Weegee - Biography and Legacy
Lemberg, Austria (now in Ukraine)
New York City, USA
Biography of Weegee
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Weegee
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.