A fascination with crime, combined with determination and cunning, made Weegee the most celebrated news photographer of his generation, writes David Clark

Image: Weegee riding a stuffed donkey, 1942 © Getty

Images/ICP


Arthur Fellig, known by the nickname ‘Weegee’, was one of the first and

certainly most successful of a new generation of tabloid news photographers to

emerge in the 1930s. Enterprising, determined and with a gift for

self-promotion, he tirelessly documented life and crime on New York’s streets.

He was driven by the desire to get his pictures on the

newspapers’ front pages and loved the challenge of shooting the first and best

pictures of an event. ‘News photography,’ he said in a 1958 interview, ‘teaches

you to think fast, to be sure of yourself, be self-confident. When you go out

on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.’

Born into an Austrian-Jewish family that emigrated to the US

in 1910, he was, in his words, ‘a natural-born photographer, with hypo in my

blood’ and earned a living in photography from an early age. He was entirely

self-taught and his first job, when leaving school at the age of 14, was

working as a ‘tintype’ photographer, snapping portraits of people in the

streets. In the next, he was a commercial photographer’s assistant. 

Weegee (although he was known as Arthur until the late

1930s) moved out of his strict family home when he was 18 and was homeless for

a period, while working in a number of low-paid jobs, such as labouring and

dishwashing. He returned to photography in 1918, when he worked in a Lower

Manhattan studio, then as a darkroom assistant for The New York Times.

The turning point in his life came while working for Acme

Newspictures in the mid-1920s, when he was asked to shoot some news pictures

because the staff photographers were unavailable. His growing confidence as a

photographer and frustration at not being credited for his pictures led to him

starting a career as a freelance news photographer in 1935.

For the next decade, Weegee worked as a news photographer.

He focused particularly on crime and producing the body of work for which he is

most famous: stark and sometimes gruesome black & white pictures showing

the aftermath of murders, accidents and suicides. He was fascinated by New

York’s seedy underbelly, particularly its gangland shootings. ‘I’m very

sensitive and artistic and hate the sight of blood,’ he famously remarked, ‘but

I’m spellbound by the mystery of murder.’

 

Image: The victim of a motor accident lies by the side of

the West Side Highway in New York, covered by a sheet, 1939 © Getty Images/ICP

Weegee was also interested in shooting less obvious

crime-scene pictures, consciously stepping back to include the local

environment as a backdrop or turning the camera on crowds of onlookers.

In his 1941 picture, ‘Their First Murder’, which originally

ran under the headline ‘Brooklyn Schoolchildren See Gambler Murdered in Street’,

Weegee’s flashgun illuminates the faces of children caught up in the macabre

fascination generated by a killing in their neighbourhood. The children’s

excitement contrasts with the grief of the victim’s aunt, shown in the centre

of the frame.


He developed an offhand, darkly humorous way of referring to his crime work.

‘The easiest kind of a job to cover is a murder,’ he said, ‘because the stiff

will be laying on the ground, he couldn’t get up and walk away or get

temperamental, and he would be good for at least two hours. So I had plenty of

time.’


Weegee used the standard press camera of the era, a Speed Graphic 5×4. Most of

his work was done at night using flash with the camera preset at 1/200sec at

f/16 and the focus set to 10ft. He was meticulously organised and he converted

the boot of his Chevrolet into a portable office, filled with useful items,

including a typewriter, spare photographic kit and a change of clothes.


He was relentless in his pursuit of news stories and developed a network of contacts

who gave him information that assisted his work. ‘I was friend and confidant to

them all, the bookies, madams, gamblers, call girls, pimps, con men, burglars

and jewel fencers,’ he said in his book, Weegee by Weegee (1961).

Image: A crowd gathers in Brooklyn, New York City, to see the corpse of a man

shot twice by an unknown gunman as he sat parked at a traffic light, 1941 ©

Getty Images/ICP


However, his ‘sixth sense’ for being first at crime scenes (which resulted in

his nickname, which came from the word ‘ouija’) wasn’t entirely due to

cultivating his contacts. In 1938, he got official permission to install a

police radio in his car and from then on was able to cover news stories as they

were happening – and steal a march on his rivals.


Weegee was more than just another news photographer, however, and by the early

1940s his pictures were becoming accepted in fine-art circles. He held his

first exhibition in 1941, and two years later five of his prints were acquired

by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.


His highly successful book, Naked City (1945), which featured his images of New

York crime, fires, nightlife and entertainment, led to a new direction in his

work. When it inspired a film noir of the same title, he moved to Hollywood and

acted as a consultant, advising on the film’s visual style. He stayed in

Hollywood until 1952 and worked as both director and producer.


By the 1950s, Weegee was himself a celebrity and wanted to pursue more artistic

projects, exploring different photographic subject matter and techniques. His

‘caricatures’, distorted portraits of celebrities including Marilyn Monroe,

made by experimenting with different lenses and printing techniques, were

published his book, Naked Hollywood. However, the work wasn’t generally well received.


His best and most authentic photography was the work he did in capturing life

on New York’s streets, where he was both an observer and a part of the

community. Weegee himself recognised that the empathy he felt for his subjects

was integral to the photographs. In Naked City, he wrote: ‘When you find

yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you

photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know

you are on the right track.’

Biography

  • 1899: Born on 12 June in Lemberg, Austria (now in the

    Ukraine) and named Usher Fellig
  • 1910: Family emigrates to New York and Usher is re-named

    Arthur
  • 1913: Leaves school at the age of 14 to help support his

    family and soon begins assisting a commercial photographer
  • 1924: Taken on as a darkroom technician and printer by Acme

    Newspictures (later United Press International Photos).
  • 1935: Leaves Acme to become a freelance news photographer and

    his work is published by several national papers
  • 1938: Obtains permission to install a police radio in his car

    and, around this time, is nicknamed ‘Weegee’
  • 1941: His first exhibition, Murder is My Business, opens at

    New York’s Photo League
  • 1943: Five of his photographs are acquired by New York’s

    Museum of Modern Art
  • 1945: His first book, Naked City, is published
  • 1947: Moves to Hollywood to work as a consultant on the film

    version of Naked City
  • 1952: Returns to New York and begins a series of distorted

    ‘caricatures’ of famous people
  • 1958-68: Travels around Europe working on numerous film projects,

    books and photo assignments
  • 1961: Publishes his autobiography, Weegee by Weegee
  • 1968: Dies from a brain tumour in New York City on 26

    December, aged 69

Books and websites

Books: Weegee (Arthur Fellig), part of the Phaidon

55s series, is a good introduction to Weegee’s work. Weegee’s book, Naked City,

is still in print and published by Da Capo Press. Alternatively, Weegee’s World

by Miles Barth is available second-hand on www.amazon.co.uk.


Websites: The International Center of Photography in New York holds an archive

of 20,000 Weegee images. See www.icp.org and search for ‘Weegee’. You can also

hear Weegee talking about his work in ‘Weegee Tells How’ on www.youtube.com.