Heralded and criticized for revealing the darker side of society through the lens of cameras, pioneering photojournalist Weegee captured the reality of a world he knew only too well.
Born in 1899 in what was Lemberg, Austria, Usher Fellig, who would later adopt the professional name “Weegee,” emigrated from his homeland to the United States with his family in 1909. The 11-year-old’s given name was changed to Arthur during immigration processing at Ellis Island. Just two years later he would run away from home, joining the throngs of children living on the streets of New York, the very streets on which he would later photograph the subjects and scenes that made him widely known.
His early years living in the belly of the concrete jungle prepared him for his career as a crime photographer, a job that kept him busy, given the upheaval present in New York City during the Great Depression. As reported by The Art Story, Weegee made use of his familiarity of the city, its more colorful spaces and characters, and his ability to get in good with the local police to get the jump on other photographers as crime stories were breaking. His connections and street savvy may have put him in the prime position, but it was his eye and photography skills that secured his place in American photojournalism history.
To gain a better understanding of the impact and influence of Weegee, we spoke with Christopher George, the imaging technician at the International Center for Photography, an institution dedicated to photography and visual culture. Through exhibitions, school, public programs and community outreach, ICP provides an open forum for dialogue about the role that photographs, videos and news media play in society today.
For the past 15-plus years, George has managed the scanning of more than 20,000 photos by Weegee. The archive of photos originally came to the organization in 1993. Some 16,000 photographs and 7,000 negatives by Weegee were bequeathed to ICP by Weegee’s longtime companion, Wilma Wilcox. The New York Times has called the ICP ‘Weegee Central.” During his years at ICP, George has also gathered materials such as newspapers and magazines, continuing to build on the work set in motion by Miles Barth and his team to research and best represent Weegee’s work.
What photography techniques and processes used by Weegee are most influential?
His ingenious techniques were ahead of their time. Early in his career, he was processing film in a repurposed ambulance and in a subway, when speed and getting a photo published first was crucial. Late in his career, he used kaleidoscopes and other techniques – both on camera and in the darkroom – to produce “distortions.” These were prescient and not unlike Photoshop and app filters of today, except it was in the 1950s and early ’60s. Plus, he was known for his use of flash photography and his instinct for self-promotion.
FUN FACT: Legend has it the name “Weegee” came about in response to Fellig’s uncanny ability to be the first on the scene of an accident, sometimes even before authorities. Word spread that it was because he turned to a Ouija board for information. Hence his choice to change his name to the phonetic spelling of the popular board game. Weegee was the first citizen in New York to be granted a police radio, and would tune into the police frequency for leads to chase up.
In your estimation, how did Weegee help shape the practice of crime photojournalism?
In the words of Ralph Steiner: “… I can say something about why he is a great photographer, which he certainly is. His greatness as a crime photographer grows out of three things: First his willingness to live entirely for his work. Second, his ingenuity in carrying it out. Third, his very intelligent approach to a kind of material which other photographers treat in a routine manner. And there is the all-important fact that Weegee, unlike the majority of photographers I have met, is a rich personality. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone; nor can you an editor squeeze good pictures out of a stony photographer. Weegee moves in a world of violence, brutality, bloodshed and horror, but the pictures he brings up out of it do not depend entirely on the drama of the event. They are good because Weegee adds a little of himself – a little of Weegee is really something.” This commentary appears in an article that appeared in the March 9, 1941, issue of PM Daily.
Also, George went on to say:
He pioneered the use of a police radio, both in his car and apartment/studio. Often when he photographed an “event” or “crime,” he made sure to include the people affected by the crime, an “audience” or spectators. For example, the photo Their First Murder shows people who were affected, and also not affected or oblivious to, a crime, a death, a dead person in their proximity and field of vision. Weegee also photographed that dead body, but it’s the people’s reaction to the crime that is remembered today… .
After concluding that most fires and people who were no longer living look pretty much alike, he would often look for a “human element,” things that were ironic or funny.
His use of “found” language and signs is unparalleled. In the photo Joy of Living there’s a dead body – a traffic accident victim – covered in newspapers, a crowd of people (an audience), and above it all is a movie marquee that reads, in part: “Joy of Living.”
How did society of the day and the culture Weegee was part of present itself in his work?
Something that is perhaps lesser-known, or underappreciated, or underrecognized (about his work) is the influence of World War II. Like most people alive in the early ’40s, the war was ever-present. Even in one of his most famous photos, The Critic, World War II plays an important role.
What noted photographers and artists appear to be influenced by Weegee’s work?
Diane Arbus was greatly influenced. Perhaps Louis Faurer was as well, in addition to Leon Levinstein. wwwzBeginning in the early 1930s and continuing throughout his life, Weegee took many self-portraits (or had friends take his photo). Sometimes he would wear different clothes and play different roles: the reporter, the curious passerby, an arrested criminal, an ice cream seller, a protester, a best-selling author, etc. One time he dressed up as a circus clown and photographed the circus and circus audience as a camera-holding clown. I don’t know if Cindy Sherman was influenced by these photos, they aren’t well-known, but Weegee and Cindy have made similar photos.
What makes Weegee’s work appealing to photographers and collectors more than 90 years after his professional photography career began?
Because the photos are so great! There’s a lot of “depth” to his best photos. They can be funny, and sad. Most of his well-known photos were made from about 1937 to 1945 — a relatively short amount of time). Perhaps all were “commercial” — made to be sold to newspapers and magazines, but it was about more than that. Weegee began his life in poverty, as an immigrant from Eastern Europe; lived and struggled through the depression; was financially comfortable for a few years; and then lived with very little money and in not-great health, for about 20 years.
What do you believe today’s photographers and photo artists can learn from Weegee’s work?
He was an individualist and a humanist. Perhaps one thing that is not always acknowledged is how hard and how much he worked. He was incredibly prolific. Like most geniuses, he was born at the right time and place. He grew up in poverty, dropped out of school early, found his “calling,” worked extremely hard, became successful — when he was around 45 — and then lived another 25 hardscrabble years — with not a lot of success.
Weegee’s own words answer the question with first-person examples.
“Most photographers always use the same old methods. We’ll assume that a horse-drawn wagon is going over the Williamsburg Bridge. A car hits it, and the driver is tossed into the water and gets killed. The other photographers will take a picture of the bridge and then have an artist draw a diagram showing how the guy fell into the water. What I do is go and see what happened to the poor old horse.”
“When I take a picture of a fire, I forget all about the burning building, and I go out to the human element. If I see a woman standing by a fire engine and crying, it’s much better than a picture of the building. The building is just a spectacle.”
“A photographer should have confidence in himself, and if he gets a good idea, he should go take it, even if everybody laughs at him.” — PM Daily, March 9, 1941
George offers one final gem of insight about Weegee: In June of this year, the first extensive biography about Weegee will be released: FLASH: The Making of Weegee The Famous, by Christopher Bonanos. It will be published by Henry Holt & Co., a division of Macmillan Publishers.
To view the book, visit https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781627793063.
Books published by Weegee that contain his photographs include Naked City (1945), and Weegee’s People (1946) and Naked Hollywood (1953).