Images from The Gordon Archive 

 Weegee, on Fire

 Dedicated to the memory and vision of Arthur (Usher) Fellig 1899-1968

The Great Weegee!

By Brian Jester

 The year was 1945, the sun was slowly lowering over New York City. Most people were just settling down for the night. That is, if they weren't planning to go out on the town. New York was a hot spot for after hour night clubs. These were real social events, a lot of jazz and coffee. At this point in history New York was also notorious for its Mob activities. Where the Mob was, there were murders; Where there were murders, that's where you'd find Weegee. He was the only shutterbug that would make it to a murder scene before the cops. Weegee was the best free-lance photographer that New York has ever had. 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.(Aperture 5-9)

As far as education, Weegee made it through the eight grade with no problem at all. However, the family needed money and Weegee was needed to help work. He worked a lot of odd jobs as most people did at the time. 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 5x7 view camera and rented a pony from a local stable. He named the pony "Hypo", and on the weekends when the kids were in there 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 (one for a quarter and three for half a dollar).

At the age of twenty-four, Weegee got his big break and started 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 he would get to go out at night and take pictures of emergencies, when all the other Acme Photographers were busy or sleeping. After a few years of working for Acme, Weegee started to get called on to do assignments and cover stories. This was what he always wanted, the only problem was that he worked for Acme, 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 board game. They said he always seemed to know where to be when a story broke.

Weegee worked on his own as a free-lance 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, 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. (Weegee by Weegee 52)

"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 52)

After ten years he published his first book, 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. And it is the work produced during these ten years that I find most influential in my own work.

What I find the most fascinating about Weegee's work is its simplicity. He has an incredible
sense of composition, every piece seems to pull the viewer in and make them part of the scene. Weegee photographed life, nothing else, all that you need to see is in the photograph. You can view his work with out an interpreter, unlike a lot of the art being produced during that time. Part of the simplicity found in Weegee's work I think comes from the simplicity of the man himself. All that Weegee every wanted was to be Weegee. He never really needed to be rich, or a social figure head. He only wanted to be able to make his pictures. This was all he needed to make him happy,...well, a few girls now and then didn't hurt.

Weegee never had any formal photographic training. He 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 4x5 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 has told us the story of this poor woman. The way he positioned them behind the broken glass is representative of the shattered life she lives. Yet even with dispair all around her, she still has a look of hope in her eyes, as if she were saying that she can not 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." luckily for the baby, this did bring the mother back. (Weegee by Weegee 56) 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.

Weegee was the only photographer doing this type of expressive work at this point in
photojournalism. Most photographers at the time were doing standard, and straight forward
types of photographs. Portraits were more environmental and less about the emotions of the
subject. Another great photographer working in New York at the same time as Weegee is Lewis W. Hine. Hine was know for his environmental portraits, and his photographs of industry at work. The photograph of a steamfitter in 1921 is an excellent example of the type of work Hine did. Hine has a great feel for composition and his technical knowledge surpassed most in his field. Technically, the work of Hine and Weegee are equal, it's when you look at the emotional content that the two can be separated. Hine's photographs didn't have the same strong emotion and feeling of being there, that Weegee's work had.

Being a free-lance photographer was not a easy job during this point in history. Not a lot of
people could make it as long as Weegee had done the job. Even when things were going bad, Weegee had good spirits about it. He was always able to find happiness in what ever 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, 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. Weegee captured a truth with each shot that can never be recreated.

Weegee died of a brain tumor on December 26, 1968.

Reproduced by permission of the author.

1. Weegee's People, Arthur Fellig, 1900-1968
DA CAPO PRESS, New York, 1975
2. Naked City, Arthur Fellig
Essential Books, 1945
3. Weegee, Aperture History of Photography Series
Aperture, Inc. 1978
4. Weegee, Louis Stettner
Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York, 1977
5. Weegee, Andre Laude
Pantheon Books, New York, 1986
6. Weegee by Weegee, An Autobiography
Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, New York, 1961


Copyright 2001, The Gordon Archive