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Artists Weegee
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Weegee

Austrian-American Photographer

Movements and Styles: Street Photography, Documentary Photography, Photojournalism, Straight Photography

Born: June 12, 1899 - Lemberg, Austria (now in Ukraine)

Died: December 27, 1968 - New York City, USA

Weegee Timeline

Quotes

"People are so wonderful that a photographer has only to wait for that breathless moment to capture what he wants on film... and when that split second of time is gone, it's dead and can never be brought back."
Weegee
"For the pictures... I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power I can't explain, and I caught the New Yorkers with their masks off... not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or Make Love."
Weegee
"When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track."
Weegee
"There are photographic fanatics, just as there are religious fanatics. They buy a so-called candid camera... there is no such thing: it's the photographer who has to be candid, not the camera."
Weegee
"I'm no part time dilettante photographer, unlike the bartenders, shoe salesmen, floorwalkers plumbers, barbers, grocery clerks and chiropractors whose great hobby is their camera. All their friends rave about what wonderful pictures they take. If they're so good, why don't they take pictures full - time, for a living, and make floor walking, chiropractics, etc., their hobby? But everyone wants to play it safe. They're afraid to give up their pay checks and their security they might miss a meal."
Weegee

"To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real."

Weegee Signature

Synopsis

Weegee was a legendary news photographer, whose stock and trade were candid shots of people in the streets, in bars, and at crime scenes. His professional name was Weegee (spelled phonetically), after the popular fortune-telling game, Ouija board, to which his supposed sixth sense for crime was compared. This "sense" led him to the scene well ahead of the police - although it turns out that he actually had his radio tuned to the police frequency. Thus, Weegee created his own legend and reveled in his own notoriety. Yet, more importantly, his voyeuristic photographs exhibited the underbelly of New York City, melding popular culture with the experience of immigrants and the working classes, catching the attention of both the news media and the fine art community.

Key Ideas

Weegee's Photojournalism focused on the picture's narrative content and visual punch, making his human interest stories novel. They drew attention to the extremes and foibles of the city crowd, who constitute an unknown underworld. As historian Graham Clarke points out, Weegee thus "images a secret city: murder victims, muggers, transvestites,... [as well as private moments] - anything that might feed his hungry eye in search of the sensational and murky photograph."
Weegee worked at the PM Daily paper which established a new model of reportage that Weegee took full advantage of to introduce new subjects as well as expand his own repertoire of images to include crime scenes, street people, and circus performers. His photographs had their own meaning, and served as a source for various kinds of photo-essays, which ultimately appear in his photo book Naked City.
Like the progressive press he worked for, Weegee was caught up in the field's newness, sense of possibility, and influence. He therefore organized his last chapter in Naked City as a long essay on what he called "Camera Tips." He told aspiring photographers, "Don't try to guess focus, just practice six and ten feet." He advised amateur photographers, tempted by the fancy new flashes, against using them and told them "I still use a flash bulb." The press flash-gun, Weegee's preferred mode of illumination, literally exposed his subjects in a sensational manner.

Most Important Art

Weegee Famous Art

Simply Add Boiling Water (1937)

This image captures firefighters attempting to battle a fire engulfing the American Kitchen Products building that bears a Hygrade Frankfurters billboard. The sign across the center of the building that reads: "Simply Add Boiling Water," lends this image its title. It describes in a tongue-in-cheek manner the firefighters act of dousing the building, ironically located on Water Street, with water. Weegee's ability to seize on the irony in even the most horrific of images became his stock and trade, and improved his chances of selling the photo to a newspaper. In the July 1937 issue of Minicam Photography, this image was used in a how-to article with the caption: "The sign across the center of the building refers to the frankfurters, not the firemen!" - referencing Weegee's unrivaled ability to infuse an image with dark humor.

Like film noir movies, a cinematic genre begun in the 1940s, Weegee's photographs are a darkly stylized version of reality. His distinctive images inspired film noir because of "[their] lack of naturalness. ...[the very] source of their melodramatic power," according to the art historian John Szarkowski; "It is as though terrible and exemplary secrets were revealed for an instant by lightning," namely Weegee's flash. Previously known as melodramas, black and white, moody film noir movies used murder as a typical plot device and were characterized by their fatalistic and menacing nature. Simply Add Boiling Water could easily pass as a still from one of these films.
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Weegee Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Early Training

Weegee was born Usher Fellig on June 12, 1899 near the city of Lemberg, Austria, what is today Zolochiv, Ukraine. Yet, his story begins once he immigrated with his family to the United States in 1909 at age 11. Upon arriving at Ellis Island, his name was immediately changed to the more American sounding Arthur. Like most immigrants, Arthur grew up in extreme poverty, and spent his childhood living in a Lower East Side tenement building in New York City, along with his parents and three other siblings. His father, Bernard Fellig, sold goods from a pushcart around the neighborhood for a meager wage. Bernard became an ordained orthodox rabbi and kept the Sabbath, even though it hindered him from earning money for his family.

To help support the family, Weegee dropped out of school and worked at menial jobs, when he could find them. One such job was assisting a pony ride photographer. Weegee quickly realized that even poor parents would spend money on a photo of their child dressed in their finest clothes on top of a pony. This was his first encounter with photography as a livelihood.

The strained relationship between Weegee and his father, even at an early age, stemmed from their different world-views: the son's modern American ideas contradicted the father's Old World, and religious notions. Eventually the tension became unbearable, and Weegee ran away from home at age 13. He became one of the thousands of children living on the unforgiving city streets, sleeping on park benches, and working odd jobs. Weegee even tried his own hand at the pony ride photography business, which he promptly quit, when he realized that he had to take care of the pony.

He then took a job in 1923, working in the dark room at Acme Newspicture, the leading photo agency at the time that supplied newspapers from across the country with stock photos. The experience provided him with photographic training and instruction.

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Weegee Biography Continues

Mature Period

New York City in the mid-thirties, still in the grip of the Great Depression, was a tough place to earn a living. Prohibition had recently ended and rival gangs fought among themselves to maintain business. Newspapers sensationalized these "wars" to entertain the Depression era masses. They were constantly in need of pictures to visualize these stories. Weegee, sensing a job opportunity, became a freelance photographer. He worked the New York City streets at night, actively looking for trouble, which made him one of the first crime photographers in the city. Living in a one room dilapidated apartment across the street from a New York City Police Station, Weegee would bribe the officers to get the scoop on a crime story. His eerie ability to arrive at crime scenes just before the police, led to the rumor that he consulted an Ouija board. As a result, he began referring to himself as "Weegee" (supposedly unable to spell Ouija) and the nickname stuck. After fraternizing with the police for two years, Weegee became the first American citizen to have a police radio installed in his car. Rumored to be both a mobile darkroom and an office, his car enabled Weegee to deliver his photographs to Acme "hot off the presses" and in time for the early edition. He was paid $20 for each picture of a murder, and to ensure he received credit for his work, he stamped the back of every image with "Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous."

Weegee worked as a freelance photographer for ten years, submitting photographs to the Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Post, and the Sun, among others. For a good part of that time, he was a special contributing photographer at PM Daily, from 1940 to 1945. PM paid him a weekly stipend and paid for each photo that PM purchased, whether or not it was published. Weegee covered an array of stories, but it was his crime photographs that got him the job.

His photographs were not only well-received in the popular media, but were respected by the fine art community. The New York Photo League held an exhibition of his work in 1941. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) collected his work and held an exhibit of his photographs in 1943. Like Lisette Model, Weegee loved New York, which he expressed in his street photographs that focused on the expression and gestures of his subject.

Towards the end of his time with PM, Weegee published his iconic photo book Naked City in 1945. The book included gruesome images of murders, alongside images of people enjoying the city's nightlife. It was an instant success, and a Hollywood producer bought the rights to the book's title in 1948. The award winning film noir movie, full of murder, suicide, and good detective work found inspiration in Weegee's lurid photos. However, this supposed biography of New York City was the culmination of Weegee's career. Shortly after its publication, Weegee ceased working as a crime photographer entirely. He produced instead other photo books such as Weegee's People in 1946 and Naked Hollywood in 1953.

Late Period

Weegee in Washington Square Park
Weegee in Washington Square Park

Weegee's gregarious and flamboyant personality, dark sense of humor and odd behavior was as shocking as his pictures. Newspaper readers became eager to learn of the crime photographer's exploits due to the success of Naked City. The self-proclaimed "World's Greatest Photographer" happily obliged his readers, and staged photos of himself posing next to bombs, seated in police paddy wagons, and standing in perp lineups. He was a master of self-promotion and carefully crafted his public persona.

Weegee reenacting how he did his infrared flash theatre photography, disguised as an ice cream vendor
Weegee reenacting how he did his infrared flash theatre photography, disguised as an ice cream vendor

Those who knew Weegee personally described him as a chauvinist with bad hygiene, who spent too much time in brothels, looking for dates with strippers. His wife, Margaret Atwood, was willing to overlook these personality flaws for a short time. Upon introducing himself to her he claimed to have asked, "are you single fully and footloose, Babe? I'm going to take you under my wing." The pair married in 1947, but the whirlwind romance was short lived with the two separating later that year. Weegee eventually found someone accepting of his crude behavior and poor standards of health. Wilma Wilcox was a Quaker social worker with the patience to endure Weegee's unpredictable ways. The life partners never married, but eventually moved in together in 1957 when Weegee, diagnosed with diabetes, needed to be cared for.

Weegee shows Stanley Kubrick his Rolleiflex camera
Weegee shows Stanley Kubrick his Rolleiflex camera

The allure of Hollywood pulled Weegee to the West Coast in 1947. While there, he worked as a technical consultant on films, and even acted in small bit roles. Famed director Stanley Kubrick, also known for his dark humor, asked Weegee to be the still photographer for his Academy award winning film, Dr. Strangelove. Even though busy with work, Weegee hated his time in Hollywood, which he called "the land of zombies." He claimed that the people there were fakes who "drank formaldehyde instead of coffee, and had no sex organs."

After five years, Weegee finally had enough and returned to New York in 1952. He began exploring the idea of what he deemed "art photography," which entailed manipulating negatives to distort images. Upon seeing this new work, most critics and art lovers concluded the photographer had lost his way. Unperturbed and with ego still firmly intact, Weegee ignored the naysayers and continued doing things his own way. Only death could keep him from working. He passed away in the city he loved in 1968 of an untreated brain tumor.


Legacy

Self-Portrait with Andy Warhol (1965)
Self-Portrait with Andy Warhol (1965)

Weegee used his lurid tabloid-style to create voyeuristic images of people at their most vulnerable. Paying particular attention to the outcasts and downtrodden, Weegee later inspired the brilliant Diane Arbus, who addressed in her work like Weegee, such themes as nudists, freaks, circus performers, and street people. Weegee, the American counterpart to Brassaï, is a precursor to Pop art. His influence on Andy Warhol is especially apparent in his appropriation of Weegee's idea of artist as celebrity.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Weegee
Interactive chart with Weegee's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Alfred StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz
BrassaiBrassai

Friends

Edward SteichenEdward Steichen
Ralph Steiner
Lisette ModelLisette Model

Movements

Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism
Street PhotographyStreet Photography
Weegee
Weegee
Years Worked: 1935 - 1968

Artists

Diane ArbusDiane Arbus
Banks Violette

Friends

Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Stanley KubrickStanley Kubrick

Movements

Modern PhotographyModern Photography
Pop ArtPop Art
Street PhotographyStreet Photography
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Katelyn Davis
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Weegee

Videos

Books

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Weegee: Murder is My Business Recomended resource

By Brian Wallis

Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous

By Christopher Bonanos

written by artist

Naked City Recomended resource

By Arthur 'Weegee' Fellig

Weegee's People

By Arthur 'Weegee' Fellig

More Interesting Books about Weegee
The Real Weegee

A documentary interspersing Weegee's actual biography with his own humorous account of who he really is.

Eddie Muller on the Art and Legacy of Crime Photographer, Weegee

Eddie Muller provides an in depth look at the life, work, and legacy of the famed crime photographer.

Weegee Tells How Recomended resource

A short recording of the artist, accompanied by image, in which he discusses his work and offers advice on how to be a news photographer

Weegee: The Art of Photography

A brief overview of Weegee's work, while also highlighting several of his more famous images.

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