“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. 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. 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.”
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.” 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.” 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