Arthur Fellig (Weegee)

Arthur Fellig (Weegee)

Arthur Fellig was born in Zloczew, Poland, in 1899. When Fellig was eleven his family moved to the United States and they settled in New York City. Arthur's father worked as a pushcart vendor and a janitor in a tenement building.

Fellig left school at fourteen to help support his family. His first job was as an assistant to a commercial photographer. He also obtained extra money by taking street portraits.

In 1918 Fellig was employed as a darkroom technician by Ducket & Adler in Lower Manhattan. This is followed by similar work with Acme Newspictures (later absorbed by United Press International Photos).

In 1935 Fellig left his job as a darkroom technician and attempted to make a living as a freelance photographer. By monitoring police and fire-department radio calls Fellig was able to obtain a large number of dramatic photographs. The ability to be the first photographer on the scene of a major incident, resulted in him being given the nickname, Weegee (a reference to the fortune-teller's Ouija board).

Fellig's photographs appeared in nearly all of New York's newspapers including New York Tribune, New York Post, World-Telegram, Daily News, Journal-American, PM and the New York Sun. In 1941 the Photo League put on an exhibition of his work, Weegee: Murder is My Business.

After the publication of his highly successful book, Naked City (1945). Fellig abandoned crime photos and concentrated on advertising assignments for Life, Vogue, Holiday, Look and Fortune. Other books by Fellig included Weegee People (1946), Naked Hollywood (1953) and Weegee by Weegee (1961). Arthur Fellig died on 26th December, 1968.

Arthur Fellig (Weegee) - History

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You can't talk about New York City crime scene photography without talking about a guy known as "Weegee." The country's first successful freelance tabloid photographer, Arthur "Weegee" Fellig photographed hundreds of crime scenes in the post-Depression, post-Prohibition era in the Big Apple.

Why the name "Weegee"? One guess is his paranormal-like ability to get to a scene before the fuzz:

"His apparent sixth sense for crime often led him to a scene well ahead of the police. Observers likened this sense, actually derived from tuning his radio to the police frequency, to the Ouija board, the popular fortune-telling game. Spelling it phonetically, Fellig took Weegee as his professional name."

Or the nickname might have something to do with his humble origins:

"Weegee got his nickname from back when he was on the lowest rung of the photography lab: the squeegee boy, whose job was to dry the prints before bringing them to the newsroom."

Regardless of how he got the name, it's deeply ironic that such a playful-sounding figure was best known for capturing, in vivid black and white, photographs of fresh corpses strewn throughout New York.

Weegee's pioneering work is indeed still hard to look at today, and is far more gruesome than anything a 21st-century tabloid would run. But it wasn't artless. As David Gonzalez of The New York Times writes, Weegee eschewed the "just-the-facts approach of routine police crime scene photography" to capture "the details and drama, the humor and the horror, along the city’s streets."

The gallery above captures a number of Weegee's photos, along with some taken by other contemporaneous shutterbugs, in addition to crime scene photographs taken in New York City in the decades just after Weegee's grimy reign.

Is there aesthetic value in a collection so grisly? Author Tristan H. Kirvin, for one, writing about an exhibit of New York crime scene photos in the Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, says yes — with an asterisk:

"Another riddle, of course, is whether evidentiary, surveillance, or crime-scene photography is art. While there may be consensus regarding the positive artistic attributes of 'realistic' photography, the pictures . do not largely evince an artist's touch. The poignancy residing in most of them is accidental."

If your curiosity is morbid enough, and your stomach is strong — judge for yourself.

Next, see some of the grisliest mob hits of decades past in New York and beyond. Then, see more of the most compelling photographs ever taken by Weegee.

The J. Paul Getty Museum

(Verso) wet stamp in blue ink, at left center: "WEEGEE / 451 WEST 47th STREET / NEW YORK CITY, U.S.A. / TEL: 265-1955" (sideways) wet stamp in blue-black ink, at right center: "CREDIT PHOTO BY / WEEGEE / THE FAMOUS" (encircled and upside-down).

Alternate Title:

[Their First Murder] (Alternate Title)

Object Type:
Object Description

"A woman relative cried. but neighborhood dead-end kids enjoyed the show when a small-time racketeer was shot and killed," wrote Weegee in the caption accompanying this startling photograph in his 1945 publication Naked City. On the facing page Weegee showed the bloody body lying in the street.

Alternately laughing, staring in disbelief, or looking into the camera to grasp their own momentary chance to be recorded, the children who had witnessed this grisly scene form an unsettling amalgam of human emotion and self-absorption. Two women are among the group: one, whom Weegee mentioned above, stands at the center, her face contorted with anguished tears, her personal loss turned into public spectacle.

Persistent Themes: Notable Photography Acquisitions, 1985-1990 (June 5 to September 2, 1990)
Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee (September 20, 2005 to January 22, 2006)
Crowds and the American Imagination, 1890-2012 (October 17, 2015 to April 4, 2016)

Wallis, Brian. Weegee: Murder is My Business (New York: International Center of Photography, 2012),.

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Education Resources

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Weegee was the great photographer of New York in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, whose book Naked City helped to create the mythology of the city. “I have no inhibitions and neither does my camera…” – Weegee

Arthur Fellig acquired the name Weegee early in his career, a reference to the ouija board and his uncanny ability to arrive quickly at crime scenes – sometimes, even before the police (from 1937, he was the only civilian allowed to install a police radio in his car). Between 1940 and 1944 he worked on a retainer to PM newspaper, free to choose his own stories. He published Naked City in 1945, following it up the next year with Weegee’s People. He was fascinated by celebrity and promoted his own as Weegee the Famous. Naked Hollywood was published in 1953. He died in 1968. In 1981 Side Gallery organised the first UK tour of Weegee’s work, opening up a relationship between Amber and his widow Wilma Wilcox that lasted through until her death in the early 1990s. In 2008, Amber’s Pat McCarthy interviewed Sid Kaplan on Weegee – the celebrated New York photographer and printer had known him and had printed most of the Weegee photographs held in the AmberSide Collection. A transcript of that interview is available here.

For image usage rights please contact International Center of Photography, New York

Sid Kaplan interview

Weegee Collection

Text drawn from Side Gallery archive sources:

Arthur Fellig was born in Austria in 1899. Coming to the USA in 1909, he ended up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Leaving school in 1914 to help support the family, he worked for a time as a street photographer. In 1923 he joined Acme News Services as a darkroom operator. In 1935, he left to work as a freelance photographer. He acquired the name Weegee early on, a reference to the Ouija board and his uncanny ability to arrive quickly at crime scenes – sometimes, even before the police (from 1937, he was the only civilian allowed to install a police radio in his car).

From 1940 to 1944, Weegee worked on a retainer to PM newspaper, free to choose his own stories and making many of his best pictures in this period. 1945 saw an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art and the publication of his best seller Naked City. The following year Weegee’s People was published. Opening up on the stories of New York: its streets, its bars and tenements, its crimes, tragedies and entertainments, he helped to shape urban America’s consciousness of itself, his images defining both the myth and reality of the city. Emerging as a national celebrity, he travelled to Hollywood, lecturing and photographing for Naked Hollywood (1953). He travelled widely and continued to work up until his death in 1968.

Note: In the process of arranging the first major UK exhibition and tour of Weegee’s work in the early 80s, Amber/Side Gallery began a relationship with his widow, Wilma Wilcox. When she died, she gave a major collection of his work to Amber. An A3 booklet exploring Weegee’s life, work and influence, published by Amberside in the 1980s, is available from the website.

Alternative text from Side Gallery archive:

He captured tenement infernos, car crashes, and gangland executions. He found washed-up lounge singers and teenage murder suspects in paddy wagons and photographed them at their most vulnerable – or, as he put it, their most human. He caught couples kissing on their beach blankets on Coney Island and the late-night voyeurs on lifeguard stands watching them. And everywhere he went, he snatched images of people sleeping: drunks on park benches, whole families on Lower East Side fire escapes, men and women snoring in movie theatres. He was the supreme chronicler of the city at night. He was the only shutterbug that would make it to a murder scene before the cops. Weegee loved New York and New York eventually loved Weegee.

Weegee was born June 12, 1899, in Austria, under the name Usher Fellig. Shortly after he was born his father left for America, where he was a Rabbi while saving enough money to send for the rest of his family. At the age of ten, Weegee with his mother and three brothers, finally arrived to America. At Ellis Island, Weegee’s name was changed from Usher to Arthur.

Early Life
As far as education, Weegee made it through the eighth grade. However, the family needed money and Weegee was needed to help work. He worked a lot of odd jobs: he helped his father with a push cart business, he even worked at a candy store for a while. It was when he had his picture taken by a street tintype photographer that he decided that this was what he was meant to do. Weegee often said that he was, ‘a natural-born photographer, with hypo in my blood.’ He quickly ordered a tintype outfit from a Chicago mail-order house, and after a few months he got his first job as a commercial photographer. After a few years he left the studio, due to a disagreement on what he should be paid. He then bought a second-hand 5࡭ view camera and rented a pony from a local stable. He named the pony Hypo, and on the weekends when the kids were in their best clothes, he would walk around town putting kids on his pony and taking their picture. He would then develop the negatives, make prints, and go back to the families of the kids to try to sell them the photos.

Acme Newspictures
At the age of twenty-four, Weegee got his big break working for Acme Newspictures. Acme was the source for stock photos for their own paper and other papers around the country. Weegee started off working in the darkroom, developing other photographers’ work for the paper. Occasionally, when all the other Acme photographers were busy or sleeping, he would get to go out at night and take pictures of emergencies. After a few years of working for Acme, Weegee started to get called to do assignments and cover stories. This was what he always wanted the only problem was that he worked for Acme, and thus, he never got credit for the photos he turned in. In 1935 he got tired of doing other peoples’ work and left Acme to go out and try to free-lance his own work. The girls around Acme gave him the name Weegee after the Ouija board. They said he always seemed to know where to be when a story broke.

Freelance Photographer
Weegee worked on his own as a freelance photographer for the next ten years. He started to work out of Manhattan Police Headquarters he would arrive around midnight and check the Teletype machine to see if any stories had broke. After a few years he decided he didn’t want to wait for the news to come over the Teletype. He bought himself a 1938 Chevy Coupe and a press card, and he was allowed to have a police radio in the car (the only press photographer ever allowed to have a police radio in their car). Weegee’s car was his home away from home, his office on the road. In the trunk he kept everything he would need including a portable dark-room, extra cameras, flash bulbs, extra loaded holders, a typewriter, cigars, salami and a change of clothes.

I was no longer glued to the Teletype machine at police headquarters. I had my wings. I no longer had to wait for crime to come to me I could go after it. The police radio was my life line. My camera… my life and my love… was my Aladdin’s lamp. – Weegee by Weegee, p52

After ten years he published his first book, The Naked City, which was inspired by the city he loved. It was during these ten years that Weegee produced some of his most expressive and beautiful photos.

Photographic Training
Weegee never had any formal photographic training. He had never heard of Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, or even the Museum of Modern Art. The work Weegee did came strictly from his heart. None of his photos were planned his 4 x 5 speed graphic camera was preset at f/16 @ 1/200 of a second, with a focal distance of ten feet. All of his photos were taken at this setting with a flash. What photographic training Weegee may have needed to be a great photographer, he learned as he worked for Acme, or he just taught himself. Style, texture, or even quality of the photography did not matter much to Weegee. He was more concerned with capturing a moment of time on film. He recorded history as it happened. He had only a split second to capture the emotions of an event as they unfolded. A good example of this is the photograph of the Mother and Daughter crying as they watch another daughter and young baby burning to death inside a tenement fire. All that Weegee could really say about this photograph was, I cried when I took this picture.

In 1939, Weegee took a portrait of a mother and her son in Harlem. Even a photograph that Weegee would consider to be a portrait showed an incredible amount of emotion. With a snap of the shutter he told the story of this poor woman. The way he positioned her and her son behind the broken glass is representative of the shattered life she lived. Yet even with despair all around her, she still has a look of hope in her eyes, as if she were saying that she cannot give up. She has a sense of pride as she holds her son. This is the power and gift that Weegee had with a camera.

It is impossible to look at a work by Weegee and not get emotionally involved. That was the whole point to his photographs – he wanted the viewer to get involved. On one of the first stories Weegee had to cover, he was asked to get photos of a kid that was abandoned by its mother. In his autobiography Weegee stated, They (the cops) wanted pictures of the kid, so that the mother, seeing the picture in the papers, might become remorseful and come to claim the child. Weegee was ready to take a smiling picture when the nurse stopped him. The nurse stuck the baby with a pin, the kid started to cry and the nurse said, Now take a shot…This will bring the mother back. – Weegee by Weegee, p56. Luckily for the baby, this did bring the mother back. Weegee had a job to do – this was the way he made a living. He had to make pictures that the newspapers would want to buy, and the newspapers wanted drama.

Being a free-lance photographer was not an easy job during this point in history. Not a lot of people could make it as long as Weegee had. Even when things were going bad, Weegee had good spirits about it. He was always able to find happiness in whatever he was doing. He loved people, he loved photographing people, and he loved being with people. In his work he confronted murder, brutality, children in need, brawls, the homeless, fires and victims. He also confronted people who were happy, lovers, celebrations and the end of the War. Weegee’s work stands on its own – it’s meant to be viewed one at a time, not as a group. With each shot, Weegee captured a truth that can never be recreated.

Weegee died of a brain tumour on December 26, 1968. Today Weegee is credited with ushering in the age of tabloid culture, while at the same time being revered for elevating the sordid side of human life to that of high art.

Arthur Fellig (Weegee) - History

(based on "20th Century Photography-Museum Ludwig Cologne")

Weegee /Arthur Fellig/

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig (June 12, 1899 - December 26, 1968), an American photographer and photojournalist, known for his stark black and white street photography.
Weegee was born Usher Fellig in Złoczew, near Lemberg, Austrian-Galicia (later known as Złoczów, Poland, and now Zolochiv, Ukraine). His name was changed to Arthur when he came with his family to live in New York in 1909, fleeing anti-semitism.
Fellig's nickname was a phonetic rendering of Ouija, due to his frequent arrival at scenes only minutes after crimes, fires or other emergencies were reported to authorities. He is variously said to have named himself Weegee, or to have been named by either the girls at Acme or by a police officer.
He is best known as a candid news photographer whose stark black-and-white shots documented street life in New York City. Weegee's photos of crime scenes, car-wreck victims in pools of their own blood, overcrowded urban beaches and various grotesques are still shocking, though some, like the juxtaposition of society grandes dames in ermines and tiaras and a glowering street woman at the Metropolitan Opera (The Critic, 1943), turned out to have been staged.
In 1938, Fellig was the only New York newspaper reporter with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. He maintained a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car, to expedite getting his free-lance product to the newspapers. Weegee worked mostly at night he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene.
Most of his notable photographs were taken with very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16, @ 1/200 of a second with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. He had no formal photographic training but was a self-taught photographer and relentless self-promoter. He is sometimes said not to have had any knowledge of the New York art photography scene but in 1943 the Museum of Modern Art included several of his photos in an exhibition. He was later included in another MoMA show organized by Edward Steichen, and he lectured at the New School for Social Research. He also undertook advertising and editorial assignments for Life and Vogue magazines, among others.
His acclaimed first book collection of photographs, Naked City (1945), became the inspiration for a major 1948 movie The Naked City, and later the title of a pioneering realistic television police drama series and a band led by the New York experimental musician John Zorn.
Weegee also made short 16mm films beginning in 1941 and worked with and in Hollywood from 1946 to the early 1960s, both as an actor and a consultant. He was an uncredited special effects consultant and credited still 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 60s, Weegee experimented with panoramic photographs, photo distortions and photography through prisms. 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 "Weegee" in the film's opening credits. He also traveled widely in Europe in the 1960s, and took advantage of the liberal atmosphere in Europe to photograph nude subjects.

Their First Murder (1941)


Summer, The Lower East Side, 1937



The Gay Deceiver, 1939


Simply Add Boiling Water

Heatspell, 1938

Crowd at Coney Island, 1940

Two Offenders in the Paddy Wagon.

New Year's Eve at Sammy's-on -the-Bowery, 1943

The Critic, 1943

Woman with Broken Umbrella

Easter Sunday in Harlem, 1940

Entertainers at Sammy's-on-the-Bowery

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Weegee the Famous, the Voyeur and Exhibitionist

The street photographer turned gritty, grisly New York scenes into art.

Photography, at its mid-nineteenth-century beginning, muscled in on painting one precinct at a time. Portraiture, of a solemn, straight-on sort, suggested itself immediately. Its hold-still composition, simple and traditional, met a mechanical necessity of the new art: early studio photographers, at the mercy of long-duration exposure, often steadied the backs of their subjects’ heads with clamps unseen by camera or viewer. Landscapes held still on their own if the wind didn’t blow, so Gustave Le Gray could become an automated Poussin, while Mathew Brady strained to click his way past Gilbert Stuart. History painting—crowded, violent, declamatory—had to postpone its photographic update until smaller cameras made picture-taking portable and fleet. But genre painting, with its casual assemblages of ordinary life, stood ready early on to be appropriated by the new medium.

In “Bystander” (Laurence King), a newly updated history of street photography, Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz point out the genre’s early inclination toward “humble people as subjects.” Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard’s “Photographic Album for the Artist and the Amateur” (1851) and John Thomson’s “Street Life in London” (1877) put images of chimney sweeps and millers in front of well-off viewers who could regard them with curiosity and concern: “Unlettered, uncomplicated people were felt to preserve an otherwise lost capacity for sincerity for which modern artists and intellectuals yearned.” Early in the twentieth century, as photography’s documentary capacities turned reformist in the hands of Jacob Riis and Paul Strand, it was still, as Riis’s famous title showed, a matter of “the other half” being viewed by those perched far above.

Only when tabloid newspapers went into mass circulation after the First World War, Westerbeck and Meyerowitz argue, did those “humble people” become the audience as well as the subject matter. More than anyone else, it was Arthur Fellig, self-insistently known as Weegee the Famous, whose “photographs of the poor were made—at least, originally—for the poor themselves.” The New Yorkers Weegee photographed—especially those caught up in sudden calamities of crime and fire—obtained a kind of fame that lasted not fifteen minutes but more like fifteen hours, until the next morning’s edition swept away the previous afternoon’s.

For decades, Weegee has been collected as art, thus restoring some of the original other-half dynamic between viewer and image. Coffee-table books of his work abound: “Unknown Weegee” (2006), produced for an exhibition at the International Center of Photography, is the least hefty and best arranged “Weegee’s New York: Photographs 1935-1960” (1982) is the grittiest. These have recently been joined by “Extra! Weegee!” (Hirmer), which contains nearly four hundred photographs, alongside the original, often exuberant, captions affixed by Acme Newspictures, the agency through which Weegee sold them. But there has been no complete biography of the photographer. Now Christopher Bonanos’s “Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous” (Holt) has displaced a host of fragmentary recollections and the loudmouthed, unreliable memoir, “Weegee by Weegee,” published in 1961.

Usher Fellig was born into a family of Galician Jews in 1899. He became Arthur sometime after arriving on the Lower East Side, ten years later. According to Bonanos, his “sense of family” was so “minimal” that he miscounted his own siblings in that memoir. The Felligs joined the tenement dwellers who would soon constitute much of Arthur’s subject matter.

His coup de foudre came, he later recalled, before he left school, in the seventh grade: “I had had my picture taken by a street tintype photographer, and had been fascinated by the result. I think I was what you might call a ‘natural-born’ photographer, with hypo—the chemicals used in the darkroom—in my blood.” He acquired a mail-order tintype-making kit, and later got himself hired, at fifteen, to take pictures for insurance companies and mail-order catalogues. He bought a pony on which to pose street urchins whose parents were willing to pay for images that made their offspring look like little grandees. (The pony, which he named Hypo, ate too much and was repossessed.) During the early nineteen-twenties, Fellig worked in the darkrooms of the Times and Acme Newspictures, sleeping in the Acme offices when he couldn’t make his rent. He kept the agency’s photographers ahead of the competition by learning to develop pictures on the subway, just after they’d been shot. By 1925, Acme was letting him take photographs, albeit uncredited, of his own.

Bonanos describes the Speed Graphic camera—even now, still part of the Daily News logo—as being “tough as anything, built mostly from machined aluminum and steel.” It was the only press credential Fellig needed at murders and fires, where, after leaving Acme, in 1934, he continued to show up with a manic freelancing zeal. A couple of years later, he was living in a room at 5 Centre Market Place, with no hot water but with a handful of books, among them “Live Alone and Like It” and “The Sex Life of the Unmarried Adult.” He decorated the place with his own published photographs—“like taxidermied heads on a hunter’s wall,” as Bonanos puts it. He got to the nighttime action so fast that he developed (and encouraged) a reputation for being psychic. Bonanos shows that Weegee’s success had more to do with persistence than with telepathy a bell connected the photographer’s room to the Fire Department’s alarms, and he got permission to install a police radio in his ’38 Chevrolet. However much Weegee wanted people to believe that his professional moniker came from being recognized as a human Ouija board, it in fact derived from his early drudgery as a squeegee boy—a dryer of just developed prints—in the Times’ darkroom.

Bonanos, the city editor of New York magazine, stacks up the “nine dailies” that chronicled the metropolis between the two World Wars. The Times was “prim about bloodshed, more interested in Berlin than in Bensonhurst,” and the Herald-Tribune wanted photographers to show up for assignments wearing ties. Neither employed Weegee regularly, and although the tabloids ran on visuals, his real bread and butter came from the afternoon broadsheets, especially the Post, then full-sized and liberal but just as “lousy at making money” as it is today. The World-Telegram was the first to give Weegee the individual credit lines he was soon commanding from everyone else. Bonanos resurrects the inky roar of this world with a fine, nervy lip: Weegee’s murder pictures broke through not because of their “binary quality of life and death” or their “technical felicity . . . with angles and shadow play” but mostly because their sprawled, bleeding, well-hatted and finely shod gangsters made them “more fun” than all the others.

Bonanos also proves himself resourceful, tracking down a rubbernecking seven-year-old whom Weegee photographed after a murder in 1939, as well as a toddler who appeared in a Coney Island crowd scene the following year. Readers will want to keep their Weegee collections on the coffee table Bonanos describes more pictures than his publisher could reasonably reproduce, even in a book that occasionally becomes relentless and replete, like a contact sheet instead of a selected print. But Weegee and his world don’t encourage minimalism, and, fifty years after his death, he has at last acquired a biographer who can keep up with him.

Weegee’s frantic pace was a matter of economic and temperamental need. No matter how fast he might be on his feet, the job required a lot of waiting around between catastrophes, and car-wreck pictures paid only two dollars and fifty cents apiece. “Naked City,” Weegee’s immortally titled first book of photographs, published in 1945, reproduces a Time Inc. check stub that records a thirty-five-dollar payment for “two murders.” Bonanos captured the variation and the intensity of it all in a “tally of unrest” from April, 1937. Over three days, New York provided Weegee with a felonious repast: a hammer murder, an arson fire, a truck accident, a brawl by followers of Harlem’s Father Divine, and the booking of a young female embezzler.

During the forties, the short-lived, liberal, and picture-laden PM, which Bonanos sizes up as an “inconsistent and often late-to-the story but pretty good newspaper,” put Weegee on retainer and made his pictures pop, bringing out their details and sharpening their lines through “an innovative process involving heated ink and chilled paper.” His first exhibition, in 1941, at the Photo League’s gallery, on East Twenty-first Street, garnered good reviews. Its title, “Murder Is My Business,” was a noirish bit of self-advertisement destined to be overtaken by events: thanks to rackets-busting and a male-draining World War, New York was headed for a prolonged plunge in the rate of local killings.

Weegee liked being known as “the official photographer for Murder Inc.,” but his gangland pictures lack the pity and fear—as well as concupiscence—that his camera extracted from people committing crimes of passion and sheer stupidity. In the summer of 1936, he made a splash with photographs of the teen-age Gladys MacKnight and her boyfriend after their arrest for the hatchet murder of Gladys’s disapproving mother. In one of the pictures, the adolescent couple look calm and a little sullen, as if they’d been grounded, not booked for capital murder. Weegee displays a discernible compassion toward the panicked chagrin of Robert Joyce, a Dodgers lover who shot and killed two Giants fans when he was loaded with eighteen beers his face reaches us through Weegee’s lens as he’s sobering up, beside a policeman, his eyes wide with the realization of what he’s done. Weegee never got his wish to shoot a murder as it was happening, but his real gift was for photographing targets after they’d ripened into corpses. He “often remarked,” Bonanos notes, “that he took pains to make the dead look like they were just taking a little nap.”

Weegee’s pictures are full of actual sleepers—along with those coöperatively feigning slumber for the camera—in bars and doorways, atop benches and cardboard boxes, in limousines and toilet stalls, at Bowery missions or backstage. He became to shut-eye what Edward Weston was to peppers and Philippe Halsman would be to jumping. Even his photographs of mannequins, another frequent subject, seem to evince a fascination with, and perhaps a yearning for, rest. The dummies don’t so much appear inanimate as etherized, ready to rejoin the urban rat race once they’ve gotten forty winks.

The voyeur was also an exhibitionist. Weegee sometimes surrendered his camera so that he could inhabit a shot instead of creating it. That’s him next to an open trunk with a corpse, and there he is dressed as a clown, photographing from a ring of the circus. In 1937, Life commissioned him to do a photo-essay about a police station’s booking process. He turned it into a feature about a crime photographer: him. His grandiosity grew with the years, despite, or because of, his self-diagnosed “great inferiority complex.” He took credit for helping to make Fiorello LaGuardia famous (never mind that LaGuardia was already mayor), and wrote in his memoir that he and the gossip columnist Walter Winchell “had a lot of fun together, chasing stories in the night.” The index to Neal Gabler’s stout biography of Winchell yields no mention of Weegee.

In his début show, at the Photo League, Weegee exhibited a supremely affecting picture of a mother and daughter weeping for two family members who are trapped inside a burning tenement, and titled it “Roast.” A few years later, for “Naked City,” the book of photographs that forever secured his reputation, Weegee renamed the image “I Cried When I Took This Picture.” Cynthia Young, a curator at the I.C.P., has written that the retitled photograph became “a new kind of self-portrait, making the photographer part of the subject of the picture,” though she points out that some of the Photo League’s left-leaning members had disliked the original label. Did Weegee really cry? Colin Westerbeck once commented, “No, Weegee, you didn’t. You took that picture instead of crying.” The truth about the retitling lies not somewhere in between but at both poles. The man who once said, “My idea was to make the camera human,” experienced emotion at the fire then crafted a sick joke about it then, later still, realized that the image would go over better with sobs than with smart-assedness. Take away the question of intention and the picture one is left with remains, indisputably, a moment cut from life with a tender shiv.

The secret of Weegee’s photography—and the M.O. of his coarse life—was an ability to operate as both the giver and the getter of attention. Weegee didn’t learn to drive until the mid-nineteen-thirties, and before getting his license he relied on a teen-age driver, who took him not only to breaking news but also to his favorite brothel, in the West Seventies. The madam there, named May, “had peepholes in the wall,” and she and Weegee would watch the boy chauffeur perform in the next room. Weegee excised this last detail from the manuscript of his memoir, but merely to save the driver from embarrassment. In the early forties, he carried his infrared camera into dark movie theatres to photograph couples who were necking, and then sold the credited images. He also took some remarkable pictures of people in drag under arrest. In these images, the voyeur in Weegee seems overwhelmed by a respectful solidarity with his subjects’ defiant display. In his memoir, he writes about getting “a telegram from a men’s magazine they wanted pictures of abnormal fellows who liked to dress in women’s clothes. I would call that editor and tell him that what was abnormal to him was normal to me.”

Weegee liked to say that he was looking for “a girl with a healthy body and a sick mind.” The two most important women in his history were unlikely candidates for extended involvement. Throughout the early and mid-nineteen-forties, Wilma Wilcox, a South Dakotan studying for a master’s in social work at Columbia, provided Weegee with the non-clingy company he preferred what Bonanos calls “her mix of social-worker patience and prairie sturdiness” allowed her to survive his “erratic affection.” In 1947, he married a woman named Margaret Atwood, a prosperous widow whom he had met at a book signing for “Weegee’s People,” a follow-up to “Naked City.” The marriage lasted a few years. Weegee pawned his wedding ring in lieu of getting a divorce.

The voyeur-exhibitionist dynamic reached its peak when Weegee was, in Bonanos’s phrase, “watching the watchers”—an interest that grew over time. His pictures of people observing crime, accident, and even happy spectacle extended what Westerbeck and Meyerowitz see as street photography’s long tradition of memorializing the crowd instead of the parade. In 2007, the New York State Supreme Court affirmed the street photographer’s right to take pictures of people in public, something that had never much worried Weegee. “Poor people are not fussy about privacy,” he declared. “They have other problems.”

Weegee made three of his greatest views of viewers between 1939 and 1941. The first of them shows people neatly arranged in the windows of a Prince Street apartment building, looking out into the night as cheerfully as if they’d just been revealed from behind the little paper flaps of an Advent calendar. Below them, in the doorway of a café, is what’s brought them to the windows: a corpse claimed by the Mob and a handful of well-dressed police detectives. “Balcony Seats at a Murder” ran in Life, portraying harmless, guilt-free excitement, a carnival inversion of what a generation later might have been recorded at Kitty Genovese’s murder.

In the summer of 1940, Weegee captured a cluster of beachgoers observing an effort to resuscitate a drowned swimmer. The focus of the picture is a pretty young woman, the person most preoccupied with the camera, the only one giving it a big smile. She doesn’t disgust the viewer she pleases, with her longing to be noticed, and her delighted realization that she, at least, is breathing. She’s the life force, in all its wicked gaiety.

“Dr. Eliot, would you let the dog out?”

The following year, Weegee made the best of his gawker studies, a picture prompted by what Bonanos identifies as “a small-time murder at the corner of North Sixth and Roebling Streets,” in Williamsburg. In it, more than a dozen people, most of them children, exhibit everything from fright to squealing relish. “Extra! Weegee!” reveals that the Acme caption for this kinetic tableau was “Who Said People Are All Alike?,” which Weegee, with his taste for the body blow, changed to “Their First Murder.” The killing that’s taken place is merely the big bang the faces, each a vivid record of the ripple effects of crime, become the real drama.

“I have no time for messages in my pictures. That’s for Western Union,” Weegee said, swiping Samuel Goldwyn’s line. But once in a while he made a photograph with clear political intent, such as the one of Joe McWilliams, a fascistic 1940 congressional candidate shown looking at, and like, a horse’s ass. There’s also the image of a black mother holding a small child behind the shattered glass of their front door, smashed by toughs who didn’t want them moving into Washington Heights. Most deliberately, Weegee made a series of car-wreck pictures at a spot on the Henry Hudson Parkway where the off-ramp badly needed some fencing he was proud that their publication helped get a barrier installed.

In a foreword to “Naked City,” William McCleery, a PM editor, detected a crusading impulse in Weegee’s picture of poor children escaping a New York heat wave: “You don’t want those kids to go on sleeping on that fire escape forever, do you?” Bonanos, too, thinks this photograph was made and received with indignation, but the image has always been more picturesque than disturbing. (Weegee almost certainly posed the children and told them to keep their eyes shut.) Still, Weegee often exhibited an immigrant’s pride—Bonanos calls him a “proud Jew”—that can be seen as broadly political. One looks at the pictures he made in Chinatown and Little Italy toward the end of the war, full of American flags and patriotic embraces, and senses his appreciation of the eclectic energies at play in the city, along with a feeling that the old tenement world was ready to take a fine leap toward something better.

Arthur Fellig (Weegee) - History

(b Zloczew, Austria [now Poland], 12 June 1899 d New York, 26 Dec 1968).

American photographer of Austrian birth. He emigrated to the USA in 1910 and took numerous odd jobs, including working as an itinerant photographer and as an assistant to a commercial photographer. In 1924 he was hired as a dark-room technician by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International Photos). He left, however, in 1935 to become a freelance photographer. 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. It was at this time that he earned the name Weegee (appropriated from the Ouija board) for his uncanny ability to make such early appearances at scenes of violence and catastrophe.

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How Arthur Felig Became the Legendary Street Photographer Weegee

“I keep to myself, belong to no group,” Weegee once wrote, and it was true that he remained an odd-shaped peg that fit in few holes. Despite his eagerness to talk about taking pictures, he never joined the New York Press Photographers Association, as nearly all his colleagues did. Nonetheless, in the early 1940s, he did sidle his way into the fringes of one club, perhaps because it was so thoroughly devoted to the nuts and bolts and art and craft of photography.

The Workers Film and Photo League had gotten its start in New York around 1930, an outpost of a leftist photographers’ and filmmakers’ association in Berlin. In 1936, the American group split in two, and the half devoted to nonmoving pictures renamed itself the Photo League and rented a floor at 31 East 21st Street. There, one flight up from an upholstery shop, it became one of the very few places in the United States focusing on documentary photography—distinct from press photography because it was concerned with recording everyday life more than particular events—and especially documentary photography as art.

The Photo League’s main force was a big, intense fellow named Sid Grossman. He edited its journal, served as director, and coached and taught (and often harangued) younger photographers to make their pictures more honest and substantial. Serious photography was a small town at the time, and he got a lot of help from people who are now known as great talents of their generation: Berenice Abbott, Ralph Steiner, Walter Rosenblum, Aaron Siskind, W. Eugene Smith. The place also had its share of dilettantes and hangers-on, people who, as up-and-comer Arthur Leipzig later recalled, “just liked being there. Sometimes there’d be a speaker who’d come in and talk, and we enjoyed that. Other times there was a lot of garbage.”

When Weegee started dropping by the gallery on 21st Street, at first he would just sit in the back and listen to the other photographers talk. Given the extroverted stances some of them exhibited, there was plenty to hear. The group’s worldview was colored by the members’ politics, which were generally socialist leaning toward Communist. Many of the League’s members, such as Leipzig and Rosenblum, were the children of working-class or middle-class Jews from Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Nearly all strived for their work to inspire social reforms, but instead of going to the Dust Bowl to send pictures back to Life, most of the men and women of the Photo League did it at home, among the first-generation Americans they knew.

Grossman made notable pictures of the labor movement. Others photographed streetscapes, tenement life, poor and working-class kids, and scenes from Jewish and Italian and African American ghettos. The League’s front room on 21st Street was a gallery where shows of this work could be hung and lectures delivered, with darkrooms built down the side, where the photographers could process their work. It was a contentious but congenial clubhouse for energetic people whose hands smelled like hypo.

Starting in mid-1941, Weegee became a dues-paying member of the Photo League, but he never quite became an insider. “He never was very close to them,” Wilcox later explained. “He was a loner—he knew them, they knew him, but he was different. They knew that he kept to himself.” Unlike most of the group, he was not (explicitly) devoted to social-justice commentary he was shooting to sell as well as to inform. The Photo League’s members tended to intellectualize their work. And even though his photographs consistently reflected many of the League’s activist ideals, he was (perhaps owing to his lack of formal education, perhaps to his streetwise cynicism) suspicious, even dismissive, of those who claimed they were doing something for the greater good.

“Messages?” he once told his friend Peter Martin. “I have no time for messages in my pictures. That’s for Western Union and the Salvation Army. I take a picture of a dozen sleeping slum kids curled up on a fire escape on a hot summer night. Maybe I like the crazy situation, or the way they look like a litter of new puppies crammed together like that, or maybe it just fits with a series of sleeping people I’m doing. But 12 out of 13 people looked at the picture and told me I’d really got a message in that one, and that it had social overtones.”

The Photo League became one of the very few places in the United States focusing on documentary photography.

The social aspect of the Photo League led to networking as well as flirtation, of course. In the spring of 1940, the talk of the New York press world was a new newspaper that was meant to overturn just about every conventional approach to the business. Ralph McAllister Ingersoll, the strong-willed and patrician editor who had helped launch Henry Luce’s Fortune and Life, had been thinking for a couple of decades about everything that was wrong with the press and how he might start anew.

He had, the previous year, taken an open-ended leave from his role as general manager of Time Inc. to get his idea going, and his connections had helped him raise a great deal of start-up capital. One of the biggest investors was Marshall Field III, the department store heir, and the rest of the list included a lot of household names: Wrigley, Whitney, Schuster, Gimbel. There was so much interest that Ingersoll said he ended up turning down a million dollars’ worth of investments, a move he would regret later.

Ingersoll saw an underserved readership: New Yorkers who wanted a leftist newspaper that was smart about international and domestic affairs (like the Times) but that also embraced powerful photography (like the tabloids and Life and its competitor Look) and sharp, voicey writing, especially opinion writing (as in the Herald Tribune but from the opposite side of the aisle). The general idea was to do a tabloid for the highest common denominator rather than the lowest, and Ingersoll thought he could peel off “the most intelligent million of the three million who now read the Daily News and the Daily Mirror.” His prospectus, widely quoted and reprinted multiple times in the paper itself, put forth the memorable line “We are against people who push other people around, just for the fun of pushing, whether they flourish in this country or abroad.”

PM was to be a liberal but not radical paper, pro-Roosevelt, pro-union, pro-New Deal, and anti-anti-Semitic. From the beginning, it was loudly critical of fascism and especially the Nazis. It was supposed to be not just factually solid and journalistically sound but emotionally engaging. It was to be readable, more like a magazine than a newspaper, eschewing the clutter and chaos of most tabloids’ pages. It would have no ads, and to make up the difference, it would cost a nickel at the newsstand instead of the other papers’ two or three cents. Most of all, Ingersoll said, “Over half PM’s space will be filled with pictures—because PM will use pictures not simply to illustrate stories, but to tell them. Thus, the tabloids notwithstanding, PM is actually the first picture paper under the sun.”

PM did look like a genuinely promising paper, and Ingersoll was apparently deluged with employment applications from idealistic young reporters. Weegee, by contrast, didn’t chase a job instead, he said, he waited for them to come to him. The photo editor hired to help launch PM was William McCleery, who had worked at the AP and at Life, and thus was sure to have known Weegee’s work and growing reputation. And what McCleery and Ingersoll had to offer him was significant: instead of suppressing its contributors’ styles and credits in favor of an institutional voice, PM was going to go the opposite way and try to showcase the individual personality of everyone who worked there. Not only would photos carry their makers’ names there would be substantial captions that would sometimes make an attempt to show how the news had been gathered and made. If you did great stuff for PM, everyone would know youhad done it.

Weegee made a deal with PM that was mutually beneficial: he would bring them his work first, on no fixed schedule, and they’d put him on a retainer of $75 dollars per week. That was upper-middle-class money for a single man in 1940, nearly as much as he’d been making as a freelance. For the first time in his freelance life, Weegee would have a guaranteed steady income, and a good one at that. He would also be able to keep selling his work to Acme and the other syndication services and to any magazines that came calling. PM would merely get first crack at his take.

At PM, Weegee was, for the first time, top dog, one of two established talents on the team, the other being the already legendary Margaret Bourke-White. Brilliant and glamorous, and paid triple what Weegee was getting, she still didn’t last in the job. She was far too obsessive and perfectionistic an artist to deal with newspaper work. She’d be sent out to document some corner of Hell’s Kitchen or Brownsville, and would come back with hundreds of not-yet-processed negatives an hour before her press deadline. She washed out and went back to magazines within the year.

Once she left, Weegee became the ace of the photo department. It may have irritated his colleagues, but Weegee’s rough-edged garrulousness got him places. On one of his first days at the PM offices, possibly even before he signed on, he was cracking wise to a colleague about something he’d seen, and Ingersoll overheard him.

The editor recognized Weegee’s voice for what it was—funny, distinctive, New Yorky, exactly what he wanted in his paper. Indeed: the man had, even before PM was officially open for business, found his audience and his conduit to it. His photo-gearhead interests, his unique voice, his shticky sense of humor, his view of proletarian New York, his photographic ambitions, even (in the form of that pastrami sandwich) his Lower East Side Jewishness—all of it fit into PM’s editorial ethos.

The paper itself was a half success, its strengths and weaknesses alike bound up in Ingersoll’s arrogance toward his competitors. Readers had expected a transformative media experience from PM, and what they got instead was an inconsistent and often late-to-the-story but pretty good newspaper whose reach, editorial and otherwise, exceeded its grasp. (In just one of many gaffes, the circulation department accidentally lost the entire list of paid-up charter subscribers, and those readers never got their papers.) Yet although the writing and editing were uneven, Weegee, Haberman, Fisher, and their colleagues hit their targets a very high percentage of the time. Almost every edition contained at least a couple of great photographs.

The closest Weegee ever came to explicit activism was probably a set of photographs he made in July 1940. He (or perhaps an observant policeman or editor) had begun to notice a striking number of car crashes on the Henry Hudson Parkway, the elevated highway along the western edge of Manhattan, right by the 72nd Street on-ramp. Over the preceding year, he had collected a horrifying set of photographs of twisted cars, over and over, every one at the same spot.

In fifteen months, ten cars had crashed, four people had been killed, and nineteen had been hurt. This was classic outrage reporting, a small-bore version of what the radical investigative journalist I. F. Stone did, but instead of gleaning facts and figures from public records Weegee did it with a camera and patience. (He wasn’t always so patient. Weegee once delivered a similar story to the Post as well, and for that one, he had come up with 11 wreck photos on the streets, then padded out the total to a baker’s dozen by visiting an auto junkyard.)

This time, at least, it worked. The city undertook a traffic study, and a few months later guardrails went up and the curb was rebuilt. PM took credit for it, reproducing its page from the previous summer with a new photo of the reconstructed intersection. It was a small victory, but Weegee was proud of the result. “This work,” he later wrote proudly, “I consider my memorial.”

From Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous . Used with the permission of the publisher, Picador. Copyright © 2019 by Christopher Bonanos.

Arthur Fellig had a sharp eye for the unfairness of life. An Austrian immigrant who grew up on the gritty streets of New York City’s Lower East Side, Fellig became known as Weegee—a phonetic take on Ouija—for his preternatural ability to get the right photo. Often these were film-noirish images of crime, tragedy and the denizens of nocturnal New York. In 1943, Weegee turned his Speed Graphic camera’s blinding flash on the social and economic inequalities that lingered after the Great Depression. Not averse to orchestrating a shot, he dispatched his assistant, Louie Liotta, to a Bowery dive in search of an in­ebriated woman. He found a willing subject and took her to the Metropolitan Opera House for its Diamond Jubilee celebration. Then Liotta set her up near the entrance while Weegee watched for the arrival of Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Lady Decies, two wealthy women who regularly graced society columns. When the tiara- and fur-bedecked socialites arrived for the opera, Weegee gave Liotta the signal to spring the drunk woman. “It was like an explosion,” Liotta recalled. “I thought I went blind from the three or four flash exposures.” With that flash, Weegee captured the stark juxtaposition of fabulous wealth and dire poverty, in a gotcha style that anticipated the commercial appeal of paparazzi decades later. The photo appeared in life under the headline “The Fashionable People,” and the piece let readers know how the women’s “entry was viewed with distaste by a spectator.” That The Critic was later revealed to have been staged did little to dampen its influence.

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Arthur Fellig (Weegee) - History

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Arthur “Weegee” Fellig, Photographer

Ascher “Arthur” Fellig was born on June 12, 1899 in Lemberg, Austria (later Zloczew, Poland, and now Ukraine). At the age of 10, his family moved to New York, and when he had his picture taken by a street photographer as a teen, he stumbled upon his future profession and lifelong profession. He quit school when he was 14 and became a freelancer for various New York publications and the Acme news agency. He developed an early reputation as an ‘ambulance chaser,’ and his innate ability to scoop his competitors apparently led to his nickname ‘Weegee,’ a colloquial reference to the Ouija board.

While freelancing, Mr. Fellig learned the challenges of news photography, having to prepare magnesium powder to produce a nighttime flash. No scene was too gruesome for his lens, and graphic crime scenes became his specialty. He began using the durable 4x5” Speed Graphic one-shot camera equipped with an automatic flash, two shutters, and three viewfinders. Mr. Fellig later observed, “If you are puzzled about the kind of camera to buy, get a Speed Graphic… it is a good camera and moreover, it is standard equipment for all press photographers… with a camera like that the cops will assume that you belong on the scene and will let you get beyond police lines.”

From 1935 to 1947, Mr. Fellig worked for several New York publications and news outlets, including the New York Post, the Herald Tribune, and Vogue. When ‘Weegee’ was on the scene of a crime or accident, his photographs in and of themselves generated memorable headlines. His fellow photographers struggled mightily to keep up his frantic pace, but none succeeded. He knew police officers by name, and they would give him valuable tips. He would also frequent tenement areas and interact with derelicts, incorporating the settings and their inhabitants into his photos. There was a grittiness associated with Mr. Fellig’s images that transported a local crime scene into a nationally reported event. If ‘Weegee’ was there, it was newsworthy.

By 1946, he was a lecturer at the New School for Social Research, and participated in curator Edward Steichen’s exhibition, “50 Photographs by 50 Photographers” at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1947, he moved to Hollywood, where his photographs chronicled celebrity nightlife. Mr. Fellig authored several books during this period, including Naked City (1945), Weegee’s People (1946), and Naked Hollywood (1947). Throughout the 1950s, his handmade lenses were manipulated to transform cultural icons into macabre distortions. Mr. Fellig’s unique photographic style lent itself well to film noir, and he served as a still photographer and technical consultant for a string of films.

Arthur Fellig, age 69, died of a brain tumor on December 26, 1968. His collections are currently housed within New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art in Great Britain. A 1992 film, The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci, was a fictionalized account of Mr. Fellig’s life and career.

2004 Strange Days, Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era by Larry Millett (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press), p. 5.

2018 Weegee (Arthur Fellig): The J. Paul Getty Museum (URL:

2018 Weegee (Arthur Fellig): Museum of Contemporary Photography (URL:

2018 Weegee (URL:

2008 Weegee and Naked City by Anthony W. Lee, Richard Meyer (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 16, 20.

2018 Weegee the Famous: The Master of Down-and-Dirty Street Photography (URL:

2004 Strange Days, Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era by Larry Millett (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press), p. 5.

2018 Weegee (Arthur Fellig): The J. Paul Getty Museum (URL:

2018 Weegee (Arthur Fellig): Museum of Contemporary Photography (URL:

2018 Weegee (URL:

2008 Weegee and Naked City by Anthony W. Lee, Richard Meyer (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 16, 20.

Watch the video: 76 Photos by Weegee in New York and Chicago