The first marked written assignment on my course was to chose an image from a photographer that we wanted to research and write a 1,250 word critical study of the image. I was given a mark of 72 for this essay.
A copy of the image was included with the submitted essay but ommited here due to copyright reasons, the image can be found at
Critical Image: Weegee & Bernice Lythcott, 1943.
A Photographer arrives at the scene of a racially motivated attack, a young woman worriedly surveys the damage holding her child close in her arms, a flashbulb pops and with the shot done the snapper walks away hunting for the next story. It is sad to say that such a scene could be from any number of time periods and locations throughout history, even today these attacks still happen. Often the photographs find themselves accompanying little more than a footnote in a local paper. So therefore can we assume that this is a purely objective image, shot for the story, for one purpose, to tell “the truth”. The very epitome of the functional image? Yet to assume this ignores a story behind, the subject, the time, the place and the creator of the image. So what makes this image rise above the plethora of similar subjects?
The woman in this particular case was Mrs Bernice Lythcott, a young black woman living in a suburb of 1940’s New York, a city that was still split by segregation, despite being one of the most eclectic melting pots of cultures in the USA. The influx of migrants into the port city during the pre-war period saw people from all over the globe mixing on the streets. Often the indigenous populations would feel threatened, and marginalised. This can lead to conflict and in this case a group had attacked the woman simply for living in their neighbourhood.
Somewhere in amongst the many millions making the move was the Fellig family, a large Jewish family who brought with them an 11 year-old boy. The boy who would go on to become one of the most influential press figures of his time. The ‘photographic poet and town crier of working-class New York’ (Sante, p.11, 2006). With an unerring eye and a compassion for the people on the street. A man keen to show the ‘Naked City’ as it is, Usher Fellig, later to be known as The Famous Weegee.
It is often hard to separate the man from the myth when talking about Weegee, he was a fantastic self-promoter and spent much of his life creating and perpetuating an image that still persists today. The image is often known before the man, ask anyone who grew up reading comics to describe a press photographer and chances are, they will offer you Weegee in all but name. Once you peel away the veneer however, you are presented with a man of contradictions, a man who was more thoughtful and insightful than his style may initially suggest, ‘depending on his mood, Weegee represented himself as a man of mystique (“Ouija”) or of every day labor (“Squeegee”), Or anything in-between’(Lee & Meyer, p8, 2008). When you dig beneath the surface of his images and brand, truth becomes a fluid concept.
Due to the combination of a simplistic style and self perpetuating myth, it has led some to see him as a ‘base’ artist, a low brow working class populist. In Luc Sante’s essay, City of Eyes, he states
Every Picture is a simple declarative sentence. They avoid the gray areas-ambiguity, ambivalence, indecision, cross-purposes ……. Subtlety is not their business. (2006)
Weegee himself wasn’t about to dispel such accusations, feeling much more comfortable around the people he grew up amongst than the social climbers. He was known to deride what he saw as high society. Whether ridiculing the art community of Greenwich Village or his disdain for unbridled opulence at the opera, ‘I couldn’t see what I was snapping but could almost smell the smugness’ (Weegee, p.229, 1978).
So while the large bulk of his work seems concerned with creating an accessible story in the news, where does this leave the image of Bernice Lythcott? There is no large crowd, there is no dead body lying on the floor, the woman is posed, looking directly at the camera, in her stance and expression there are even undertones of a classical painting.
‘Mrs Bernice Lythcott and her one-year-old son look out of a window through which hoodlums threw stones’ 1943 (International Center of Photography., Unknown Weegee, p.58, 2006)
Staring at us through a shattered window in a door, she holds her young child, resting his weight on her left hip, shot at eye level or thereabouts, she stares directly into the lens, forcing the viewer to hold her gaze. Shooting with his trademark flash has caused shadows on the ceiling, they loom large and lend an air of intimidation to the scene. One of the remnants of glass still hanging in the doorframe covers the young child’s left eye leading to the appearance of having been split. There is a lot going on in such a superficially simplistic photograph.
What can we take from this photograph? Mrs Lythcott wears a stony faced expression, one that suggests defiance and strength while betraying a little of the fear she no doubt was feeling. Yet Fellig chose to shoot at eye level intending that while she is no victim, she is no power figure of society, simply an equal, a remarkable statement for a country that would not give black citizens the vote for another 22 years. She appears to have been prompted to stand in the way we are presented. It is however, unclear whether Weegee intended her to mimic Raphael’s Madonna, though as the son of a Rabbi we can assume an awareness of religious iconography. From this it is not too far a leap of faith to assume prior planning, though his apparent hatred of high art would prevent him from ever admitting this. There are no hidden statements or black humour, it is as close to a straight shot as one would ever see from Weegee. All of which are owed to the fact that this is shot after the event. Priding himself on his psychic ability to arrive on the scene of breaking news before or during the unfolding story, he slept with a police scanner next to his bed, primed for a dash across town no matter the time day or night. Yet here we see no stones thrown, no rampaging group and faced with this calm after the storm, Weegee fell back on his years working as a tintype portrait photographer. He shows a calmer, judged approach to the creation of this image, no mere “snapshot”. A careful poignant portrait, shot with great skill, a photograph many would happily attribute to more “thoughtful artists”, such as Walker Evans or Doretha Lange.
It is fair to say that when presented with such a great portrait, we often learn more about the photographer, than the actual subject. From the photographer’s ideology, to their true talent and previous experience as a photographer. When we delve below initial reactions to portraits, we are left with a stronger knowledge of the inner workings of an image creator, than of the sitter. The true reverse of an initial reading of the photograph.
International Center of Photography, (2006). Sante, Luc., et al. Unknown Weegee, New York, Steidl p.58
J. Paul Getty Museum, Wall text from an exhibition. (2005) In; Keller, Judith., Weegee., J. Paul Getty Museum. (2005). Weegee: In Focus, Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, J. Getty Publications. p.38.
Konttinen, Sirkka-liisa. n.d. Weegee Collection [Online] Amber Online. Available at <http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/weegee-collection/detail>. [Accessed October 2011].
Meyers, William., (2006). The Not-Quite Naked City, [Online] New York Sun. Available from; <http://www.nysun.com/arts/not-quite-naked-city/34060/>. [Accessed October 2011].
Seibel, Brendan, (2009). ‘You Gotta Get It – Words of Wisdom From Weegee [online] Wired. Available from; <http://www.wired.com/rawfile/2009/06/weegee/> [Accessed October 2011].
Trachtenberg, Alan., (2010), Weegee’s City Secrets, E-rea [online], March 2010, 7.2, Available from <http://erea.revues.org/1168>
Weegee, Audio interviews, n.d. [Online]. Weegee’s World at the International Center of Photography. Available from <http://museum.icp.org/museum/collections/special/weegee/weegee-famous.html#top> [Accessed October 2011].