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
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
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 ©
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.’
- 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
- 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.