The mystery of the missing photos would bubble up in David Young’s consciousness from time to time over the years. Where, the Seattle artist wondered, had he put that box of photos that showed gritty New York noir scenes of crime and commotion?
He’d bought the box in 1970 at a secondhand store in Philadelphia. The photos were old, tightly coiled, and hard to view.
“It was this really funky store, with nooks and crannies, and I saw this box,” Young said. “I peeled one off and there’s police officers hovering over a dead body. I said, ‘God, that’s weird.’ So I peeled off another and it was a car wreck. I said, ‘These are cool. I think I’ll buy these for $2.’”
The box of mostly unexamined photos moved with him from place to place over the years until he landed at his current residence in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood in 1987.
“I vaguely remember putting them away for safekeeping, then eventually giving them up for lost,” Young said.
It wasn’t until the city ordered a random rental inspection of his residence earlier this year that he finally began to unravel the mystery. He found 12 of the photos in boxes he was organizing in his garage and something told him he should check the kitchen.
“I had never actually reached back into that cabinet under the kitchen counter adjacent to the sink, and something just made me do it,” Young said. “I reached back there and, lo and behold, there was the box with 52 other photographs.”
Eleven more popped up two weeks later in another box he uncovered. He noticed many had a stamp that read, “Credit Photo to A. Fellig”: “So I Googled it and it was instantaneous. I knew I’d hit the lottery.”
That box held rare shots from the 1930s by photographer Arthur Fellig, known as “Weegee,” who died in 1968. He earned that nickname because police felt the only thing that explained why the freelancer was often on the scene of the crime even before them was his use of a Ouija board.
Weegee’s photos of murders, mayhem and creatures of the night in New York are among the most famous in 20th century journalism and were bought and displayed by institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art while he was still at the height of his fame. Today, they can be worth thousands of dollars each. His work, which he published in books including “Naked City,” is composed with an artist’s eye and a feel for action. He became the archetype for the cigar-chomping, hard-boiled news photographer portrayed in films like Joe Pesci’s “The Public Eye” and Jake Gyllenhaal’s “Nightcrawler.”
Christopher George, a photo technician at the International Center of Photography and something of a “Weegee evangelist” after years of working with his archive, said Young’s photos are “an amazing find.” And a rare one, since Weegee had little interest in cataloging his work.
“He would just make a print and sell it to the Post or the News or whatever,” George said. “It was almost disposable. He joked he didn’t have a filing system. He kept all of his photos in a barrel. If someone asked him for a murder photo, he would just make a new one, wait for the crime to happen. It’s a miracle that they did survive, because the newspaper files, so many of those were discarded.”
Young went to the internet to learn how to flatten the photos and began the painstaking process of conservation. He completed three a day, scanned them and sent them to George and Christopher Bonanos, author of 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award-winning biography “Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous” and city editor of New York magazine, which published some of the photos.
Bonanos said in an email that the group of photos is really strong as a whole.
“That’s just about the time Weegee really started to shoot like Weegee,” Bonanos said. “About a year and a half earlier, he’d quit his full-time darkroom job to start freelancing as a photographer. For the first year or so, he was struggling to learn the craft and make a living. This year, 1937, was really when he learned to do it, through a lot of hustle, and it shows in the pictures. … I feel like I can see his slow-motion breakthrough starting to happen here.”
Young would like to sell the collection as a whole to a museum or a private collector. Its total value is hard to tell, but Bonanos added a richness to the photos that’s hard to calculate by tracking down the story behind about 80% of them.
In one photo, a detective closely surveys a blood trail left in the murder of a violinist by a spurned fan. A handful show police scuffling with strikers on a picket line. And then there are the delightful photos of Jocko the monkey’s capture at the post office following his escape from a cage.
“What’s also really exciting is they were sort of variants on the same story,” George said. “There might be four or five or so pictures on the murder in Bryant Park. … Typically, only one picture is published in the newspaper, so you’d never see the four or five pictures that are never published.”
This story has been updated to omit an incorrect location in the description of one of Weegee’s photos.