Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Weegee (Arthur Fellig)

"My name is Weegee. I’m the world’s greatest photographer. . ."

"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."

"To me, pictures are like blintzes – ya gotta get ‘em while they’re hot."

"Simply Add Water"

"Easter Sunday in Harlem"

"U.S. Hotel"

"The Critic/The Fashionable People"

Weegee Biography from The Chrysler Museum of Art:

He captured tenement infernos, car crashes, and gangland executions. He found washed-up lounge singers and teenage murder suspects in paddy wagons and photographed them at their most vulnerable — or, as he put it, their most human. He caught couples kissing on their beach blankets on Coney Island and the late-night voyeurs on lifeguard stands watching them. And everywhere he went, he snatched images of people sleeping: drunks on park benches, whole families on Lower East Side fire escapes, men and women snoring in movie theaters. He was the supreme chronicler of the city at night. He was the only shutterbug that would make it to a murder scene before the cops. Weegee loved New York and New York eventually loved Weegee.

Weegee was born June 12, 1899, in Austria, under the name Usher Fellig. Shortly after he was born his father left for America, where he was a Rabbi while saving enough money to send for the rest of his family. At the age of ten, Weegee with his mother and three brothers, finally arrived to America. At Ellis Island, Weegee's name was changed from Usher to Arthur. (Aperture 5-9)

Early Life:

As far as education, Weegee made it through the eighth grade. However, the family needed money and Weegee was needed to help work. He worked a lot of odd jobs: he helped his father with a push cart business, he even worked at a candy store for a while. It was when he had his picture taken by a street tintype photographer that he decided that this was what he was meant to do. Weegee often said that he was, "A natural-born photographer, with hypo in my blood." He quickly ordered a tintype outfit from a Chicago mail-order house, and after a few months he got his first job as a commercial photographer. After a few years he left the studio, due to a disagreement on what he should be paid. He then bought a second-hand 5x7 view camera and rented a pony from a local stable. He named the pony "Hypo," and on the weekends when the kids were in their best clothes, he would walk around town putting kids on his pony and taking their picture. He would then develop the negatives, make prints, and go back to the families of the kids to try to sell them the photos.

Acme Newspictures:

At the age of twenty-four, Weegee got his big break working for Acme Newspictures. Acme was the source for stock photos for their own paper and other papers around the country. Weegee started off working in the darkroom, developing other photographers' work for the paper. Occasionally, when all the other Acme photographers were busy or sleeping, he would get to go out at night and take pictures of emergencies. After a few years of working for Acme, Weegee started to get called to do assignments and cover stories. This was what he always wanted; the only problem was that he worked for Acme, and thus, he never got credit for the photos he turned in. In 1935 he got tired of doing other peoples' work and left Acme to go out and try to free-lance his own work. The girls around Acme gave him the name "Weegee" after the board game. They said he always seemed to know where to be when a story broke.

Free-lance Photographer:

Weegee worked on his own as a free-lance photographer for the next ten years. He started to work out of Manhattan Police Headquarters; he would arrive around midnight and check the Teletype machine to see if any stories had broke. After a few years he decided he didn't want to wait for the news to come over the Teletype. He bought himself a 1938 Chevy Coupe and a press card, and he was allowed to have a police radio in the car (the only press photographer ever allowed to have a police radio in their car). Weegee's car was his home away from home, his office on the road. In the trunk he kept everything he would need including a portable dark-room, extra cameras, flash bulbs, extra loaded holders, a typewriter, cigars, salami and a change of clothes. (Weegee by Weegee 52)

"I was no longer glued to the Teletype machine at police headquarters. I had my wings. I no longer had to wait for crime to come to me; I could go after it. The police radio was my life line. My camera... my life and my love... was my Aladdin's lamp." (Weegee by Weegee 52)

After ten years he published his first book, The Naked City, which was inspired by the city he loved. It was during these ten years that Weegee produced some of his most expressive and beautiful photos.

Photographic Training:

Weegee never had any formal photographic training. He never heard of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, or even the Museum of Modern Art. The work Weegee did came strictly from his heart. None of his photos were planned; his 4x5 speed graphic camera was preset at f/16 @ 1/200 of a second, with a focal distance of ten feet. All of his photos were taken at this setting with a flash. What photographic training Weegee may have needed to be a great photographer, he learned as he worked for Acme, or he just taught himself. Style, texture, or even quality of the photography did not matter much to Weegee. He was more concerned with capturing a moment of time on film. He recorded history as it happened. He had only a split second to capture the emotions of an event as they unfolded. A good example of this is the photograph of the Mother and Daughter crying as they watch another daughter and young baby burning to death inside a tenement fire. All that Weegee could really say about this photograph was, "I cried when I took this picture."

In 1939, Weegee took a portrait of a mother and her son in Harlem. Even a photograph that Weegee would consider to be a portrait showed an incredible amount of emotion. With a snap of the shutter he told the story of this poor woman. The way he positioned her and her son behind the broken glass is representative of the shattered life she lived. Yet even with despair all around her, she still has a look of hope in her eyes, as if she were saying that she cannot give up. She has a sense of pride as she holds her son. This is the power and gift that Weegee had with a camera.

It is impossible to look at a work by Weegee and not get emotionally involved. That was the whole point to his photographs — he wanted the viewer to get involved. On one of the first stories Weegee had to cover, he was asked to get photos of a kid that was abandoned by its mother. In his autobiography Weegee stated, "They (the cops) wanted pictures of the kid, so that the mother, seeing the picture in the papers, might become remorseful and come to claim the child." Weegee was ready to take a smiling picture when the nurse stopped him. The nurse stuck the baby with a pin, the kid started to cry and the nurse said "Now take a shot...This will bring the mother back." Luckily for the baby, this did bring the mother back. (Weegee by Weegee 56) Weegee had a job to do — this was the way he made a living. He had to make pictures that the newspapers would want to buy, and the newspapers wanted drama.

Being a free-lance photographer was not an easy job during this point in history. Not a lot of people could make it as long as Weegee had. Even when things were going bad, Weegee had good spirits about it. He was always able to find happiness in whatever he was doing. He loved people, he loved photographing people, and he loved being with people. In his work he confronted murder, brutality, children in need, brawls, the homeless, fires and victims. He also confronted people who were happy, lovers, celebrations and the end of the War. Weegee's work stands on its own — it's meant to be viewed one at a time, not as a group. With each shot, Weegee captured a truth that can never be recreated.

Weegee died of a brain tumor on December 26, 1968. Today Weegee is credited with ushering in the age of tabloid culture, while at the same time being revered for elevating the sordid side of human life to that of high art.


1. Weegee's People, Arthur Fellig, 1900-1968, DA CAPO PRESS, New York, 1975.
2. Naked City, Arthur Fellig, Essential Books, 1945.
3. Weegee, Aperture History of Photography Series, Aperture, Inc. 1978.
4. Weegee, Louis Stettner, Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York, 1977.
5. Weegee, Andre Laude, Pantheon Books, New York, 1986.
6. Weegee by Weegee, An Autobiography, Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, New York, 1961.

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