Today’s post continues the week’s pictorial and photographic theme by looking at the life and works of Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, a fascinating character.
Weegee could easily be described as one of the most important freelance photojournalists who ever worked in the profession. Although the last years of his life were melancholy, what he accomplished, in one decade of news photography from the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, is an extraordinary chronicle of New York. The publication of his epic, Naked City, will always be considered a classic love affair between a photographer and his subject. In Weegee's case, the subject was New York, and his photographs became the frozen moments that are the icons of urban life in its calm, joy, and chaos during that period.
- Miles Barth, Weegee's World
I first became aware of Weegee some years ago. When I read of his career and saw his photo, as well as seeing his photographic works, I immediately recalled the character played by Joe Pesci in what I consider to be Joe pesci's best film, The Public Eye (1992).
Director and writer Howard Franklin was unable to secure the rights to Weegee’s story but did not let that stop him. he simply portrayed Weegee but called him Leon “Bernzy” Bernstein.
Get the movie and have a look, if you can, it captures the character and lifestyle of Weegee very well.
Born Ascher Fellig in the Ukraine in 1899, his name was changed at Ellis Island to Arthur when he and his family moved to the US in 1909. Fellig left home as a teenager and worked as an assistant to a street photographer who took pics of children on a pony, then through the 1920’s as a darkroom technician until in 1935 he became a freelance photographer.
I didn’t wait ‘til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.
- Weegee in 1987 interview, Bomb magazine
Working at night, he competed with the police to be the first on news scenes, ahead of his competitors and often ahead of the police, courtesy of a police scanner. In 1938, he was actually the only New York newspaper reporter with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. His almost immediate attendances at crime scenes, fires and accidents, only minutes after they were reported, earned him the nickname Weegee, a phonetic play on Ouija. To further get the drop on competitors he had a homemade darkroom in the boot of his car and developed his prints at the scene.
My car became my home. It was a two-seater, with a special extra-large luggage compartment. I kept everything in there, an extra camera, cases of flash bulbs, extra-loaded holders, a typewriter, firemen's boots, boxes of cigars, salami, infra-red films for shooting in the dark, uniforms, disguises, a change of underwear, and extra shoes and socks. I was no longer tied 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.
I would drop into Police Headquarters at around 7:00 p.m. If nothing's stirring and my elbow don't itch - and that's not a gag, it really does itch when something is going to happen - I go on back to my room across from Police Headquarters and go to sleep. At the head of my bed I have a hook-in with the police alarms and fire gongs so that if anything happens while I'm asleep, I'm notified...When I get my pictures I hurry back to Headquarters. There is always a follow-up slip on an accident (or crime) with all the names and details coming in over the teletype. I found out who were injured, where they lived, and on what charges they have been arrested, so that I can caption my pictures correctly. Next I go back to my darkroom and develop my prints. By this time it is around six in the morning and I start out to sell my prints.
quoted in "Free-Lance Camerman," by Rosa Reilly, Popular Photography, December 1937
According to one writer:
Weegee’s peak period as a freelance crime and street photographer was a whirl of perpetual motion running from the mid-1930s into the postwar years. Ceaselessly prowling the streets during the graveyard shift, he took thousands of photographs that defined Manhattan as a film noir nightscape of hoodlums and gangsters, Bowery bums and slumming swells, tenement dwellers and victims of domestic brawls, fires and car crashes. He gave it its enduring nickname, the Naked City.- John Strausbaugh, 2008
And according to another:
“Weegee captured night in New York back when it was lonely and desolate and scary. He once said he wanted to show that in New York millions of people lived together in a state of total loneliness.”- Tim McLoughlin, editor of the “Brooklyn Noir” anthology series
...names make news. There’s a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that. I covered all kinds of stories from Murder Incorporated to the opening of the opera to a Cinderella Ball at the Waldorf. In other words, you take everything in its stride. The same camera that photographs a murder scene can photograph a beautiful society affair in a big hotel.
Now the easiest kind of a job to cover was a murder because the stiff would be laying on the ground. He couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental. He would be good for at least two hours. At fires you had to work very fast.
- Wegee, 1987 interview
Weegee’s photographic technique and equipment were basic. Self taught, he simply used a Speed Graphic press camera set at f/16 at 1/200th of a second with flashbulb and a set focus distance of 3 metres/10 feet.
In 1943 the Museum of Modern Art acquired 5 of his photographs and in 1945 his first book of photographs, Naked City, was published, becoming the title of a movie in 1948 and later of an early televison series.
I try to humanize the news story. Of course I ran into snags with the dopey editors. If it was a fire, they’d say, “Where’s the burning building?” I says, “Look, they all look alike.” I says, “Look, here’s the people affected by the burning building.” Well, some understood it and some didn’t.
In one case I went to a tenement house fire. Here’s the mother and daughter looking up hopelessly. Another daughter and baby are burning to death. Now, at a fire, what happens? Those that are lucky to get out of the burning tenements gather in the street, of course. Then the firemen start counting noses. They want to see how many people are there. And I noticed also at this particular fire, the aide to the chief came out and he says, “Boss, this is a roast,” meaning somebody, one or more persons, had burned to death. That’s what the fireman called “a roast.” And I saw this woman and her daughter looking up hopelessly. I took that picture. To me that symbolized the lousy tenements and everything else that went with them.
- Weegee, 1987 interview
In the 1950’s and until his death in 1968, Weegee experimented with distortion of images and portraits using a variety of materials and plastic lens coverings.
His famous distortion of Marilyn Monroe’s face is comic, with Monroe still recognisable. He was an uncredited special effects consultant, and credited still photographer, for Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. One theory holds that Weegee’s thickly accented voice was a model for that of Peter Sellers’ title character in that film:
Weegee died in New York on 26 December 1968 aged 69.
“Sure. I’d like to live regular. Go home to a good-looking wife, a hot dinner, and a husky kid. But I guess I got film in my blood. I love this racket. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. It’s funny. It’s tough. It’s heartbreaking.”
—Weegee in Popular Photography, 1937
Some Weegee images follow.
(Having already shown some corpses in the City of Shadows post, I have omitted Weegee’s gritty shots of corpses. Those who want to see some Weegee’s dead body pics can do so by clicking on:
Tenement Fire, 1942
Mother and daughter looking up at the top floor, where another daughter and her baby are trapped.
Coney Island, 1940
Faces in the Crowd, 1951
The Gold Painted Stripper, 1950
(seeking relief from a heatwave)
Summer on the Lower east Side, 1937
Lovers with 3D Glasses (using infra red film)
New Year's Eve at Sammy's-on -the-Bowery, 1943.
The Critic, 1943
Mrs Cavanaugh and friend entering the opera.
(Perhaps Weegee’s most famous photograph, it was later revealed to have been staged in that Weegee had his assistant take a drunken woman from a bar and have her stand near the rich society women entering the Metropolitan Opera House.)
Nude (plastic lens) 1953-1956
Marilyn Monroe (plastic lens) c1960