From a talk at SFU Gallery June 3, 2006 with Chris
Brayshaw and Bill Jeffries
more common than the notion that in history up till now it has only been
a question of ‘taking.’ The barbarians ‘take’
the Roman Empire, and this fact of ‘taking’ is made to explain
the transition from the old world to the feudal system. In this taking
by barbarians, however, the question is, whether the nation which is conquered
has evolved industrial productive forces, as is the case with modern peoples,
or whether their productive forces are based for the most part merely
on their association and on the community. Taking is further determined
by the object taken. A banker’s fortune, consisting of paper, cannot
be taken at all, without the taker’s submitting to the conditions
of production and intercourse of the country taken. Similarly the total
industrial capital of a modern industrial country. And finally, everywhere
there is very soon an end to taking, and when there is nothing more to
take, you have to set about producing.” Marx and Engels, The
German Ideology, 1848
“It was a $300
assignment, with me keeping the resale rights, so I decided that I had
better help the realism along.” Weegee by Weegee, p. 118
Weegee, the Ouija board, the photographer who was never bored, what did
he do? Not, who was he, but how did he take these photographs? I think
that our vernacular, our (over)use of the verb “take” for
shooting a photograph – or even our word “shoot” –
are all germane here, in a consideration of how and what Weegee was doing.
He took pictures, he shot photos, he got the shot, he was not so much
a flâneur as a thief, a pickpocket. Someday someone will
remake Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket but as the biography of Weegee,
and we will see Weegee arguing with the police about getting access to
the body, the hoodlum, the drag queen – even if, from the evidence
of his photos, he never had to argue, he was always there, ahead of time
even, occasionally (notably his photo of a tramp on the lower east side,
which is followed by a shot of the tramp after being hit by a taxi).
Weegee’s photos may be documents, they may document New York, or
the urban, or the abject, or the underclass, or the night life, or the
social contradictions, but they do this as something he has taken away.
He takes away the possibility of the woman and daughter ever doing anything
but look up, in horror/grief, as they watch their relatives die in a fire.
He takes away from the grief-stricken, from the ignominious corpse, a
semblance of dignity.
“Taking” is a mistake for “making” in a strict
literal sense: a photographer makes a picture, he or she doesn’t
take it from anything or anyone. And yet our vernacular conveys a deeper
truth, or the kernel of the truth, not unlike so-called primitive beliefs
that the picture steals one’s soul. This is why his book is called
The Naked City: for Weegee has taken the clothes off the inhabitants
– the clothing not just of wood or cotton but of hypocritical morality,
In The Naked City, Weegee comments that he would print his pictures
of ethnic white New Yorkers as pale and pallid as possible, for Italians
and Jews liked that corpse look.
From Weegee by Weegee: “I would finish the photographs
on the contrastiest paper I could get in order to give the kids nice white,
chalky faces. My customers, who were Italian, Polish or Jewish, liked
their pictures dead-white.” Weegee was just 18 then.
But what of this process of moving from taking to making. I began with
the quotation from Marx and Engels’ German Ideology because
of how they criticize the notion of history as just the record of plunder
and pillage, arguing that at some point production as well as to occur.
The means of production must be seized. But this shift is ambiguous in
Weegee’s work, for it happens in two ways: one, his furtive rearrangement
of bodies or casting of actors for his pictures (which leads to film noir),
and the other, his sometimes interesting, sometimes disastrous experiments
with the distorted image.
It is the notion of a transition to film noir that I would like
to focus on. The relationship between Weegee’s photos and film noir
seems to be self-evident: both focus on the city, on the night, on the
criminal and underclass, on sexual relations, and are in black-and-white.
The differences seem only to be two: Weegee’s photographs are still,
of course, and film is a moving picture; and Weegee documented New York
while film noir makes it up. Weegee takes, film makes.
These differences, however, can be quickly dealt with: do we now know,
after all, film noir (and not just film noir) as much through
still images (which are usually not stills from the film stock itself
but production stills shot on the set)? And does Weegee’s photography
not, after all, embody a degree of making as much as of taking. Indeed,
I would like to argue that Weegee’s photographs are making whenever
they are taking, that it is not just his distorted shots that anticipate
digital photography and PhotoShop, but much of the classical period –
the 1930s and 1940s – of his work.
To argue this further, I would like to focus on one of Weegee’s
techniques, that of turning from the horrific object – the burning
tenement, or the mangled car – to the reaction of the subject. This
is most notorious or notable in the picture he later labelled “Grief,”
the photograph of the mother and daughter watching their building burn
down, with the woman’s two other children inside. Weegee remarks
that he cried when he took that photo. This turning away from the disaster,
to the family’s reaction shot, is where Weegee moves from taking
to making. For now he is creating a subjectivity, a forlorn grief, that
is motivated by an absence: we do not see what they see. But we cannot,
for what they are seeing is not simply the burnt building, but itself
an absence, the absence of their family.
If we continue to look at this picture, two more details emerge. One is
that the daughter herself is looking at us – or, rather, looking
at the camera, or looking at Weegee make the shot. Her face is swollen
with grief, with the physiognomy of crying, she holds her mother with
one arm around her, her coat is buttoned up. And the mother herself has
a scarf or a blanket around her head, her hand clutching it, the wedding
ring visible. If we look at the daughter, she looks back at us; if we
look at the mother, she looks up, away from her living child, towards
her dead ones.
Such reactions are a bit different from those of two other pictures: one
of a woman who has just found out that she killed someone in a car accident,
and that of a wife whose husband has just been killed in a bocce game.
The driver’s mouth and eyes are open, a flower incongruously in
her hair. She looks off camera, again, at what is not there, which is
not the other vehicle, but her existence thus far. Too, the bocce victim’s
wife, her lips pressed together grimly, leans back, restrained or supported
by the cops.
Three women – four women – learning that they can kill, or
that their family can die. This, finally, is the femme fatale
of Weegee’s making: a radical subject that confronts its own kernel
of being, its core of agency: to take a life, to have a life taken, to
make a life. This subject that Weegee makes is, to use Marx’s words
again, an active, living subject, that selfsame subject as we find it
in film noir, a subject constituted around an absence, a hollow
Burnham is a Vancouver writer. His criticism and poetry have
appeared recently in akimbo.biz, f-hole, Pyramid Power, the Vancouver
Sun, and UE. "Leviathan," an essay on
Brian Jungen, will appear this fall in a publication from the Witte de
With in Rotterdam.