Arthur Fellig (1899-1968), aka Weegee, was a hustler, carny barker and photojournalist all rolled into one rotund, cigar-chomping figure. The “naked city” of New York was his subject. He roamed its streets at night like a vampire in search of blood, sweat and tears. He trained his Speed Graphic with the flashbulb attachment on the city when it had its guard down. Like all hustlers, he cut corners and rubbed “the swells” the wrong way. But he left behind an indelible legacy that defined tabloid photojournalism and even film noir.
Arthur Fellig (1899-1968), who went by the moniker Weegee, may have been the first punk photographer in NYC. Born in present-day Ukraine and raised in the tenements of the Lower East Side, the cigar-chomping, slovenly but unflappable Weegee was as brash and blunt as Johnny Ramone and as subtle as a Bronx cheer. While some might argue that NYC photographers Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine can lay claim to that ur-Punk title, Weegee wins for his overall fuck-it attitude. As great as they were, Riis and Hine were social reformers with laser-like focus on particular segments of the city’s population. Weegee, on the other hand, was half-newsman/half- prankster. He wanted to capture the whole circus, from the poorest of the poor to the richest and most protected (“the swells” as he called them), from Coney Island to Harlem, from Times Square to the Upper East Side. His warts-and-all portrait of New York, which he created mostly in the years 1935-1945, still has the power to shock and amuse, often simultaneously.
Take, for example, what is arguably Weegee’s most famous photograph, “The Critic”, from 1943. Seemingly a candid, on-the-spot shot of two fabulously wealthy matrons on their way into an uptown opera house while a crazed-looking woman eyeballs them malevolently from the side, it really resulted from a carefully planned prank. The crazed-looking woman was a regular at a Bowery bar (Sammy’s) that Weegee frequented when he wasn’t shooting late night photos. He and his cohorts plied the woman with cheap wine earlier in the evening and at 6:30 p.m., they all took cab rides uptown to the Metropolitan Opera. The occasion was the Diamond Jubilee, the opera company’s 60th anniversary soiree. Weegee and his cohorts set up on the sidewalk out front of the event and, when the limos arrived to disgorge their precious cargo of wealthy “swells,” Weegee unloosed the disheveled, clearly inebriated woman, who stood unsteadily and gazed with disgust at the diamond-encrusted opera goers. The self-mythologizing Weegee would claim that “The Critic” was an impromptu shot that reflected his more serious-minded photojournalism. However, his assistant on that assignment, who was put in charge of keeping the drunken woman on her feet, knew the real story. He later described the moment: “It was like an explosion. I thought I went blind from the three or four flash exposures which Weegee made within a very few seconds.”
His warts-and-all portrait of New York, which he created mostly in the years 1935-1945, still has the power to shock and amuse, often simultaneously.
PM Daily, a journal for which Weegee did some of his finest work, paid him $5 for the photograph but never ran it. Instead, Life magazine ran it in its Dec. 6, 1943 issue, at which point “The Critic” became an iconic emblem of the haves and have nots of NYC society. A truly punk moment. Half news/half prank.
Many of those who’ve accurately captured the soul of America came from someplace else. Weegee was no exception. There was Usher “Arthur” Fellig from the Lower East Side tenements and there was “Weegee” the myth, the legend, the fabrication. He arrived in America in 1910, after his father immigrated from Galicia to escape the Jewish pogroms. He and his six siblings were crammed into three rooms of an already over-crowded tenement. Indeed, at this time, 11-year-old Arthur Fellig could have stepped right out of a photograph by Jacob Riis, from his famous collections How The Other Half Lives or The Children of the Poor.
Rather than remain stuck there, Arthur assimilated better than the rest of his family, hanging out on the sidewalks and streets with the Irish and Italian immigrants. By 15, the barely schooled Arthur was on his own, working a series of odd jobs that familiarized him with the city streets and the hustle required to keep his head above water. Fascinated by the street photographers who he saw taking pictures of children on ponies and then trying to sell them to the parents, he bought a 5” X 7” tintype camera, rented a pony and started snapping and selling himself.
A truly punk moment. Half news/half prank.
At 18, he got a job in a photography studio where he learned his way around glass-plate film and large, unwieldy cameras. This led to a job working in the darkroom at the New York Times, squeegeeing water off the negatives. Because he was so adept at this job, he became known as “Squeegee Boy” which transmogrified to “Weegee”. Later, he would claim that his name derived from Ouija boards, a popular diversion at the time—part of the self-mythology he fashioned to reflect his ability to beat the cops and EMTs to the scenes of crimes and disasters.
He then got a job doing various darkroom jobs at Acme Newspictures, which sold photos to Daily News, World Telegram, and Herald Tribune. Finally, he began to take news pictures of his own. He thrived on these late-night assignments (car wrecks, rescues, fires, shootings). He’d race to the scenes, shoot the pictures, spend all night in a darkroom and then at the break of dawn peddle the photographs to the tabloids. He became so adept at this that he was able to finally make the leap to full-time freelance in 1935. By then, he was the king of late-night snaps in NYC, referring to himself on his business card as Weegee The Famous.
In some ways, Weegee was a victim of his own early success. When many people think of him now it’s for the blood-spattered photographs that he took on his late night cruises through the tragedies and miseries of a “naked city”—ghastly car wrecks in which victims were drenched in blood, the remains of building-jumping suicides (what hardboiled freelancers called “dry swimmers”), fire victims burned beyond recognition (“roasts”) or a drowning victims (“bottom feeders”). When he wasn’t happily snapping bullet-riddled corpses in the streets, gutters or doorways of Manhattan, he was shooting scenes of fires, car wrecks, drug and numbers prostitution busts and other assorted human tragedy and mayhem. He had no qualms about shooting these photographs—after all, one of his memoirs was entitled Murder Is My Business. He knew he was working among what a curator at the International Center for Photography called “the catfish of the journalistic profession”—that is, he was a bottom feeder too. But, as the saying had it back then, “if it bleeds, it leads.” Weegee made a handsome living providing that front-page gore for editors of the numerous New York daily tabloids.
He was the king of late-night snaps in NYC, referring to himself on his business card as Weegee The Famous.
Weegee kept a dump of a studio apartment near police headquarters and slept beside a police radio so that he often arrived at the scenes of murders and other crimes before the cops did. He used a large-format, black-and-white camera with a flashbulb attachment, which produced “gritty, high-contrast” pictures that became his signature and, because of his own celebrity, his style became the signature of tabloid journalism in America. Not only did Weegee capture the blood-spattered corpses of murder victims with his unpitying flashbulbs, he also trained his lens on the entire scene, capturing the whole sordid human tragic-comedy—bemused gawkers, world-weary cops, grieving relatives, greasy, flyblown surroundings. A typical Weegee murder scene photograph contained a corpse twisted in its final agony beneath a movie marquee that announced that week’s feature film: “Joy of Living.” Or the corpse from a car wreck victim flat on the ground, still holding the severed steering wheel in one hand.
But he also shot Coney Island revelers, Frank Sinatra on stage at the Paramount Theater, a shirtless Louis Armstrong in his dressing room, anonymous dry humpers in movie theaters, Harlem street life, circus performers, transvestites and prostitutes in paddy wagons, the backstage at burlesque shows,. One 1939 caption reads, “These are men arrested for dressing as girls…the cops, the old meanies, broke up their dance and took them to the pokey.”
During these tabloid years, Weegee caught moments when New York City had its collective guard down. His beat was humanity at its worst moments, and yet his most interesting and telling photographs are of the people off to the side of the crimes or the tragedies, the ones craning their necks from rooftops or fire escapes, laughing and pointing.
Weegee was a man of his times; such machinations and excesses would be impossible today, at least in mainstream journalism. Not only would photo editors agonize over whether to run or not to run such photographs as Weegee took, other ethical questions remain. For example, because Weegee often arrived before the cops or medical crews and because he was so well-known by the cops, he would walk through the crime scenes shooting photographs right and left, perhaps even disturbing evidence and certainly violating any sense of decorum or dignity that should always be present at sudden, tragic death.
He arrived, for example, at a candy store in which the victim was splayed across the door’s entrance. Behind the corpse, a dog was baying madly in an attempt to protect its owner. Weegee simply raised the camera and shot photographs of the dog (amazing that he wasn’t ripped to pieces). In another photograph, a self-portrait, Weegee stands next to a pile of loot recovered from a police bust. He is holding a violin, which he has taken from the pile of stolen property, and is pretending to play it, smiling widely for the camera. (Young Arthur Fellig was, in fact, a gifted musician and one of his early jobs was playing the violin in silent movie houses). In another self-portrait, he’s seen riffling through a pile of receipts and paperwork after a huge numbers-running racket bust.
His beat was humanity at its worst moments, and yet his most interesting and telling photographs are of the people off to the side of the crimes or the tragedies, the ones craning their necks from rooftops or fire escapes, laughing and pointing.
If a photojournalist did something like this today, he’d be fired from his job and, in all likelihood, arrested for tampering with evidence.
The raw Weegee most people know is based on only ten years of freelance tabloid photos taken from 1935 to 1945, culminating with the publication of Naked City, a photography book as important to American photography as Robert Frank’s The Americans, Berenice Abbott’s Changing New York or Diane Arbus’s Aperture Monograph. After 1946, his hardscrabble myth in place, Weegee wanted to go uptown, to “art” and celebrity. Like Salvador Dali, he became something of a self-parody at that point.
But that may have been the intent from the very start. As the late photography curator Miles Barth writes, in Weegee’s World: “Photography was something of a game, a racket, a tool that one could exploit. In Weegee’s case he used it to document what was around him, always believing that his photographs would have broad appeal, and treating his subject matter fairly. Weegee made the average New Yorker a star in his images, on par with the society dames and the ‘swells.’ He held a mirror up to New York and revealed a city that was provocative and gripping, while at the same time managing to capture the City’s heart.”
We may be hearing more about Weegee in the coming months. In late 2019, it was reported that Errol Morris (Fog of War, The Thin Blue Line) was planning to make a biopic called Weegee, produced by Lawrence Schiller. “Weegee may not have singlehandedly invented the noir sensibility, but without him, noir would be unimaginable,” Morris was quoted at the time of this announcement. “He recognized he was constructing his own vision of reality, replete with vivid characters — rich, poor, depraved and otherwise.”
Here’s a link to the 2012 “Weegee: Murder Is My Business” exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York: