App-Age Weegee: Photographing New York City’s Crime Scenes

The body of a young woman who jumped from a car and was killed lies on the curb covered by newspapers and a sheet as a policeman walks away with his hands behind his back, New York, 1938.

The body of a young woman who jumped from a car and was killed lies on the curb covered by newspapers and a sheet as a policeman walks away with his hands behind his back, New York, 1938. Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

Weegee was the greatest crime scene photographer in NYC history. Not only that, but he was film director Stanley Kubrick’s hero. Weegee’s photo-splendor heyday was in the 1930s and ’40s—and he was known for his gritty, high-contrast photos that depicted gruesome crime scenes.

“Murder is my business,” Weegee once stated.

He was a self-taught photographer whose real name was Arthur Fellig, but he was dubbed Weegee (sounds like Ouija board) because he had an uncanny knack of arriving at crime scenes—even before the police sirens. Early in his career, Weegee would spend nights traversing the streets of NYC, photographing the underbelly of life. Unlike, Henri Cartier-Bresson whose photography made Paris look like a decisive moment paradise, Weegee made New York look like a gritty noir novel.

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“No bumping off was official until I arrived to take the last photo, and I tried to make their last photo a real work of art,” he once said.

The way Weegee would work was with a police band radio—so he could show up on the spot and photograph crime scenes and fires. He would often sleep in his car listening to the police radio and hear about the crimes as they were called in.

American photographer Weegee (1899 - 1969).

American photographer Weegee (1899 – 1969). Moore/Getty Images

I always loved Weegee’s style. If this legendary photographer was alive today, would he be using the Citizen app on his iPhone? This controversial app was previously booted from iTunes and scorned by the NYPD. The Citizen app sends real-time alerts on crimes that are occurring near your locale—based on 911 calls—and then shows you the location of the incident with a red dot on a map of NYC. It then uses GPS to direct you to the crime scene.

Citizen is very informative and also scares the beejeebees out of me. Man, I never knew so many stabbings took place in my neighborhood.  

Some people use the Citizen app so they can avoid these sketchy situations. My goal is to channel my inner-Weegee and use Citizen to steer me directly into the eye of the storm. Yes, I’m going to swipe right on crime scenes, spend an evening being a modern-day Weegee and photograph NYC police incidents as they occur—with the Citizen app leading the way.

Let’s go!

The Citizen App Alert Reads: Man Robbed at Knifepoint

The Citizen App Alert Reads: Man Robbed at Knifepoint

“Come on crime!” I blurt, waiting for Citizen to send me the locale of a hairy incident occurring nearby. Some of the alerts are baffling: Unidentified Substance Thrown at Bus Driver (any guesses on the substance?); Naked Woman Trespassing, Breaking Objects; and Man Attacked With Machete (thank god, that’s 11.5 miles away).

Finally, I get an alert for my first nearby crime of the night. I arrive on the scene and both the ambulance and police are still at the locale. Hurrah!

As a tribute to Weegee, I have my camera synchronized in manual mode to his optimal preset of f/16 at 1/200. Though Weegee would photograph with a heavy, old-timey 4×5 Speed Graphic camera—with flash bulbs he had to replace after each shot—I opt for my lightweight DSLR.

For the evening’s first crime, I take on a popular Weegee trick; he would never photograph the action of a crime scene—just the immediate aftermath. Further, he would often find it more interesting to shoot the reverse angle and have the spectators’ reactions tell the story.

His reasoning:

I try to humanize the news story. 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.

A crowd of men, women and children gathers at the scene of a murder on Manhattan's East Side, New York, circa 1940.

A crowd of men, women and children gathers at the scene of a murder on Manhattan’s East Side, New York, circa 1940. Weegee (Arthur Fellig) / International Center of Photography / Getty Images

Citizen App Alert Reads: Bicyclist Hit by Car

Citizen App Alert Reads: Bicyclist Hit By Car

One thing I could benefit from is a car to maneuver around Manhattan when I get Citizen alerts.

Weegee, on the other hand, would arrive on the scene in his Chevrolet Coupe—that was jacked up to suit all of his crime photography needs. Long before social media, he had a makeshift darkroom in his vehicle, so he could get his photos out to the press while the bodies were still warm. The trunk of his Coupe was equipped with extra cameras, a box of flashbulbs, film holders, flashlights, a typewriter for caption writing, an extra pair of shoes and, of course, cigars.

I just have a camera—and no cigars. And a darkroom isn’t necessary because my photo of a man on a bicycle who was hit by a car can be up on Instagram as soon as I snap the shot.

One of the most frequent alerts on Citizen is people being hit by cars. It’s crazy enough biking around in Manhattan traffic—let alone cycling at night while battling road-weary taxi drivers toward the end of a 12-hour shift.

To photograph the scene, I use another popular Weegee trick. Most photographers instruct people to get in close, and then take another step in; Weegee would do the opposite. He’d often employ a rule of being at least 10 feet away from the subject of his photo. Weegee would then take an extra step back so he could tell the whole story to help viewers connect with the image.

The body of a young woman who jumped from a car and was killed lies on the curb covered by newspapers and a sheet as a policeman walks away with his hands behind his back, New York, 1938.

The body of a young woman who jumped from a car and was killed lies on the curb covered by newspapers and a sheet as a policeman walks away with his hands behind his back, New York, 1938. Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

One of Weegee’s most famous shots is a 1938 photograph entitled: Body of Girl Hit By Car on Park Avenue, New York. He focused on the dead body lying in the street covered by a white sheet—which created a contrast between the sheet’s starkness set against the darkness of the night.

Taking a nod from his classic shot, instead of going in tight on the scene inside the ambulance, I step further back to utilize the starkness of the bike accident scene with everything but the ambulance enveloped in darkness.

I sure hope the bicyclist inside is OK. But no time to dwell—I got another Citizen crime alert notification…

Citizen App Alert Reads: Fatal Injury

Citizen App Alert Reads: Fatal Injury

Fortuna takes a spin when I receive an alert for a fatal injury that’s within the nearby vicinity. When I get to the locale, marked by the red dot on the Citizen map, a flashing ambulance is in front of a building. Apparently, the person, who was thought to have had a fatal injury, was feeling much better because the paramedics are pushing an empty gurney out of the building.

A man sits collapsed in a drunken stupor outside a licensed restaurant.

A man sits collapsed in a drunken stupor outside a licensed restaurant. Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

But it’s not a wasted stop. Another big go-to for Weegee was photographing drunks passed out on the Bowery. Weegee, though, was very particular on the type of drunk he’d photograph.  

In the words of Weegee:

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.

a shot of a man passed out while standing up

So instead of photographing a fatal injury, I get a shot of a man passed out while standing up; framed in front of a mural like he was the guardian of a colorful fortress of his own making.

Citizen App Alert Reads: People Fighting

Citizen App Alert Reads: People Fighting

I get to the scene and the fight has already been broken up—and now I linger on the sidewalk outside a bar in the aftermath. Post-ruckus, a drunken crowd has spilled out into the street. The bro-scene outside the bar is still a little aggressive.

I apply the Weegee rule of shooting the opposite angle to tell the story of the mood and atmosphere that developed. Why? When not stepping further back, Weegee loved photographing faces. Finding a tight shot of a specific character sometimes tells the entire macro-story without seeing the story—not to mention the eyes are the windows to the soul. Seeing a person’s face, rather than the back of their head, is usually more interesting than NOT seeing a person’s face. Apparently, though, this guy has a different opinion on Weegee’s rule of photographing faces.

Close-up of a girl as she watches a circus performance, New York, New York, 1940s or 1950s.

Close-up of a girl as she watches a circus performance, New York, New York, 1940s or 1950s. Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

Citizen App Alert Reads: Down Tree After Truck Collision

Citizen App Alert Reads: Down Tree After Truck Collision

I’m now wandering the Lower East Side in search of more crime.  

“Come on crime!” I blurt once again with anticipation—while looking at the newest notifications on the Citizen app.

The closest red dot on the Citizen crime map is a tree that was struck by a truck right off of Avenue C. Upon arrival, it’s apparent that the renegade truck was moving at an insane speed down the streets of the LES. Extra points if the speeding truck was on a rampage as part of a robbery getaway. The large, wooden monstrosity of a tree is uprooted from the ground and wrapped in crime scene police tape as it lies on the sidewalk like a brutal victim of a gangland murder.

And much like a murder victim, the uprooted tree gives you the same photographing benefits. Weegee loved photographing murders because it meant he could take his time.

Here’s what he had to say:  

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.

Fires, on the other hand, meant a different photographic mindset for Weegee: “At fires, you had to work very fast.”

So, with the ease and leisure of a gruesome murder scene, I photographed my uprooted tree that was a sad victim of a hit-and-run.

When I wrap things up—I get a double, bonus crime notification a mere block away.

Citizen App Alert Reads: Man Injured in Stabbing

Citizen App Alert Reads: Man Injured In Stabbing

Though the stabbed man is now inside the ambulance, a bit of rain adds to the crime scene drama. Sure hope he’s OK. But again—no time to dwell…

Citizen App Alert Reads: Smoking Manhole

Citizen App Alert Reads: Smoking Manhole

A smoking manhole cover seems like the brewing of a weird crime that would be perpetrated by The Joker in Batman’s Gotham City. And when it’s the middle of the night, and you’re dealing with danger to a NYC public utility, the one thing that a work crew doesn’t want is a photo taken of the operation.  

That’s where I take a nod from Weegee—he believed that you could disarm and uncover your subjects by treating them like human beings and reasoning with them in a personal way.

“What are you doing?” says the workman as I snap away. “You can’t take photos.”

I pull out my phone and show him that the smoking manhole locale is highlighted on the map with a red dot—and that I’m doing a photo story based on the Citizen app.

“And they pay you for that?” the workman sarcastically replies.

So, I tell the man about the lore of Weegee and his police scanner—and how the app allows me to do what he did, but without the scanner.

“Oh, that’s interesting,” he says.

“That’s why they pay me,” I say, adding, “So, can I take your photo?”  

Following the Weegee rule of interacting and making the subject feel comfortable, the workman allows me to snap a photo with him in the shot, though, “OK but just don’t show my face.”

“No problem.”

Citizen App Alert Reads: Disturbance on Subway

Citizen App Alert Reads: Disturbance on Subway

Citizen alerts of some sort of disturbance on the F train. But when I get to the scene, the subway scenario is far less annoying then the “What’s the time? It’s show time!” subway dancers. Not so much of a disturbance, just someone overreacting and calling 911 over a man drinking from a bottle, talking loudly and making people uncomfortable.

But it does allow me to do some classic Weegee composition of photographing the frame within the frame of the shot—to emphasize a sense of entrapment within the locale.

A mother holds her child in a window, Harlem, New York, New York, 1943.

A mother holds her child in a window, Harlem, New York, New York, 1943. Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images

For Weegee, the reason his photos were so good is that he knew New York City like the back of his hand, every nook, cranny and crevice. That was his superpower—to predict where interesting things would happen, even before they did.

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… everythin’.

The Citizen app got me more familiar with the different layers of my city. And one of those layers made me, for better or worse, more aware of the number of stabbings and knife attacks that take place in New York City on a regular, daily basis. But I’ll be thankful the next time it warns me to avoid the bus when an unidentified substance is thrown at the driver.

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App-Age Weegee: Photographing New York City’s Crime Scenes