(Weegee. (1941) Dead on Arrival. Available from url: http://www.stevenkasher.com/artists/weegee#3)
Within my essay I am going to be looking at press photographer Weegee’s image titled Dead on Arrival (1941) in correlation to The Simple Art of Murder by Raymond Chandler (1988). There are two sides to the documentation of crime; there is the press photographers and the crime photographers; or you could perhaps say fiction vs. non fiction. Even though what Weegee photographed was real crime, it wasn’t a forensic depiction of what had happened, it is a dramatised representation the press want to see so they can sell more papers. Crime photographers want to document the crime in a way that will help them solve what happened; as evidence for judge and jurors.
Weegee’s photograph Dead on Arrival (1941) is one of many press photographs the photographer has taken of crimes; most of which were of murders. As a press photographer Weegee’s main reason for taking the pictures was to sell them to editors to put with their grabbing titles of the latest crime story. It would appear that for Weegee it was difficult to sell editors his photographs if they didn’t think the story was “meaty” (Fellig, 1976, p37) enough, they were only interested in “A truck crash with the driver trapped inside, his face a crisscross of blood… a tenement-house fire, with the screaming people being carried down the aerial ladder clutching their babies… a just-shot gangster, lying in the gutter…” (Fellig, 1976, p37) these are the sort of stories the tabloids wanted at the time, and these are supposedly what their readers wanted to see as this was during the Depression; by reading about other peoples woes, they would be able to forget about their own (Fellig, 1976). One of the tabloids that Weegee talks about is the Daily News, who were one of the photographer’s best customers because “Anything went with them, the bloodier and sexier the better.” (Fellig, 1976, p40) The murders and tragedies that Weegee photographed were what kept him with food and shelter, and during the 1940’s in Manhattan (where Weegee was based) it was non-stop to the point where he had too many photographs of dead gangster and the editors wouldn’t take them because their readers were bored of seeing and reading about them. This is when the work becomes fiction; when an audience can glance at a news story about a murder and not care, the emotion is lost and therefore so has all meaning.
In Raymond Chandlers essay The Simple Art of Murder (1988) he talks about the detective story and how it is written; what makes a good detective story and what does not. Detective stories are often about murder and even though they intend to be realistic they hardly ever are as murder “…has been going on too long for it to be news.” (Chandler, 1988) The act of murder is no longer a shock, it is heard about so often it doesn’t matter whether it is seen through Weegee’s gruesome images, or read about in fiction; both novel and photograph are taken with a “spirit of detachment” (Chandler, 1988) as Weegee has no ties to the victim he is photographing, nor does the novelist (or unlikely) have any real experiences with murder. “The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost cities…” (Chandler, 1988) this is much like a description of Weegee’s world as he recounts how many dead gangsters he has photographed to the point where the tabloids no longer wanted to buy them or to tell their story. Chandler goes further into detail with his description, which when read adjoined to the image Dead on Arrival (1941) seems to be an overview of the time and world it was taken in “where no man can walk down a dark street in safety because law and order are things we talk about but refrain from practicing; a world where you may witness a holdup in broad daylight and see who did it, but you will fade quickly back into the crowd rather than tell anyone…” (Chandler, 1988). Weegee is photographing what is real, but much like the realist writer Chandler is talking about he makes “…very interesting and even amusing patterns out of it.” (Chandler, 1988) in order for editors to want to buy his images, even though he is capturing a frightening reality Weegee and other press photographers are displaying it, but in a way that makes it bearable to look at. There is something about looking at an image in the tabloids that disconnects the reader from the reality.
(New York City Police Department. (1915) photograph of homicide, circa.)
Crime photographers working with the police arrive at crime scenes to document every piece of evidence there is; when comparing Weegee’s photograph Dead on Arrival (1941) to that taken by a member of the police you can see a distinct difference between how they have been taken. The image taken by the New York City Police Department (1915) was taken in the 1900’s, this was a time when they used eight-by-ten-inch glass-plates and was taken from above the body, because the photograph was taken from high up you can actually see the tripod legs within the image. This is one of the most distinct differences between the two photographs; Weegee’s image does not have the correct angle to have been used as documentation, the victims body is too distorted for them to be able label the correct measurements. The face is also turned away from the camera which conveniently enabled Weegee to be able to photograph the blood dripping down the side of the victims face, making them unrecognisable. This makes it even more clear what the press photographers intentions are, you can see that the crime photographer’s “focus is documentation. The other photographer rushing to the crime scene is the press man. His focus is drama.” (Evans, 2001, p15) however, something that both photographers have in common is that they photograph subject matter that is hard to look at; they do the job that not many people have the stomach to do “We are wildly ambivalent about crime photography. We want to look, and we want to look away.” (Buckland, 2001, p41) We as the viewer have the choice to not look, and even the press photographer has the freedom of different camera angles and a choice of subject matter; they are there as our “surrogate observers” (Buckland, 2001, p41) however “The police photographer has no option…” (Buckland, 2001, p41) They are there to document and nothing more. There is something very eerie and strange about how normal the image taken by the New York City Police Department (1915) is; when the drama is taken away we are left with nothing but the reality. There is no blood splatter or obscured camera angle to distract the eye from what it is supposed to see, perhaps the reader of tabloids needs the press photographer’s drama and almost fictional representation of the crime in order for them to be able to look. I think that if images such as the one shown by the Police Department were on the front page it would be much harder to look at with the same detachment.
Weegee’s image Dead on Arrival (1941) has a very dynamic structure, when following the rule of thirds, the centre of the image of which your eye is drawn to is actually empty; this is the spot between the arm and the body. Surrounding this area is the victim’s body placed diagonally within the frame forming a triangle with the blood splatter as it’s tip. The use of a flash gun has illuminated this area showing the dead body, dirt on the floor and blood with gruesome detail, the flash has also caused the edges of the image to be blacked out, giving an accidental vignetting to the image which adds to how the image draws the eye inwards to the centre. The body in the image has been tagged by the police ‘D.O.A’ which means ‘Dead on Arrival’ which can be seen on the victim’s wrist. This in a way de-humanises the bloody corpse as they have been left “Like a piece of luggage left in the gutter” (Purcell, 2004, image 12) labelled and then left to be photographed by the press. At the edge of the top of image you can see the beginnings of a tire, hinting at what setting the crime scene might be in; this is another element that marks the image as a press photograph, the photographer is not interested in showing the setting of which the crime happened, he has only shown the viewer the grittiest part of the crime scene, getting straight to the point.
In conclusion to my essay I have found that Weegee’s image Dead on Arrival (1941) relates to Raymond Chandlers The Simple Art of Murder (1988) by showing how the detective story, much like the press photographer is trying to make the reality of murder and crime bearable to read and look at. By over dramatising the crime scenes he photographs Weegee is actually making the reality of the world fiction to the tabloid reader as they see it through him as a secondary source. This is in contrast to the police photographer who has to look at the scene in-depth; he has no other choice but to photograph the reality as it is.
- Buckland G and Evans H. (2001) Shots in The Dark. Italy: Constanco Sullivan/Hummingbird books.
- Chandler R. (1988) The Simple Art of Murder. Vintage books. Available from url: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Simple-Murder-Vintage-Crime-Lizard/dp/0394757653)
- Entin B. (2007) Sensational Modernism, experimental fiction and photography in thirties America. USA: The University of North Carolina Press.
- Fellig A. (1975) Weegee by Weegee, and autobiography. New York: DaCapo Press, Inc.
- Kerry P. (2004) London: Phaidon Press Limited.
- Tierney J. (2006) Criminology, Theory and Context, 2nd Longman.