Weegee (Arthur Fellig). Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. c. 1942. Gelatin silver print, 10 9/16 × 13 5/16" (26.8 × 33.9 cm). The Family of Man Fund

“When you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.”

Weegee (Arthur Fellig)

Usher Fellig became Arthur Fellig at the age of 10, when he entered the United States through Ellis Island. He had arrived in New York from Zloczow, Poland (now part of Ukraine) in 1910 with his family; they were fleeing another wave of violent pogroms that had begun sweeping across the Pale of Settlement in 1903.1 But it wasn’t until the 1930s that Fellig took on the name Weegee. He was a photographer so attuned to the goings on of New York’s city streets that he seemed to intuit events before their unfolding—at times he seemed possessed, like a Ouija board.

Weegee embraced this origin story, attributing “Weegee” to a simplification of “Ouija” in signing and answering fan mail, often expanding his title to “Weegee the Famous.” But in fact, his name is rooted in his beginnings in the world of press photography. Weegee worked as a “squeegee boy” in the darkrooms of the New York Times, removing excess water from prints so they could be placed on a chrome-plated sheet, which was then inserted into heated dryers.2 As his technical prowess with the process developed, the mocking “squeegee boy” assignation morphed into a praising nickname, “Mr. Squeegee,” which ultimately wore down into “Weegee.”3

Going on to work for ACME Newspictures as a printer and then a photographer, by 1935 Weegee had built a career as a freelance press photographer, taking pictures of the tenement fires, car accidents, burglaries, parades, and brawls that unfolded across the city. Soon he became an insistent, itinerant presence in New York—his seeming clairvoyance was aided by a police radio scanner installed in the front of his 1938 Chevrolet, which also had a darkroom installed in the trunk. An ardent believer in the immediacy of the image, Weegee said, “News photography teaches you to think fast, to be sure of yourself, self-confidence. When you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.”4 Using a 4 × 5 Speed Graphic camera in gleaming, sturdy aluminum and steel, Weegee often shot from unconventional angles and varied vantage points. The resulting images were rangy photographic compositions—as unusual, brash, and vulnerable as their subjects. Abandoning subtlety in favor of drama, Weegee’s high-contrast images are rife with symmetry, pattern, and bold lines, offering opportunities to detect formal strategies in unexpected contexts, from the back of a police van to a street facing façades of apartment buildings. He focused on the grit of the city, and while the harsh light in his images often sensationalized emotions, these candid shots incisively revealed the juxtapositions of grandeur and destitution built into the social structures of New York.

Epitomized by his 1945 photobook Naked City, Weegee’s voracious visual appetite encompassed the spectacle of life and the surprise of sudden death in New York, his images searingly truthful and fearless. He said, “When I really see the picture is when I’ve developed the film. Then I really see what I’ve done. I really seem to be in a trance when I am taking the picture because there is so much drama taking place or will take place. I mean, you just can’t hide it—go around wearing rose-colored glasses. In other words we have beauty and we have ugliness. Everybody likes beauty, but there’s ugliness too.”5 A photographer synonymous with 20th-century New York and its myriad denizens, Weegee made pictures that attest to the pulsing rhythms of the city and its status as a place continually in transformation, brimming with possibilities.

Oluremi C. Onabanjo, Associate Curator, Department of Photography, 2022

  1. Kristine Somerville. 2015. “Harsh Flash: The New York Photography of Weegee.” The Missouri Review, 38(4): 102.

  2. Ibid, 105.

  3. Christopher Bonanos. 2018. “The Man Behind Weegee.” The Paris Review. Accessed online: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/06/05/the-man-behind-the-weegee/

  4. Weegee. 1958. Famous Photographers Tell How LP. Transcribed by Eric McDonald. Accessed online: https://americansuburbx.com/2010/05/interview-famous-photographers-tell-how.html

  5. Weegee. Interview with Mary Margaret McBride, July 11, 1945. Station WEAF. Accessed online: https://americansuburbx.com/2009/11/interview-mary-margaret-mcbride-with.html

Wikipedia entry
Introduction
Arthur (Usher) Fellig (June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), known by his pseudonym Weegee, was a photographer and photojournalist, known for his stark black and white street photography in New York City.Weegee worked in Manhattan's Lower East Side as a press photographer during the 1930s and 1940s and developed his signature style by following the city's emergency services and documenting their activity. Much of his work depicted unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death. Weegee published photographic books and also worked in cinema, initially making his own short films and later collaborating with film directors such as Jack Donohue and Stanley Kubrick. Weegee was born Ascher (later modified to Usher) Fellig in Złoczów (now Zolochiv, Ukraine), near Lemberg in Austrian Galicia. His given name was changed to Arthur after he immigrated with his family to New York in 1909. The father of the family, Bernard Fellig, emigrated in 1908, followed in 1909 by his wife and their four children, including "Usher Felik", as his name was spelled on the steerage passenger list of the steamship, Kaiserin Auguste Victoria. In Brooklyn, where they settled, he took numerous odd jobs, including working as a street photographer of children on his pony and as an assistant to a commercial photographer. In 1924 he was hired as a darkroom technician by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International Photos). He left Acme in 1935 to become a freelance photographer. Describing his beginnings, Weegee stated: In my particular case I didn't wait 'til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something. He worked at night and competed with the police to be first at the scene of a crime, selling his photographs to tabloids and photographic agencies. His photographs, centered around Manhattan police headquarters, were soon published by the Daily News and other tabloids, as well as more upscale publication such as Life magazine.In 1957, after developing diabetes, he moved in with Wilma Wilcox, a Quaker social worker whom he had known since the 1940s, and who cared for him and then cared for his work. He traveled extensively in Europe until 1964, working for the London Daily Mirror and on a variety of photography, film, lecture, and book projects. On December 26, 1968, Weegee died in New York at the age of 69.
Wikidata
Q445857
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Introduction
American photographer, active in New York City and Hollywood. Arthur Fellig, known as Weegee professionally, is noted for his photographs depicting crime and other newsworthy events, usually taken at night. His early career was spent as a freelance press photographer. He prided himself on his ability to arrive at the scene of a crime before the police, and derived his name from the phonetic pronunciation of the Ouija board. He sold his images to tabloid newspapers from 1935 through the 1940s, and published his first book, Naked City in 1945, followed by Weegee's People in 1946. Naked City was a commercial success and guaranteed his income. At this point he began taking portraits of celebrities and figures in the entertainment industry. He used a variety of trick lenses to distort and manipulate these images, and often exposed or exagerrated the imperfections of his subjects. He experimented with infrared film and flash to make exposures in darkness, particularly of people in darkened movie theaters. Weegee used a 4x5 Speed Graphic press camera and flash exclusively throughout his career; and is not known for his printing virtuosity, but for the elements of social critique in his photographs. He was a flamboyant character, and revelled in his own notoreity and mythology.
Nationalities
American, Austrian, Central European, Eastern European, Polish
Gender
Male
Roles
Artist, Photographer
Names
Weegee, Arthur H. Fellig, Arthur Fellig, Weegee the Famous, Usher Fellig, Weejee, Vig'i, Artur Felig, Asher Felig, אשר פליג, Arthur Felling
Ulan
500032312
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License

Works

22 works online

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Publications

  • Photography at MoMA: 1920 to 1960 Hardcover, 416 pages
  • The Shape of Things: Photographs from Robert B. Menschel Exhibition catalogue, Hardcover, 152 pages
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