Arthur Fellig Weegee 1899 —1968
“the famous pictures of a violent era, the pictures that all the great papers with all their resources couldn’t get, and had to buy from me….In shooting these pictures, I photographed the soul of the city I knew and loved.” ….Weegee
WEEGEE, the legendary photographer, created great excitement to, from, and with the media, revolutionizing tabloid takes, and the hallowed pages of fashion’s greatest magazines.
Born in Austria, Usher Fellig (anglicized to Arthur at Ellis Island) arrived in New York in 1910 as part of the wave of immigrants flooding into New York’s lower East Side. He left school at the age of 14 to help support his family, working at odd jobs, including photographing children in the park on a rented pony. He found his way to the darkrooms of the New York Times and later Acme Newspictures (which became United Press International Photos.) After several years as a technician, he began filling in on photographic assignments when other staff photographers were unavailable.
As an immigrant himself, as recorder of the New York scene, the lower classes had his sympathy, the criminal classes his unflinching scrutiny and the upper classes were reflected in a caustic manner. He used any means available to capture what had never been photographed before; first photo-reportage, then concepts of figure and form in what became known as Weegee’s Distortions.
Weegee’s uncanny, unerring instinct often placed him first at the locations where newsworthy events occurred, and led to his self-given nickname of “Weegee” - some say it was meant to refer to the Ouija Board whose powers of divination he seemed to share. Regardless, Weegee didn’t flinch from self-promotion and he soon called himself “Weegee”, adding “The Famous” to his stamp.
In 1937 Weegee bought a car, received a press card and was granted a short-wave police radio. Weegee was the only person in New York outside of the police force who was given access to their radio frequency. This enabled him to be the first photographer at the scene of a crime, sometimes arriving before the police. Serious urban crimes usually took place during the night (when most salaried photographers would not be working) and Weegee was famous for sleeping in his clothes, ready to rush out to the latest scene of crime. He was said to have photographed a murder every night for over ten years.
Weegee The Famous’ abandoned photo-reportage soon after the publication of his book Naked City (1945) which covered the full range of life in the urban metropolis Weegee knew so well. By 1946 he concentrated his full energies on advertising assignments and editorial photographs for Vogue, Holiday, Life, and Fortune. He lived in Hollywood from 1947 to 1952, working as a consultant shooting stills for films, (Dr. Strangelove and others), using kaleidoscopic lenses, mirrors and other distorting techniques. Distortion allowed Weegee to project onto images of, for example, politicians and celebrities how he felt rather than capturing the emotions of the people represented.
Other books followed, Naked City, Naked Hollywood, Weegee on Weegee and Weegee’s Creative Camera.
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