Coney Island, as Mile Barth points out, was “originally meant to be a classy place. Over the years, it became middle class and then lower middle class and then working class.” This little spit of land off Brooklyn’s southeastern tip was once crammed with a crazy array of saints and sinners, lovers and gangsters, clowns and intellectuals, the entire spectrum of human diversity and perversity–on summer days now reduced to dusty memories; their romantic aura, however, is everlasting.
Maybe this dichotomy is what attracted Usher (later Arthur) Fellig, popularly known as “Weegee,” to Coney Island on July 5, 1942. Barth, in his new book Weegee’s World, Coney Island, wasn’t very romantic in regard to summer days nor to Coney Island; in fact, Weegee wasn’t romantic at all. He was a news photographer who was in his element when shooting footage of car wrecks, floods, fires…and crime scenes, in particular.
He was employed by PM, a left-wing tabloid of the day, during the hot (as always) NYC summers of the early 40s. The newspaper wanted Weegee to capture how the Average Joe was enduring the heat and humidity of daily life: from people sleeping on fire escapes to kids frolicking through the spray of fire hydrants, Weegee got the shot.
Indeed, “whatever it took to get the shot, Weegee did it….that was part of his genius,” says Barth. He has this from Louie Liotta, Weegee’s longtime assistant, who claims that “the boss climbed up on a lifeguard station and screamed and danced until everybody started to look.” He simply snapped the camera when they looked…as simple as that.
Not that the images Weegee came up were always simple. In “Day at the Beach” (header photo) what pops in this one, against steep odds, is one man balanced on the adjacent shoulders of two bare-chested sailors in gob caps. “The masked man said he was a laundry man,” Weegee wrote, “but would only be photographed incognito. The mask is a gag of his; he calls himself the Spider and likes to frighten people.”
“Weegee gives us Coney Island in its decline, yet kicking with messy life. In our time, plutocrats and civic leaders aspire to a grander future, even as doomsday prophets warn of melting polar ice caps and rising seas. Either way, a return to Weegee’s Coney Island may eventually feel like a day at the beach.”
I, for one, a lifetime kid who so often lost himself, found himself, and thoroughly enjoyed himself at Coney Island, would happily return to this time before his time on an island he always loved.
Check out the “Weegee Portfolio” at Amber Online