Biography: Weegee

Photo by Weegee

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Weegee-International Center of Photography.jpg
Ascher (Usher) Fellig

June 12, 1899

Died December 26, 1968 (aged 69)

Other names Arthur Fellig
Occupation Photographer
Known for Street photography of crime scenes or emergencies

Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur (Usher) Fellig (June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), a photographer and photojournalist, known for his stark black and white street photography.[1] Weegee worked in ManhattanNew York City‘s Lower East Side, as a press photographer during the 1930s and 1940s, and he developed his signature style by following the city’s emergency services and documenting their activity.[2] 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 anglicized to Usher) Fellig in Złoczów (now ZolochivUkraine), near Lemberg in Austrian Galicia. His given name was changed to Arthur when he emigrated with his family to New York in 1909. There he took numerous odd jobs, including working as a street photographer of children on his pony[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] His photographs, centered around Manhattan police headquarters, were soon published by the Herald TribuneWorld-TelegramDaily NewsNew York PostNew York Journal AmericanSun, and others.[citation needed]

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.[6] He traveled extensively in Europe until 1964, working for the London Daily Mirror and on a variety of photography, film, lecture, and book projects.[7] On December 26, 1968, Weegee died in New York at the age of 69.[8]


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”.[9] 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.[9][2]

Photographic career

Photographic technique

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.[10] He was a self-taught photographer with no formal training.[11] He is often said—incorrectly—to have developed his photographs in a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car.[12] 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.[13]

Weegee is spuriously credited for answering “f/8 and be there” when asked about his photographic technique.[14] Whether or not he actually said it, the saying has become so widespread in photographic circles as to have become a cliché.[15][16]

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.[17][18]

Late 1930s to mid-1940s

Weegee’s rubber stamp for signing his pictures

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.[19]

Five of his photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 1943. These works were included in its exhibition Action Photography.[20] He was later included in “50 Photographs by 50 Photographers”, another MoMA show organized by photographer Edward Steichen,[20] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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.[citation needed]

According to the commentary by director Robert Wise, Weegee appeared in the 1949 film The Set-Up, ringing the bell at the boxing match.[citation needed]

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[22] 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.[22]

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.[23] 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.[citation needed]

In 1962[24], Weegee starred as himself in a “Nudie Cutie” exploitation film, intended to be a pseudo-documentary of his life. Called The ‘Imp’probable Mr. Wee Gee, 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.[25]

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