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  • Writer's pictureBen Samuel

When Weegee met Alfred Stieglitz

The extract below is taken from Naked City (1945) by Weegee where he describes a haunting meeting with the then 81 year old Alfred Stieglitz.

“It doesn’t seem right that such a great artist should have such a little reward,” - Weegee

Alfred Stieglitz became famous both in Europe and America as the master of the camera, and what did his fame get him?

Alfred Stieglitz in 1902 by Gertrude Käsebier

On Madison Avenue in the fifties ... morning... noon...and night a lone man walks the streets. He wears a black cape (Loden cape bought in Tyrol, Austria), white shirt, black tie (not bow), black hat. No one pays any attention to him. A few kids turn around. Just another character. I've noticed him many times...walking as if in a trance. I was afraid to disturb him... finally I walked up to him and said. "You Stieglitz? I'm Weegee. You may have read about me in magazines, or seen my pictures in PM."

He stared at me as if I had waked him from a dream and told me that he never read about other people or himself. I apologised for the intrusion and told him that for a long time I had wanted to meet him. He became gracious and invited me to come up to his studio but first he stopped at a drug store, where he left a prescription to be filled... then up to No 509 Madison Avenue where we took the elevator to the seventeenth floor. We stopped at a door. On the glass was pointed AN AMERICAN PLACE. It wasn't locked and we walked in. The place was fitted up as a gallery, with paintings hung on the walls there was a smell of disinfectant like in a sick room. In the back of the gallery, in a cubbyhole, Stieglitz slumped on the cot, half sitting and half lying, too exhausted to take his cape off. That was his home. We started to talk. I was of last talking not only to the most famous photographer in the world, but one who had also sponsored painters and sculptors... unknown once, but famous now.

“a great photographer,” in the office of his gallery, 1944 by Weegee

I had so many questions to ask...the hours went by fast...(l was wondering if I was going to find a ticket on my jalopy parked at the door.) Stieglitz pointed to the 'phone near the cot..."'It never rings.. I have been deserted... the paintings on the wall are orphans... no one comes up to see them." I switched the talk back to photography. Was he a success? No, he was a failure. What about the photographers he had known and started and helped? They were successful. why?.. because they had wanted money and were now working for the slick-paper magazines... because they were politicians and showmen who knew how to sell themselves. As for himself... he hadn't made a photograph for the past ten years had never used the products of one company, because they had advertised, "You push the button. We'll do the rest..."... that slogan was a bad influence on photographers because a picture needed careful planning and thinking and could only be captured on film at a certain fleeting fraction of a second... and that once that passed, that fraction of time was dead and could never be brought back to life again...that he had never compromised with his photography, for money or to please an editor. One had to be free to do creative work. What about his influence on American photographers? Could he teach or influence them to do the same things he had accomplished? The answer was a firm no ... I thought of a lecture which I recently gave at the Museum of Modern Art and the questions which were asked of me there. I thought perhaps Stieglitz would have the answers. He also told me that he was eighty-one years old. That the happiest time of his life was spent in Berlin at the turn of the century... it was free then and that when he returned to America he used to cry himself to sleep every night for two years thinking of the dirty streets here. I asked Stieglitz how he lived and payed the rent. He told me that he had a private income of eighteen hundred dollars a year. That three hundred and fifty dollars went for income tax. (Not that he had to pay it but he felt that the government needed the money worse than he did), that the rent money and expenses, about four thousand dollars a year for the studio, was contributed by the artists when they sold the paintings which were on exhibit. That few paintings were being sold now... that the rent was not going to be ready and he was afraid he was going to be dispossessed. Suddenly he slumped over in pain. "My heart, it's bad," he said in a whisper as he slumped over on the cot. I waited till he recovered then left quietly... wondering if that elusive fame I was after was worth while.

- Arthur (Usher) Fellig (1899 – 1968) known by his pseudonym Weegee from his excellent book of photographs and stories, Naked City (1945)

"The Genius of the Camera", circa 1938: A self-portrait

On September 11th, 1945, over a year after they had met, Stieglitz wrote the letter below to Weegee.

"An American Place Sept 11-45 Dear Weegee: A copy of your “Naked City” was given to me. My laurel wreath I hand to thee… - Alfred Stieglitz"

Below is an interview with Weegee about how he started out and how he worked.

"It’s like a modern Aladdin’s Lamp, you rub it and, in this case, the camera, you push the button and it gives you the things you want."

The rubber stamp Weegee used for signing his pictures


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