-- Arthur Fellig, a.k.a Weegee, transcribed from the Candid Recordings audio of Famous Photographers Tell How, 1958.
|Weegee: Man with a still camera|
Fellig quickly earned the nom de guerre Weegee, referring to the fact that he was always the first on the scene, almost as if he was summoning some divine force via a ouija board. The truth is less supernatural but no less interesting: Weegee had a police scanner next to his bed, a makeshift darkroom in the trunk of his car, and a typewriter he kept with him to write captions. He hung out in nightclubs, keeping his finger on the pulse of downtown New York. Oftentimes he beat local authorities to the scene. As Weegee's photographs became more widespread, now being published in the likes of Time and Vogue, Weegee began referring to himself as "Weegee the Famous" and "The Greatest Photographer in the World".
So was Weegee deserving of the titles and fame his photographs brought?
Very much so.
Weegee captured New York City like no one before or since. Lonely tenement blocks, dark alleys, and drunken denizens took on a mythical status, steeped in noir conventions almost to the point of romanticizing them. No easy feat. In fact, Weegee's first published book of photos, The Naked City, became The inspiration to one of the best film noirs ever made, also called The Naked City, directed by Jules Dassin. The film was shot on the gritty streets of 1940's New York City, a novel convention in a time where most movies were filmed on sound stages using sets. Weegee even has a Hitchcock-like cameo in the film. (I urge anyone unfamiliar with this film, or the genre of noir, to start exploring posthaste. You're really missing out on some of the most fascinating, groundbreaking films of the last century).
But the eerie prescience, the unprecedented preparedness, and the shameless self-hype would be nothing without the photographs. The typewriter was to Bukowski what the camera shutter was to Weegee. He recorded misery, debauchery, and crime with a poet's soul. Take for example, one of Weegee's most famous photographs: Balcony Seats to a Murder.
|Balcony Seats to a Murder (1939)|
Photo credit: International Center of Photography via Getty Images
Weegee often raised the ire of editors for capturing scenes of human emotion during a catastrophic event like a fire, to which firemen will refer to as a "roast" if people perished inside (which is what is happening the very moment the photo below was taken). Eschewing sensationalism ("Look. [Burning buildings] all look alike), Weegee photographed the people affected by the fire instead. He captures the hopelessness and loss associated with the fire.
|Tenement Fire, Brooklyn (1942)|
"I cried when I took this photo"
Photo credit: Amber Online
Weegee's advice to young photographers? Have sharp elbows.