Weegee’s People (or Person)
A very large excerpt from an article in People magazine, Dec 11, 1989…
By Louie Liotta
After 50 Years of Shooting for the Front Page, News Photog Louie Liotta Spills the Secrets Behind the Scoops
In his radio car, on assignment for the New York Post he shared his tricks of the trade—and his through-the-viewfinder way of looking at life—with senior writer Joyce Wadler.
My father was a photoengraver, which is how I got into this business. I went to work at his place—nowadays it’s called United Press International—as an apprentice, when I was about 13.
The photographers were right next door to the photoengravers, and I was more attracted to their line of work. They were always talking about who’s going to the ball game, going to the fights, a murder in Brooklyn. My father couldn’t understand my admiration for them. The engravers had such a good union, you were making $75, $80 a week in 1935. The photographers didn’t have a union, they made maybe $42.I didn’t care. Money didn’t mean nothing to me. I wanted to meet Mayor La Guardia, Lou Gehrig and the like. Also I liked making pictures.
At that time there was a free-lance photographer named Weegee. His real name was Arthur Fellig. He was the son of a rabbi, and he was a big, sloppy guy; cigar juice all over his chin, a three-day growth of beard. My father gave him the name Weegee, because he looked like the guy on the Ouija board, real grizzly-looking, semibald, with bugged-out eyes. But he was a damn good photographer.
Weegee was famous for his corpse pictures, you know, DO As. He was able to get pictures that other newspaper guys didn’t because he had done a little favor for the police commissioner; he made his daughter’s wedding pictures. So next to his press card, Weegee had a little note from the commissioner, and whatever assignment he’d go on, he’d make sure the chief in charge would see it. Weegee would set his tripod right alongside the forensic police department people who were making their pictures. When they uncovered the body so the police photographers could get their picture, Weegee would get his too. His, he would be able to sell to the papers. The other press photographers would have the body covered by the sheet.
With Weegee I didn’t get paid, I went with him to learn. He did a lot of thinking before he made a picture. He made two or three shots, but he made sure every shot counted. In those days you didn’t waste film. You used a Speed Graphic; they had plate holders for the film, two shots in each plate, and I’d load his holders. I’d set up his tripod, and then he’d use a flashpan or some large flashbulbs.
He made pictures at night mostly. That famous hot-weather picture with kids sleeping on the fire escape? He made that picture two, three days before. Like if he heard on the weather report it was gonna be real hot on a Thursday, Tuesday night he’d set up the picture. His mind was always workin’. He’d get four or five kids, stick them out on the fire escape, have their mother put them in little flimsy underwear or their shorts, with the mattress or pillow or blankets. Maybe slip the mother a few bucks.
Set it up? Sure he set it up. Just look at the pictures, see how well they were framed. And he got away with it for 40 years. Because they thought it was legit.
Like one of his most famous, the picture of the woman in front of the Metropolitan Opera wearing an old fur coat, standing next to the two ladies wearing expensive minks. I saw him get that old lady in the Bowery, I saw him get the clothing for her, I saw him put her in the right spot. When he saw those other ladies with the minks, that was his picture. Then he sold it to LIFE.
I thought that was very enlightening. That a guy could make a picture that could get through these so-called picture editors’ hands without them ever knowing it. He made it look authentic. They were authentic, he just helped them a little bit….
In ’42, during the war, I went in the Navy. Edward Steichen, he was America’s most noted photographer in those days, was a lieutenant commander, heading up his own group of men for the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit. They were looking for photographers. I knew what Steichen liked—everything with backlighting. I went to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it was getting to be 3, 3:30 in the afternoon in the winter, so you got that low light. I shot eight or 12 pictures; a sailor walking out of the yard, semisilhouette; the guard on duty with the light coming through the barbed-wire fence; the ships. As soon as this commander saw them, he said, “You’re on our team.”
I was all over: 15, 18 different ships, submarines, PT boats, battleships. I made an award-winning picture they hung in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, the Missouri firing salvos at night. Steichen came over to me and shook my hand at the museum. I was a 22-year-old kid. Jesus, my head was this big.
I came out of the Navy in 1946. I was 24, and I went to work for the New York Post up in the Bronx. I was making 90 bucks a week, that was big money in those days. I met my wife, Mildred Jimenez, up there on assignment. They were opening a new escalator from the subway to the el train, so I was looking around for a pretty girl—you don’t want some old duck with a cane. We had four children, all brought up nice.
We were a local paper, we did a lot of feature stories. One day Mort Schiffer, the city editor then, says to me and [reporter] Joe Kahn, “Hey, this lady lost her dog and she says her baby’s all excited and getting sick over the loss of the dog.” So we go over to the lady’s house, and there was a little girl about 2½ years old running around. This is the little girl supposed to be so excited, and she didn’t give a damn. Joe is talking to the mother, but I figure the mother is no picture for me. Then I notice in the corner of the room was the leash and chain of the dog. I put the chain and leash in the kid’s hand, and when Joe was busy talking to the mother, I whack the kid on the ass. Now she’s crying, and I got my picture.
You just got to help a picture along sometimes. I used to carry roaches, crucifixes, a Bible, candles. In those days the Post was a liberal paper; we’d get stories from people who had roaches in their house, and rats, so I’d get a kid sleeping in his bed with his head on the pillow and I’d pin a couple of these roaches on the wall. Or I’d put a little glue on them. I did it very daintily. If I was working maybe for the Daily News, which was very conservative in those days, they wouldn’t go for roach pictures.
Remember that kid that got eaten by the bear at the Prospect Park Zoo a few years back? We had the big headline: POLAR BEARS KILL TOT AT BROOKLYN ZOO. We go out there, there’s four, five TV outfits, the Times, Newsweek, the Daily News. It was school time, and I saw four or five kids his age walking past the house. I sat them on the stoop. I always carry paper napkins with me, and I put two, three, in their hands, so they’re sobbing. They were all sorry, I just made them look sorrier. If I just made a picture of the kids without the handkerchief, they ain’t ever gonna use it. You just go a little step further. You help it along.
But nobody got a picture of this kid yet. The dead boy. Everybody’s bangin’ at the door, and nobody’s gettin’ into the house. I got a young Irish reporter with me, but the thing that I know in this business, you never send an Irishman into a Puerto Rican or Italian home. You got a Puerto Rican, send a Puerto Rican; you got an Italian, send an Italian. So I call up the city desk and I say, “Send me Sonia Reyes”—she’s a Spanish-speaking reporter, the only one we had at the Post. She comes, I say, “Sonia, I know you haven’t done many news stories”—she was doing music and entertainment—”but we don’t have much time to waste. You bang at the door, speak only in Spanish. Say you want to talk to the family, do a nice sorrowful piece. Walk in with your head down and the minute you get in, slam the door behind you.” She gets in, five minutes later I come in after her. I see the mother laid out on the couch being stroked by a niece, she’s out cold. I say to the family, “I’m not gonna bother her, I just want to make a few shots.” I’m back six feet, I bounce the light off the ceiling. Boom, boom, 60 seconds later, I’m outa there…. We’re the only paper in town that has the interview with the family, we have a picture of the dead boy on Page One. I bribed a friend of the family to get me a picture I could copy.
You got sneak shots, setup shots, then you got shots I call Hail Marys—you shoot and pray. You got something, but you don’t know what. Like the time this girl acrobat was doing a publicity stunt on a building that was being renovated. I got the assignment late. So I’m running to the building, and as I get there I see this image already shaping up, it was like the seventh floor or so, so I put on my long lens. I always have my long lens, short lens and medium lens in my pocket, so I can run. And as I’m walking toward the building with the long lens, and the camera horizontal, I could see she was losing her grip. I thought, “My God, this girl is gonna go.” It was just that look of fright.
I knew I should turn the camera to get a vertical shot but I didn’t want to move it—then all of a sudden I saw her let go. And as she let go, I followed her. I followed her maybe two floors down. On the fifth floor, I shot; and of course I had no motor in the camera, it was a single shot. She fell and she bounced off the wooden construction scaffolding. I could hear it from where I was and I was 100 feet away. I said to myself, “Jesus, I hope I have it.” Only later did I think about her—miraculously, she survived. The pictures come first, then the emotions.
I went back to the office, I developed it. The look on the faces of the workmen as the girl falls, that’s what makes the picture. I was very fortunate, they happened to be at that window looking at her with that scared look on their faces. I think just her falling woulda stunk. I took the New York Press Photographers Award in 1978 with that picture.
If there was a profession that was similar to news photography, what would it be? Jockeys, I think. You got one chance, like a jockey got one chance in a race to make his move.
Why do I wear my card in my hat? I don’t know, I guess I’m accustomed to it. I have a lot of young photographers who when first coming on the job take a picture of me, I guess for posterity.
Naaaah, I don’t feel like a relic. I can outrun most of these kids—for the first 50 feet.
Page 26 of Weegee’s World: “Mr. Liotta’s father worked at Acme[!!!]” and “Louie Liotta, a photographer who acted as Weegee’s assistant…”
File this, in our little electronic filing cabinet, under friends and colleagues, with maybe a cross reference to photographers… and they don’t make ’em like they used to…