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
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,
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
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.