Weegee 1889-1968, an open window on the Great Depression

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Weegee-Unknown photographer. Probably taken in the 40′

Arthur Fellig, born Usher Fellig, is better known under his nickname Weegee. He is an American photographer known for his picture of the night life in New-York City during the Great Depression. He is a field photographer who fancies sensationalism of new items. He documents the life of the New-Yorkers in a unique way, becoming one of the fathers of urban photojournalism.

He was brought up in a modest family who had to flee because of the pogroms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother caught up with his father (a rabbi) in the USA in 1910. He chosen Arthur to be is name when he arrives in Ellis Island.

As many other immigrants of his generation, Arthur Fellig had to drop out of school in order to start working and provide for his family. One day, an itinerant photographer stops him in the street and asks to take his picture.

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Weegee, Drowning victim – Coney Island, 1940

Then and there Arthur Fellig decides to become a photographer. He buys a second hand camera and starts to make a living shooting street portraits. He is autobiography he explains that he developed his technic of shooting pictures full of contrasts with bright whites in order to complain with his immigrant clients will to appear whiter.

When he turns 18 years old, he leaves the family home, unable to stand his father’s orthodoxy and ready to live his own life.  For a year he lives the life of a vagabond. Through this experience he will discover the night life of New York, the breadlines and the homeless shelters which will later on become the center of his photographical work.

After many struggles he starts working as a technician for the Ducket & Adler studio where he improve his technics.

In 1923 he is hired by the photo laboratory of ACME Newspictures whose aim is to build up a stock of photography for the national press industry. Although he works as a technician he starts replacing photographers when the agency is short-staffed. He then takes many sensational pictures which are appreciated by the journalists. He seems to always be the first on crime scenes. He earns his name through this ability. “Weegee” is inspired by a popular game of the time (Ouija) which consists in communicating with the spirit of the deceased.

Weegee’s surnatural ability to arrive first on crimes scenes is easily explained. He followed whenever he could the sirens of the policemen.

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Weegee, Burning Truck, 1936 (?)

At first he stays as close as possible from police quarters, waiting for something to happen and when something does happen he follows the policemen on crime scene taking pictures of the victims and the area. This technic only allows him to arrive second on the scenes. For this reason he fits out a car for shakeups and finds a radio that allows him to listen to the police. He then stays in his car in sensitive neighborhoods or near restaurants knows to be mafia’s headquarters waiting for something to happen. This way he often arrives on crime scenes even before the police.

Working as an agency photographer does not suit his personality well since he is not allowed to sign his own pictures. He leaves ACME Newspictures in 1935 and decides to become an independent photographer.

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Untitled – Weegee

During this periode he improve both his technic and strategies in order to always be first on site, not only to shoot the pictures but also to developp them and to sell them to New-York newspapers. He knows that his success depends on the subjects he chooses and at his ability to be the first able to sell his pictures.

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Weegee’s 1938 Chevy “office” and darkroom


He works a second time on time on his car in order to turn it into to real laboratory. His trunk is a darkroom and he has all the required chemistry to develop films. In the front of the car he has his radio, his cola, his salami and his cigars. He sells his pictures for 5 dollars apiece at 6 in the morning. He mostly works for the Herald Tribune, The Daily Mirror, New York Daily News, Life, Vogue, Sun… This notoriety allows him a certain freedom in the choice of his subjects. He willingly chose to document the Great Depression in New-York, showing the impact of the unemployment and mafia’s war. Sometimes his pictures aim at illustrating the life condition of the immigrants brought in the USA by the American dream, living in the street of New-York.

Weegee takes pictures without inhibition. In front of his camera, news items seem to be a part of a bigger picture.

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Weegee, Drank Man, New-York 1945

Weegee’s intentions are hard to understand and it is hard to see him as a social photographer. His way of shooting pictures without inhibition seems to translate a frank honesty with a hint of cynicism.  He masters better than anybody else the art of reverse angles and the exchanged stares. Could it be considered a work of voyeurism to take pictures of homeless people and of poor immigrants? It is hard answer positively to this question knowing Weegee’s life and how he himself had to live on the sidewalk for a time. We can see a tender touch in his pictures for the people he shoot or at list an interest for his subjects less easily sold than the bloody bodies of car crash victims.

Weegee only believes in instantaneity. The everyday nature of his work is torn apart by the dramatic nature of the scenes he photographs. His work consists in immortalizing this short moment right after an accident of an event when the normal course of life already starts to run. He certainly takes pictures of the victims, the accused, the policemen, the firemen and the passersby, creating a painting around a moment of the everyday life a scraping the smooth polish of the American dream. This work does not go against the current of his time and Weegee can be considered as having greatly influence the rise of modern photojournalism, ready to take all necessary steps in order to be as close as possible from the news.

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Weegee, Man sentenced to death, date unknown.

Weegee has an attraction for macabre in most of his pictures. He does only take picture of the victims, but he is also very interested in what happens around them and how the curious onlookers react to the scene. A game of mirrors seems to be played in his pictures and we wonder who really the voyeur is. Is it the photographer who runs to the crime scene, the crowd of onlookers making fun of the drunken man or the people buying the newspaper in order to see the picture?

While taking pictures for newspapers, Weegee builds up a mosaic portrait of the troubles of the American society. For him, his art consisted in “showing how, in a city of ten millions of souls, people lived in complete solitude”.

Most of Weegee’s picture are taken by night, with a flash. He mostly used a Speed Graphic 4×5 with a wide angle lens opened at f16 and a flash offering a “sync” speed of around 1/200. He also used a Rolleicord which allowed him to take really clear pictures at a high speed. The lighting shows a

Il est également utilisateur de Rolleicord, ce qui lui permet de prendre des photos extrêmement nettes et rapides. The light emphasizes the bodies and creates grotesque shadows on the faces. The contrasts and the themes chosen are those of the films noirs of the time.

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Weegee, New-york, 1941

It is hard to understand Weegee’s intentions and therefor it is difficult to see him as a social photographer. He circulates as a free electron in the world of photo-journalism. Sometimes he seems to have a cynical look his subject and sometimes it seem to have the look of a great citizen. Taking picture in times of drama puts up to light the most comical and repugnant parts of humanity. Weegee is ambiguous and often criticize as a vulture making a living out of the misfortune of the people. He is sometimes described as one of the first paparazzo. However he is also considered as an artist good enough to be part of an art exhibit in the MoMA in 1943.

Murder is my Business is the title of his first official exhibit in 1941 and is a good description of his work.

Weegee is a funny character. He has the face of a Mafioso, a cigar screwed to his lips, foul-mouthed, adept of the night life and the brothels, living in his car… He does not have the nobility of what we expect of a social photographer, the white nights of photos… However he, more than anybody else succeeded in merging himself among the people he photographed.

Sources :

·         Miles Barth, Weegee’s World, Bulfinch Press, 1997

·         Kerry William Purcell, Weegee, Phaidon, 2004

·         Unknown Weegee, Steidl Publishing, 2006

·         http://mag-lsp.location-studio-photo.fr/talents/weegee-et-le-fait-divers-a-new-york.php

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