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Don’t call me dude, call me mister

by Comrade Sean O’Toole, images by Weegee. / 27.08.2010

It is sometime in 1943, autumn or winter judging by the man’s jacket. His dark coat looks new and, in the black and white photograph, matches the colour of his neatly combed hair. The man in the photo holds a camera. It is tilted sideways and focused on a wall. In the black and white photograph, the camera’s antique flash has already, or is just about to make that Hollywood sound. Pooof!

In truth, it is not the man who is interesting, but the (no)thing he is photographing. It is at once a black squiggle, a juvenile outpouring, and a meaningless urban cipher – graffiti. “Vandalism at St Pats,” explains the caption to Arthur Fellig’s photo. “St Pats” is shorthand for Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a Neo-Gothic-style Roman Catholic cathedral in midtown Manhattan. Fellig was a cigar-puffing master of urban noir; you might better know him by his nickname, Weegee.

I don’t mean to sound like a Nick Hornby character, but one of my all-time favourite photographs is by Weegee. Published in Life magazine in December 1943, it shows a feral woman – read middle class everywomen – scowling at two society ladies in white furs and tiaras outside the Metropolitan Opera. The genius of the picture lies in its droll titling, “The critic”. I love this picture. It encapsulates all that is unstated and known about being a jealously un-amused outsider looking in from the edge of the frame, imperiously casting judgement.

But this is all a preface. Paging through the book Unknown Weegee (2006) with a friend recently, she passed over the graffiti-gawking man in black without a fuss. Instead, she lingered on Weegee’s many photos of young women with their hair all swept-up and neatly tucked away. “Do you think we’ll ever see that kind of thing again?” Formality.

Weegee disguised as an Ice Cream peddler

Her question got me thinking. Slow thinking, like fresh tea percolating. Actually, even slower than that, more like waiting in the lunchtime queue at The Kitchen in Woodstock slow. Slow. Then, the other day, reading a New York Times article about how the peer-review system central to academic publishing is being challenged by internet-aware thinkers who want to put scholarly writing to the kif or kak test online, it struck me. No.

Women won’t wear their hair up again, just like they won’t wear skirts that chafe their ankles (unless, of course, they’re parliamentarians). Ritalin crazed teens with permanent markers won’t stop telling us they have nothing much to say about anything in particular. Critics will continue to cultivate their chagrin. And many professors, to quote the all-for-free-on-the-internet Times, “are wary of turning peer review into an American Idol-like competition.”

Still, some of the vestiges of an older formality linger. Like the mandatory use of an honorific or title to indicate a quoted source’s gender, marital status or profession – at least in The New York Times anyway. In certain respects, despite its column encroaching character in print, and antique-ness on the web, I think the Mr. and Ms. deserve a second-look locally.

This isn’t about decorum, not strictly. I doubt that mandating the use of a courtesy title (Mr. Malema, Mr. Shaik, Ms. Whoever) in every sentence in which a person is quoted or referred to will cleanse the wound that has resulted in a hasty prescription with the words “Protection of Information Bill” scrawled in indecipherable doctor’s hand, but it does at least vest an important thought. Objectivity. The mandarins in power deserve it. Impartial treatment. Something approaching the all-seeing gaze of Weegee’s classic photo of those puffed poodles and their feral opponent.

Police Wagon

It’s possible. On April 30, 1939, The New York Times ran a sentence reading, “Mr. Hitler disbelieves in democracy…” In the ensuing years the paper continued to extend the courtesy, calling the moustached monster Mr. Hitler even as his degraded project became slowly apparent. Likewise, Robert Mugabe is still routinely referred to as Mr. Mugabe.

“Our continued insistence on Mr., Ms., Dr., etc., is perhaps our most obvious stylistic difference from other news organizations, which generally use bare surnames for second references to people,” said Philip Corbett, a deputy news editor and person in charge of language issues for the newsroom during in a 2007 online talkback session with readers. “I do hear occasionally from reporters who’d like to drop them.”

“Perhaps I’m tradition-bound, but this is one quirk of Times style that I would go to some lengths to defend. We strive for a tone that is literate, civil and serious: not fussy or old-fashioned, but also not chatty or self-consciously hip.” It’s amazing how easy it is to do the latter, be self-consciously hip, or achieve the former, be sprightly, literate and serious.

So when does Mr. Hitler become just Hitler, as the Mister Death’s blue-eyed boy is now routinely referred to in journalism’s lighthouse newspaper.

“It’s not a question of how long someone has been dead,” offered Corbett, “and certainly not a judgment on character. The distinction we try to make is between references to a figure in the news (even if he’s dead), and references to a historical figure in a historical context. For the former, we continue to use courtesy titles; for the latter, we generally drop them.”

* Opening Image Credit: Weegee (Arthur H. Fellig), The Critic, taken on November 22, 1943 and first published in LIFE, December 6, 1943.

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