Arthur Fellig, aka “Weegee” (1899-1968), was best known as the premier crime-news photographer of his time and, more specifically, for originating candid photojournalism and for his stark, lurid, unsettling, and often dystopic urban street photographs, principally the images he created in New York in the years before the end of WWII. Self-taught with no formal training – he described himself as “a primitive with a camera” – he developed his signature style by following the city’s emergency services and documenting their activities. Much of his work depicted unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death, and his unique “blood in the gutter” style and the almost sacred squalor that he brought to his photographs caused his work to be seen as the epitome of both tabloid journalism and high art, a most improbable combination.
Much as Roman Vishniac captured life in Eastern Europe in the years before World War II, Weegee can be seen as the portraitist of a vanished world, as his iconic photographs of New York constitute an extraordinary chronicle of the city during the 1930s and 1940s. He virtually created nighttime noir and his work was mostly the result of his nocturnal photographic wanderings, as he focused on nightlife and familiar late-night hangouts like bars, restaurants, nightclubs, and cabarets. His photographs were distinctive for their stark lighting that often rendered his subjects as eerie specters in the night.
Squat, portly, disheveled, unshaven, wearing a crumpled fedora and chomping on an ever-present cheap cigar, the unflappable Weegee created the caricature of the hardened news photographer. He quickly found extraordinary, almost supernatural, success in arriving at newsworthy scenes before police, firemen and medical crews, and, even before he became the only New York freelance newspaper photographer with a permit to use a portable police-band shortwave radio in 1938, he always managed to beat other members of the press to the scene.
Weegee exhibited incredible range, as his subjects included police, criminals and crime victims, passers-by and witnesses, drunks and drug users, bookies and con men, freaks, the homeless, politicians, and celebrities. His brutally spontaneous photographs included both horror and tender shots of people uplifted by everyday life, but all his pictures were chronicles of truth, warts and all, from which he never flinched. He was the first crime photographer to take shots of crowds gathering at murder scenes; perhaps his best-known example of this genre is Balcony at a Murder (see exhibit), which was published in Life magazine and shows people looking out at a murder scene from the windows of their Prince Street apartments.
Although the greatest emphasis of his work was on crime, Weegee was also able to capture the affluence of New York’s wealthier neighborhoods, and his photographs would often highlight the disparity between rich and poor and hold the well-heeled up to an unflattering light. In “The Critic” (see exhibit), undoubtedly one of his best-known photographs, he depicts a shabby, disheveled, and angry-looking street woman glaring at two society grandes dames clad in their finery as they arrive at the Metropolitan Opera celebration of its 60th anniversary. The photo, which Weegee’s assistant later claimed was staged (Weegee denied this), became one of Russia’s favorite propaganda tools, which it used to demonstrate the appalling class distinctions that characterized American decadent society. The mass-produced photos were dropped from Axis planes above Allied forces fighting in Italy with the caption “GIs, is this what you’re fighting for?”
In addition to his photographic skills, Weegee was a gifted storyteller who was able to communicate in a visual language that was understood by an entire range of audiences, from tabloid readers to purveyors of high art. With an inherent and finely tuned sense of “what sells,” he began by hawking his photographs to tabloids and photographic agencies but, after attaining great success, he sold to mainstream newspapers, including the New York Daily News; New York Post; the Sun; the New York Journal American; PM Weekly, which put him on retainer for several years; and the World-Telegram, which became the first publication to credit him for his photographs. He also sold to upscale publications, including Life and Look, and he earned editorial assignments from magazines such as Vogue.
However, his fundamental “beat” was always humanity at its worst; he would do anything to “get the shot”; and he could be harsh and heartless in his voyeuristic intrusions into private suffering. The most extreme example might be his gripping and horrific photograph of a mother and daughter weeping for members trapped inside a burning tenement (see exhibit), which he callously titled “Roast.” (He later changed it to “I Cried When I Took This Picture,” probably in response to a public outcry to his callousness.)
Weegee’s first exhibition at the Photo League’s gallery in New York (1941), which he titled Murder is my Business, garnered excellent reviews, and he published several photographic books, beginning with the historic Naked City (1945). Respect for his work quickly grew to the point that five of his photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in 1943, and his work has been exhibited in museums around the world.
Weegee also later worked in the Hollywood cinema industry, initially making his own short films and later collaborating with film directors such as Jack Donohue and Stanley Kubrick. Notably, he was a special effects consultant and stills photographer for Kubrick’s classic anti-war film, Dr. Strangelove (1964), in which Peter Sellers adopted Weegee’s distinctive accent in playing the film’s lead. He was also the inspiration for The Public Eye (1992), starring Joe Pesci, and for the character played by Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler (2014).
Photographic historians offer various explanations for the origin of his “Weegee” pseudonym. Some cite his early job in the New York Times photo lab, where he was called “the squeegee boy” because he was responsible for wiping down the prints with a squeegee roller. Others characterize the nickname as a phonetic rendering of the popular “Ouija board” craze of the 1920s-1930s and, in a variation on the theme, some maintain that the source for the nickname was that the moon face at the corner of the Ouija board evoked the image of his distinctive doughy face. Weegee himself claimed that the name was a tribute to his uncanny “clairvoyant” ability to sense photographic opportunities and to arrive first on the scene, but some authorities claim that he may have made this up. In any event, Weegee furthered his aura of magic and mystery through his invented name.
Ascher (later changed to Usher) Fellig was born in Złoczów, Ukraine, to a Galician Jewish family including his mother, Rifka, who was a relative of Naftali Tzvi Imber, best known as the author of Hatikvah, and his father, Berisch, who studied for the rabbinate. With antisemitism and pogroms raging through the Russian Pale of Settlement, Berisch decided to bring the family to the United States, and he left for America by himself in August 1903, became “Bernard,” and worked a pushcart in New York to earn passage for his family back in Złoczów. When the family was finally united at Ellis Island in September 1909, Usher, who arrived as a hungry shtetl child speaking no English (the ship’s manifest reflected that he could not read or write), immediately changed his name to Arthur because it “sounded more American” and, determined to reinvent himself, proved to be a quick study of English.
The family lived in terrible conditions in a back tenement on the Lower East Side of New York near Macheziki Hadath Anshei Zlotshow, where the worshippers were from the Felligs’ hometown back in Galicia. Bernard desperately wanted to be a rabbi and, although Weegee writes in his autobiography that his father did eventually realize his dream, it is more likely that he served as a shammes in the synagogue. As difficult as life in America was for the family, they still maintained their keen devotion to Judaism and Jewish practice. In particular, they were strictly Shabbat observant, which only exacerbated Bernard’s financial problems. The financially desperate Bernard tried his hand for a time selling Passover dishes before the holiday, with little success, but he managed to eke out a living teaching bar mitzvah lessons in the New York ghetto.
Weegee attended local public school on the Lower East Side until seventh grade, when he had his epiphany when a street tintype photographer took his picture and, intrigued, he purchased a mail-order tintype-making kit and experimented with street photography. He quit school at age 14 and, to help with the family’s finances, tried selling daily newspapers – but failed to generate much income because few people in the tenements could read English, and those who could were unable to afford the purchase. He found greater success, however, selling candy to factory workers and others, and he later landed a job at the Duckett and Adler photography studio, where he worked as an assistant to a photographer in the laboratory, loaded glass-plate holders and magnesium flash powder, and learned the fundamentals of printing techniques.
Leaving home penniless at age 15, he found shelter in parks, homeless shelters and train stations, and took numerous jobs to support himself, including purchasing a pony and taking photographs of children on the horse – which was ultimately repossessed because he could not handle the food bills. He also worked as a busboy at an automat, dishwasher, biscuit maker, and musician playing violin in silent movie houses (he was a gifted violinist) while looking for a job in a photo studio. His first break came in 1923, when he was employed as a darkroom technician by Acme Newspictures agency (later United Press International Photos), which provided stock photos to the daily press. He learned to develop photos on the subway almost immediately after they were taken, as the result of which Acme occasionally permitted him to take his own photographs.
Upset that Acme claimed his work as its own property and that it refused to credit his photographs, he left Acme in 1935 to open his own shop and become a freelance photographer, which he pursued with frenzied zeal. He set up a small, improvised darkroom in the trunk of his car to quickly make the “hot off the press” prints that were so desired by media publishers, and he would arrive very early at newspaper offices to sell his “spot news” pictures, which the papers were thrilled to be able to run that very day. His motto was “a picture is like a blintz – eat it when it’s hot.”
His ingenuity seemingly knew no bounds. In one notable case, he paid off a train conductor after a World Series game, locked himself in the motorman’s booth with his camera and all the necessary chemicals and photographic materials, and printed beautiful photographs of the game, which he brought to the newspapers soon after the game had ended. Obsessed with celebrity, his fame grew, in part due to his aggressive and brazen self-promotion as he began labeling himself as “the World’s Greatest Photographer” and stamped his photos with the caption “Weegee the Famous” (see exhibit above).
Although one of the primary motivations for leaving home in 1917 was his inability to bear his father’s “extreme Judaism,” Weegee never rejected his cultural Jewishness. At a time when many Jewish immigrants to America sought to repress their ethnic differences, he remained closely connected to his immigrant Jewish roots in the European shtetl and on the Lower East Side, and saw the world from the perspective of a diasporan immigrant Jew. Although most critics totally ignore or, at best, gloss over his connection with his Jewish roots, his work reflects his class-conscious expression of the immigrant working class.
The trauma and suffering inherent in Yiddish culture in general, and the iconographic typology of the Yiddish literary tradition in particular, may underscore Weegee’s obsession with themes of anguish and suffering, terror and torture, physical injury, emotional mortification, and death. His Jewish immigrant roots also manifested themselves in his American patriotism, as many of his photographs, particularly toward the end of World War II, featured crowds waving American flags and other patriotic themes. One critic credits him with seeing all of Manhattan as a “megashtetl,” and he always saw the East Side tenements where he grew up as a step toward something better.
Weegee’s notable photographs of Jewish New York that reflect his Jewish sensitivities include subjects such as bagel sellers, street peddlers and garment workers, and I include here four of my personal favorites of his “Jewish genre” work. The first is “Max is Rushing the Bagels to a Restaurant on Second Avenue for the Morning Trade” (1940), in which the remarkable lighting effect that characterizes his work is evident. Second is a stunning photograph of a fireman rescuing Torah scrolls from a synagogue fire in which lighting on his face and the light from the barber shop to his right stand out against the black night sky, and the third is a crowd outside a Yiddish theatre at Second Avenue and Fourth Street in 1945 featuring a play by I.L. Peretz, the great Yiddish author and playwright.
The fourth shot, my absolute favorite, is a perfect example of both Weegee’s humor and his Jewish sensibilities. He has captured Joe McWilliams, a pro-Nazi antisemitic congressional candidate, sitting on a wagon with a horse’s rear end framing the shot. Weegee’s tongue-in-cheek, but nonetheless hysterical, title for the photograph was “McWilliams, Fascist Candidate, Faces His Future Undiscouraged.”
Later in his life, Weegee became obsessed with darkroom trickery and he was almost universally criticized for his experimentation with panoramic photographs, optical distortions, and photography through specialized warped lenses, prisms, and mirrors. His “distortion” photographs ranged from comedic caricatures to kaleidoscopic pinwheels, and one of his most famous prints in this genre was a depiction of Marilyn Monroe in which her face is grotesquely distorted yet still recognizable (see exhibit).
In this handwritten correspondence from Paris postmarked December 18, 1961, Weegee draws the object he needs for reversing images and asks his companion, Wilma Wilcox, to find and mail it to him:
Hello, dear – if you can find this and air mail to me, without delaying your TRIP, it will help me, its [sic] a Black METAL HOLDER, inside is a mirror – I need it to reverse the IMAGE, I want to TRY this, instead of the PRISM, it may be in one of the DRAWERS of the desks, once even in the Picture room.
Have a good trip dear may see you as soon as you return.
In 1947, Weegee married Margaret Atwood (not the famous author of The Handmaiden’s Tale), a wealthy widow whom he had met at a book signing for his book, Weegee’s People, but the marriage lasted only a few years and he made no mention of it in his autobiography. He maintained a long-term non-romantic relationship with Wilcox, a South Dakotan Quaker social worker whom he had known since the 1940s. After developing diabetes in 1957, he moved in with her at her Hell’s Kitchen apartment, and she cared for him and later administered his estate after his death in 1968, which included organizing the monstrous clutter of his work, much of which he had simply tossed into a beer barrel. In violation of a strict Jewish prohibition, he was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.
Upon her death in 1993, Wilcox bequeathed his entire archive of some 16,000 photographs and 7,000 negatives to the International Center of Photography in New York, and transferred his copyrights. These became the source for several books, including Weegee’s World (1997), and Unknown Weegee (2006), and exhibitions, including the 329-image Weegee’s World: Life, Death and the Human Drama (1997); Weegee’s Trick Photography (2002), a show of distorted or otherwise caricatured images; and Unknown Weegee (2006), a survey that emphasized his less violent, post-tabloid photographs.