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.