Arthur Fellig was born in what was Austria in 1899 and is the Ukraine now. His family moved to New York in 1909 and there Fellig invented a whole new kind of photojournalism. Fellig got his nickname, “Weegee” from the ouija board. He had a sense about crime that was a combination of luck and looking for stories–hanging out at the police station, following emergency services, going out into the city on his own. As Weegee, he created some of the most compelling photographs and told some of the most gripping stories of New York City. He took photos added his own captions and sold his work to most of the papers in the city.
In his own words, he invented his job.
This is the most wonderful experience for any man or woman to go through. It’s like a modern Aladdin’s lamp—you rub it, in this case it’s a camera. You push a button and it gives you the things you want. News photography teaches to think fast, to be sure of yourself, self-confidence. When you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You’ve got to get it. I have found covering stories as they happen . . . 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. In other words, 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. I covered all kinds of stories from Murder Incorporated to the opening of the opera to a Cinderella Ball at the Waldorf. In other words, you take everything in its stride. The same camera that photographs a murder scene can photograph a beautiful society affair in a big hotel.
You can see Weegee, there in the shadows behind Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler (2014). But unlike Lou, who was all about the body. Weegee saw power in a shot that didn’t just include a body or a victim. He saw power in the drama all around. From the same story at Bomb:
I try to humanize the news story. Of course I ran into snags with the dopey editors. If it was a fire, they’d say, “Where’s the burning building?” I says, “Look, they all look alike.” I says, “Look, here’s the people affected by the burning building.” Well, some understood it and some didn’t.
Incidentally, you can listen to a recording of his discussion of news photography above, with some of his pictures, here. The Museum of Modern Art has a collection of his photographs. Getty has a lot more. You should go look at them. But let’s look at a few.
Weegee’s caption for “Their First Murder” was: “A woman relative cried…but neighborhood dead-end kids enjoyed the show when a small-time racketeer was shot and killed.”
You can see how his pictures influenced cinematographers. Fellig himself has an entry at IMDb. he has some acting credits, too. He worked with Stanley Kubrick on special effects for Dr. Strangelove. And his autobiography, The Naked City, inspired the film of the same name. Joe Pesci played a character based on Weegee in The Public Eye (1992).
Watch for a little of Weegee’s legacy tonight in The Girl In The Photographs, a movie about a photographer who gets in a little too deep when he envies a serial killer’s prowess with the camera.
THE GIRL IN THE PHOTOGRAPHS screens:
Mon, Sept 14, 11:59 PM RYERSON
Wed, Sept 16, 5:00 PM SCOTIABANK
Fri, Sept 18, 9:15 PM SCOTIABANK
This post was originally published on the official blog of the Midnight Madness program at TIFF