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 emigrated 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.
The origin of Fellig's pseudonym is uncertain. One of his earliest jobs was in the photo lab of The New York Times, where (in a reference to the tool used to wipe down prints) he was nicknamed "squeegee boy". Later, during his employment with Acme Newspictures, his skill and ingenuity in developing prints on the run (e.g., in a subway car) earned him the name "Mr. Squeegee". He may subsequently have been dubbed "Weegee"—a phonetic rendering of Ouija—because his instant and seemingly prescient arrivals at scenes of crimes or other emergencies seemed as magical as a Ouija board.
Most of his notable photographs were taken with very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. He was a self-taught photographer with no formal training. He is often said—incorrectly—to have developed his photographs in a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car. While Fellig would shoot a variety of subjects and individuals, he also had a sense of what sold best:
Names make news. There's a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell's Kitchen, nobody cares. It's just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that.
Weegee is spuriously credited for answering "f/8 and be there" when asked about his photographic technique. Whether or not he actually said it, the saying has become so widespread in photographic circles as to have become a cliché.
Some of Weegee's photos, like the juxtaposition of society grandes dames in ermines and tiaras and a glowering street woman at the Metropolitan Opera (The Critic, 1943), were later revealed to have been staged.
Late 1930s to mid-1940s
In 1938, Fellig became the only New York freelance newspaper photographer with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. Weegee worked mostly at night; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene.
Five of his photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1943. These works were included in its exhibition Action Photography. He was later included in "50 Photographs by 50 Photographers", another MoMA show organized by photographer Edward Steichen, and he lectured at the New School for Social Research. Advertising and editorial assignments for magazines followed, including Life and beginning in 1945, Vogue.
Naked City (1945) was his first book of photographs. Film producer Mark Hellinger bought the rights to the title from Weegee. In 1948, Weegee's aesthetic formed the foundation for Hellinger's film The Naked City. It was based on a gritty 1948 story written by Malvin Wald about the investigation into a model's murder in New York. Wald was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay, co-written with screenwriter, Albert Maltz, who would later be blacklisted in the McCarthy era. Later the title was used again for a naturalistic television police drama series, and in the 1980s, it was adopted by a band, Naked City, led by the New York experimental musician John Zorn.
1950s and 1960s
Weegee experimented with 16mm filmmaking himself beginning in 1941 and worked in the Hollywood industry from 1946 to the early 1960s, as an actor and a consultant. He was an uncredited special effects consultant and credited stills photographer for Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. His accent was one of the influences for the accent of the title character in the film, played by Peter Sellers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Weegee experimented with panoramic photographs, photo distortions and photography through prisms. Using a plastic lens, he made a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe in which her face is grotesquely distorted yet still recognizable. For the 1950 movie The Yellow Cab Man, Weegee contributed a sequence in which automobile traffic is wildly distorted. He is credited for this as "Luigi" in the film's opening titles. He also traveled widely in Europe in the 1960s, where he photographed nude subjects. In London he befriended pornographer Harrison Marks and the model Pamela Green, whom he photographed.
In 1962, Weegee starred as himself in a "Nudie Cutie" exploitation film, intended to be a pseudo-documentary of his life. Called , it saw Fellig apparently falling in love with a shop-window dummy that he follows to Paris, all the while pursuing or photographing various women.
Weegee can be seen as the American counterpart to Brassaï, who photographed Paris street scenes at night. Weegee's themes of nudists, circus performers, freaks and street people were later taken up and developed by Diane Arbus in the early 1960s.
In 1980, Weegee's companion Wilma Wilcox, along with Sidney Kaplan, Aaron Rose and Larry Silver, formed The Weegee Portfolio Incorporated to create an exclusive collection of photographic prints made from Weegee's original negatives. As a bequest, Wilma Wilcox donated the entire Weegee archive – 16,000 photographs and 7,000 negatives – to the International Center of Photography in New York. This 1993 gift and transfer of copyright became the source for several exhibitions and books including Weegee's World, edited by Miles Barth (1997), and Unknown Weegee, edited by Cynthia Young (2006). The first and largest exhibition was the 329-image Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama, mounted in 1997. It was followed in 2002 by Weegee's Trick Photography, a show of distorted or otherwise caricatured images, and four years later by Unknown Weegee, a survey that emphasized his less violent, post-tabloid photographs.
In 2012 ICP opened another Weegee exhibition titled, Murder Is My Business. Also in 2012, an exhibition called Weegee: The Naked City, opened at Multimedia Art Museum, Moscow. Weegee's autobiography, originally published in 1961 as Weegee by Weegee and long out of print, was retitled as Weegee: The Autobiography and republished in 2013.
From April 2013 through July 2014, the Flatz Museum in Dornbirn, Austria presented Weegee. How to photograph a corpse, based on relevant photographs from Weegee's portfolio, including many vintage prints. Original newspapers and magazines, dating back to the time where the photos were taken, accompanied the photographs.
In popular culture
- Peter Sellers mimicked Weegee’s voice and gave it a German accent when playing the title role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Academy Award nominated comedy Dr. Strangelove, where Weegee was on the set taking pictures during the production of the film.
- According to director Dario Argento, the photographer played by Harvey Keitel in his segment of Two Evil Eyes was inspired by Weegee.
- The 1992 film The Public Eye is said to be loosely based on Weegee
- The 1999 The X-Files episode Tithonus concerns an "Alfred Fellig", investigated for having photographed crime scenes prior to the arrival of emergency services.
- A crop of his 1940 photo Crowd at Coney Island was used as the cover for the 1990 George Michael album Listen Without Prejudice Vol. 1.
- The John Zorn-led band Naked City took their name and first album cover from Weegee.
- Weegee is the photographer for the Minutemen in the movie Watchmen.
- The 2014 film Nightcrawler was also inspired by Weegee.
- Maguire's crime scene photography in the 2002 film Road to Perdition is based on Weegee.
- Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
- Museum of Modern Art, New York
- The Jewish Museum
- Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
- International Center of Photography
- The Public Eye – Filmmaker Howard Franklin was unable to secure the rights to Fellig's life story, so he created a fictionalized version.
- Hudson, Berkley (2009). Sterling, Christopher H. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Journalism. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. pp. 1060–67. ISBN 978-0-7619-2957-4.
- Cotter, Holland (June 9, 2006). "'Unknown Weegee,' on Photographer Who Made the Night Noir". The New York Times.
- Weegee's autobiography
- Fellig, Arthur. "Weegee Interview" BOMB Magazine Summer, 1987.
- Weegee MoMA Collection, New York.
- Cohen, Daniel (2000). Yellow Journalism. Twenty-First Century Books. p. 77. ISBN 0761315020.
- Roberta Smith (January 19, 2012), He Made Blood and Guts Familiar and Fabulous The New York Times.
- Bonanos, Christopher, Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, Henry Holt, 2016, chapters 23–25.
- Bonanos, p. 315.
- Kosner, Edward (December 6, 2018). "Shots in the Dark". The New York Review of Books. 65 (19): 44–45.
- Goldberg, Viki, Photography in print: writings from 1816 to the present, University of New Mexico Press, 1988, p.414
- Bonanos, ch. 2 and 3.
- Bonanos, p. 99.
- Fellig, Arthur. "Weegee Interview"BOMB Magazine Summer, 1987
- North, D. Travis (September 22, 2011). "f/8 and Be There – What We Can Learn From WeeGee's Philosophy". Shutter Photo. Retrieved June 13, 2016.
- Newman, Joe (August 11, 2014). "'F/8 and Be There'—as True Now as It Was in Weegee's Day". Huffington Post. Retrieved June 13, 2016.
The legendary street photographer Arthur "Weegee" Fellig is often credited with first coining the phrase "f/8 and be there."
- "f/8 And Be There". Adorama Learning Center. Adorama camera. June 21, 2011. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
- The Streets of New York (catalog of National Gallery of Art show)
- "Weegee's World: The Opera".
- Bonanos, p. 100–101.
- "Weegee's World: Chronology International Centre of Photography".
- 'Naked City' writer Malvin Wald, USA Today, 3/09/2008
- The Curve: A Tour of Naked Hollywood, archived from the original on January 21, 2012, retrieved December 5, 2015
- "Weegee [Marilyn Monroe distortion]". International Center of Photography.
- Bonanos, p. 294–297.
- The 'Imp'probable Mr. Wee Gee, Internet Movie Database
- "Side Gallery - Weegee Portfolio - Interview with Sid Kaplan - Amber Online". February 16, 2009. Archived from the original on February 16, 2009.
- "Kunsthalle Wien :: Home".
- "Weegee: The Naked City, MAMM".
- "Devault-Graves blog".
- "FLATZ Museum".
- "PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A TABLOID PHOTOGRAPHER". The Chicago Tribune. October 14, 1992. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
Bernzy himself seems to be based on the real-life figure of Arthur Fellig, who, under the name Weegee, created some of the most startling and vivid photographs to come out of the urban maelstrom.
- Friend, Tad. "Rembrandt Lighting" The New Yorker (November 10, 2014)
- "Search – Rijksmuseum". Rijksmuseum.
- "Major Holdings: Weegee (1899–1968)" on the International Center of Photography website
- Greco, John. "The Public Eye (1992) Howard Franklin". Twenty Four Frames. Retrieved October 10, 2018.
Written and directed by Howard Franklin, The Public Eye is a film very loosely based on the life of tabloid photographer, Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee. Franklin apparently could not obtain the rights to Weegee's story, so he wrote a fictionalized tale about a cigar smoking New York City tabloid photographer who had access to a police radio which always made him first on the scene. In the film, the character is called Leon Bernstein or Bernzy or, as his byline reads, The Great Bernzini.
- Barth, Miles; Bergala, Alain; and Handy, Ellen. Weegee's World. Boston: Little Brown, 1997.
- Lee, Anthony W. and Meyer, Richard. Weegee and Naked City. (Defining Moments in American Photography.)
- Purcell, Kerry William. Weegee. (Phaidon, 2004).
- Weegee. Weegee by Weegee (1961 (revised, reprinted, and retitled as Weegee: The Autobiography, 2013), autobiography).
- New York Times, June 20, 2008, "Crime Was Weegee's Oyster"
- Wired News, June 29, 2009, "'You Gotta Get It'—Words of Wisdom from Weegee"
- Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama
- Weegee archive on eMuseum.icp.org, all works © International Center of Photography
- Arthur "Weegee" Fellig at IMDb
- BOMB Magazine self-interview with Arthur Fellig (Summer 1987)