you go the better the project generally gets. This takes a lot of time and effort.
For example, Bruce Davidson rode the subways nearly everyday for 2 years straight to create his monumental “Subway” book.
Josef Koudelka also took 10 years traveling and living with the Roma people for his masterpiece: “Gypsies.”
In a recent interview I did with Harvey Stein, he photographed Coney Island for over 40 years (!) for his incredible: “Coney Island: 40 Years” book.
So know that it doesn’t really matter where you photograph
it is all about how you photograph. Rather than just going for single images in street photography and posting to social media– get to know a place really well and work on projects. Projects tend to have more longevity than just single images, and allow you to gain a deeper understanding of a place. Not only that, it allows you to go past the cliches–and more into the soul of a person, community, or area you photograph.
For guidance on starting your own street photography project, here are two articles you can start off with:
- How to Start Your Own Street Photography Project
- How You Can Apply Sociology to Your Street Photography Projects
Weegee was one of the most passionate and controversial photographers of his time. Although he never called himself a street photographer and worked as a freelance photographer as a living, his use of the flash and gritty black and white helped bring a new sense or rawness and reality to his images. The images he created surely resonated with many photographers who followed him, including Diane Arbus, William Klein, and Bruce Gilden.
I think that the main takeaway point we can learn from Weegee is that he wasn’t someone who just sat on his ass and waited for photo opportunities to come to him. Rather, he hustled hard. He was constantly on the prowl, sleeping on park benches, in his car, with his police radio closely in-hand. He always had his hunkering 4×5 Speed Graphic press camera by his side, always ready for photo moments. Sure he didn’t live the healthiest life– but he poured all of his energy, soul, and passion into his work and photography.
Although Weegee is given a lot of flack for just monetizing murder, death, and horrible events– he clearly had sympathy for the subjects he photographed and was a humanitarian at heart.
I think if Weegee were still around today, he would tell us to quit our bitching and moaning and just go out there and photograph.
Quotes by Weegee
- “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.”
- “To me, pictures are like blintzes – ya gotta get ‘em while they’re hot.”
- “When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track.”
- “What I did, anybody can do.”
- “I had so many unsold murder pictures lying around my room…I felt as if I were renting out a wing of the City Morgue.”
- “So, keep your eyes open. If you see anything, take it. Remember – you’re as good as your last picture. One day you’re hero, the next day you’re a bum…”
- “People are so wonderful that a photographer has only to wait for that breathless moment to capture what he wants on film”
Videos of Weegee
Here are some interesting videos of Weegee you can watch to get to know more of his images and working style:
Weegee Tells How
This is where I got the majority of the quotes to write this article. A good watch, which includes inspiring images:
The Real Weegee – 1 Hr Documentary
Although the video quality of this documentary isn’t the best, it is an in-depth 1 hour documentary of Weegee, his life, and his work:
For further reading (and where I got the information to write this article) refer to the links below:
- INTERVIEW: “Famous Photographers Tell How – Weegee” (Audio Download and Transcript) (1958)
- INTERVIEW: “Mary Margaret McBride with Weegee” (1945)
- Sound Portraits: Weegee (2000)
- Weegee by Arthur Fellig (BOMB 20/Summer 1987, ART)
More Photos by Weegee
To see more photos by Weegee and to get to know his work better, you can see them here.
Books by Weegee
1. Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles (~36 USD)
2. Weegee’s New York: Photographs, 1935-1960 (used copies available)
3. Weegee’s World (used copies available)
Anything else you would like to add about Weegee’s work, his life, and how he has had an impact on you (or other photographers?) Contribute in the comments below.