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Artists Weegee
Weegee Photo

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.

Biography

Weegee Photo

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.

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Weegee Biography Continues

Important Art by Weegee

The below artworks are the most important by Weegee - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Simply Add Boiling Water (1937)
Artwork Images

Simply Add Boiling Water (1937)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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.

Gelatin Silver print - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Body of girl hit by car on Park Avenue, New York (1938)
Artwork Images

Body of girl hit by car on Park Avenue, New York (1938)

Artwork description & Analysis: In Body of girl hit by car on Park Avenue, New York, is a simple, but moving image about the outcome of a typical, yet gruesome car accident. Weegee creates a powerful work by focusing on the dead body lying in the street covered by a white sheet. The starkness of the white sheet against the darkness of the night created what Weegee called his "Rembrandt light," in which he catches the covered body in the white glare of his flash while the rest of the scene is enveloped in darkness. A police officer, unable to do anything else, walks away from the scene and towards his car in the distance. Weegee carefully surveyed the scene, searching for the best angle to shoot in order to create the most stylized image and to capture the telling detail of a black purse next to the body. The purse is the only clue that indicates the victim is a female.

For the first decade of his career, Weegee worked after hours, spending every night traveling the streets of New York capturing one gruesome scene after the next. As art historian, Mark Svetov explains, "Weegee's news pictures were never haphazard snapshots, albeit they were taken by a man who had happenstance and chance as his helpmates... [his] pictures seem perfectly arranged, and what we focus on is their human content." His ability to select the most telling and significant moment of an event made his work respected by both the fine art community and the public. A feat which is still unusual today.

Gelatin Silver print - International Center for Photography, New York

Balcony Seats at a Murder (1939)
Artwork Images

Balcony Seats at a Murder (1939)

Artwork description & Analysis: In Balcony Seats at a Murder, Weegee captures police investigating a man who has just been killed outside his shop, while onlookers gawk at the scene from the tenement's fire escape. Weegee explains the image in his own words: "I arrive, right in the heart of Little Italy, 10 Prince Street, here's a guy who had been bumped off in the doorway of a little candy store. This was a nice balmy hot summer's night, the detectives are all over, but all the five stories of the tenement, people are on the fire escape. They're looking, they're having a good time, some of the kids are even reading the funny papers and the comics. [...] I step all the way back about a hundred feet, I use flash powder and got this whole scene. The people on the fire escapes, the body, everything... To me this was drama, this was like a backdrop." Weegee understood the social phenomenon that surrounded a murder; it was as much a spectacle for rubberneckers at the crime scene as it was for those paying to read about it in the newspaper. By including the action surrounding the victim, Weegee set himself apart from other photojournalists, who instead focused their lens solely on the victim.

Weegee's interest in the whole scene enables him to create a narrative that focused on the surroundings and on the aftermath of the murder. Because of his ability to express the unfolding drama in one image, Weegee's photos became the perfect visual accoutrement for tabloid news. Weegee could very well proclaim himself the "Official Photographer of Murder Inc.,"having photographed over 5,000 murders during his decade-long career as a crime photographer.

Gelatin Silver print - International Center for Photography, New York

More Weegee Artwork and Analysis:



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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.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Alfred StieglitzAlfred Stieglitz
BrassaiBrassai

Personal Contacts

Edward SteichenEdward Steichen
Ralph Steiner
Lisette ModelLisette Model

Movements

Documentary PhotographyDocumentary Photography
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism
Street PhotographyStreet Photography

Influences on Artist
Weegee
Weegee
Years Worked: 1935 - 1968
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Diane ArbusDiane Arbus
Banks Violette

Personal Contacts

Andy WarholAndy Warhol
Stanley KubrickStanley Kubrick

Movements

Modern PhotographyModern Photography
Pop ArtPop Art
Street PhotographyStreet Photography
PhotojournalismPhotojournalism

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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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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