I applied for a freelance job with Courier-Life, a syndicate of four local newspapers: Kings Courier; Flatbush Life; Canarsie Digest; and Bay News. Serving several communities in south Brooklyn. Armed with a Nikon F2 and a Nikkomat, and a police band radio, I covered murders, car accidents, fires, and assorted mayhem. As well as shots of businesspeople, who usually had taken an ad in one of the papers, standing proudly outside their stores. Proud businesspeople shaking hands over a success, the grip and grin shot. And local politicos, like Chuck Schumer, then a state assemblyman. The joke was that he was super bright, and super ambitious, and it was dangerous to get between him and a microphone.
I was following in the tradition of Weegee, born as Arthur Fellig. My first boss, at a second hand bookstore in downtown Brooklyn, had been friends with Weegee, who had been the top crime photographer in the 30s and 40s.
Crowd at Coney Island / Weegee 1939
I never met Weegee (he died when I was 15) but he left behind a room of steel shelves stacked with boxes of unsorted photos in his Hell’s Kitchen home. Introduced to his longtime companion Wilma Wilcox, my wife and I got to sort photos before they went to the Smithsonian and other institutions. As a reward, we were given a bunch of his photos. Which remain on my wall to this day.
The problem with photography was the technical nature of getting the right image. A twitch, a couple f-stops too dark or light, or a chemical glitch in the darkroom, and the perfect shot was useless. I had set up my darkroom in a basement bathroom in my parent’s house. But I was far from the skilled darkroom technician that Weegee was. I got good photos much of the time, and it remains a hobby to this day. But writing was always my passion.
I had been doing the captions for my photos, and the captions got longer and longer. I still did photography, since a picture was the best way to be ensured good placement in the newspaper. Editors would ask, “Did you get art on the story?”, referring to photos.
But with writing you could go back and retool. No paragraph was underexposed. Or if it was, a couple more minutes on the typewriter, and the right words emerged. Yes, that’s right, a Smith Corona typewriter. Where cut and paste meant literally cut and paste. It feels really weird to be writing about those pre-computer, pre-digital camera days. When I would pound the keys and work the carriage return. Or be careful about taking too many photos because it required rolls of film.