Born Ascher/Usher Fellig on June 12, 1899 in the town of Lemburg (now in Ukraine) his family immigrated to the United States, where his first name was changed to the more American-sounding Arthur. Arthur Fellig has the wonderful nick-name of Weegee…as the story goes this came about during his early career as a freelance press photographer in New York City. Quite frequently his nose for trouble/crime often led him to a scene well ahead of the police.
In reality he tuned his radio to the police frequency, but friends and colleagues linked him to the Ouija board. Spelling it phonetically, Fellig took Weegee as his professional name. One of the original freelance paparazzi or ‘ambulance chasers,’ being first on the scene allowed him to take the first and most sensational photographs of news events and offer them for sale to publications such as the Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Post, the Sun, and PM Weekly.
He was flamboyant and arrogant stamping ‘Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous’ on the back of his images. Gradually his images seeped into other areas, New York’s Photo League held an exhibition of his work in 1941, and the Museum of Modern Art began collecting his work, much which depicted ‘unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death’, and exhibited it in 1943. Weegee published his photographs in several books, including Naked City (1945), Weegee’s People (1946), and Naked Hollywood (1953).
Weegee also worked in Hollywood as a filmmaker, performer, and technical consultant. His 1945 book Naked City was the inspiration for the 1947 film The Naked City. The Public Eye (1992), starring Joe Pesci, was based on the man himself.
Why he is important is because he invented himself. He started out in commercial photography, then forged his own career as a press photographer, worked in Hollywood on Dr Stangelove with Stanley Kubrik. Although mostly known for his crime scene images he also shot fun street images.
Weegee’s photographic oeuvre is unusual in that it was successful in the popular media and respected by the fine-art community during his lifetime. His photographs’ ability to navigate between these two realms comes from the strong emotional connection forged between the viewer and the characters in his photographs, as well as from Weegee’s skill at choosing the most telling and significant moments of the events he photographed.
He used very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. He would hang around police stations looking for tips from the police, and Bowery nightclubs…synonymous now with Martha Rosler.
Apparently Weegee developed his photographs in a homemade darkroom in the rear of his car. This provided ‘an instantaneous result to his work that emphasized the nature of the tabloid industry and gave the images a “hot off the press” feeling.’
Research tells me Weegee can be seen as the American counterpart to Brassaï, who photographed Paris street scenes at night…loosely I guess…with his themes of nudists, circus performers, freaks and street people inspiring Diane Arbus in the early 1960’s. Later Alec Soth created his body of work Songbook around his photo-journalistic style. And said:
What I love about Weegee is that there’s chaos, there’s death, but there’s also this tremendous joyousness in it all. Weegee used to say that if you want to be a photographer you can’t be a “nice Nellie” – you can’t be afraid to talk to people; you have to just get out there. And that’s really good advice. I was a nice Nellie. I used to be genuinely nervous about approaching people. But now I’m definitely less nice than I used to be. And I think that pushing out into the world and confronting people made my work so much better.
In doing further research I learnt that he also experimented with surrealism…now why don’t I have an issue with his images as I do with some of the Japanese contingent? Maybe it is because they have a feel of art,model/consent about them, they are more subtle as in no pubes or genitalia flapping about? Whereas the others feel like drunk/drugged/emotionally insecure people have been taken advantage of? Interesting personal contemplation…
According to Sontag (2008, p.98) Edward Weston, André Kertész and Bill Brandt ‘made nude photography respectable.’ Maybe it is because Weegee’s images follow that style of the bodies being bent over, cropped, with the lighting effects rendering the flesh opaque and concentrating on form and a suggestion of the erotic rather than obviously sexual that I don’t find these as exploitative as other nude work?
I have this overwhelming dislike of my flash gun…it sits and stares at me malevolently from the corner where it perches…I need to learn how to use it properly is half the battle, but this time round not a chance…maybe later…
Weegee is a great example of how to cross over from journalism to art and to diversify into books and films. He was aggressive and took chances to achieve his goals. He didn’t concentrate too much on composition more of capturing the moment, a feel..all which again times in with assignment two and trying to convey an abstract theme. A lot of his compositions were simple yet every element was significant to telling the story.
So I need to learn to use my flash, not be afraid of it and get out taking photographs, think about the emotion of the shot…which I shall when I’m not tied to my PC researching those that did ;oD
Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.