Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig (June 12, 1899 – December 26, 1968), a photographer and photojournalist, known for his stark black and white street photography.
Weegee worked in the Lower East Side of New York City as a press photographer during the 1930s and '40s, and he developed his signature style by following the city's emergency services and documenting their activity. Much of his work depicted unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, injury and death. Weegee published photographic books and also worked in cinema, initially making his own short films and later collaborating with film directors such as Jack Donohue and Stanley Kubrick.
Weegee was born Usher Fellig in Złoczów (now Zolochiv, Ukraine), near Lemberg, Austrian Galicia. His name was changed to Arthur when he emigrated with his family to live in New York in 1909.
Fellig earned his nickname, a phonetic rendering of Ouija, because of his frequent, seemingly prescient arrivals at scenes only minutes after crimes, fires or other emergencies were reported to authorities. He is variously said to have named himself Weegee or to have been named by either the staff at Acme Newspictures or by a police officer.
Some photos, like the juxtaposition of society grandes dames in ermines and tiaras and a glowering street woman at the Metropolitan Opera (The Critic, 1943), turned out to have been staged.
Most of his notable photographs were taken with very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16, @ 1/200 of a second with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. He was a self-taught photographer with no formal photographic training. Weegee developed his photographs in a homemade darkroom in the back of his car. This provided an instantaneous result to his work that emphasized the nature of the tabloid industry and literally gave the images a “hot off the press” sensation.
Late 1930s to mid 1940s
In 1938, Fellig was the only New York newspaper reporter with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. He maintained a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car, to expedite getting his free-lance product to the newspapers. Weegee worked mostly at nightclubs; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene.
In 1943 five of his photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. These works were included in their exhibition entitled, Action Photography. He was later included in another MoMA show organized by Edward Steichen, and he lectured at the New School for Social Research. Advertising and editorial assignments for magazines followed, including Life and beginning in 1945, Vogue.
Naked City (1945), was his first book of photographs. Film producer Mark Hellinger bought the rights to the title from Weegee. In 1948, Weegee's aesthetic formed the foundation for Hellinger's film The Naked City. It was based on a gritty 1948 story written by Malvin Wald about the investigation into a model's murder in New York. Wald was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay, co-written with McCarthy-era blacklisted screenwriter, Albert Maltz. Later the title was used again for a naturalistic television police drama series, and in the 1980s, it was adopted by a band, Naked City (band), led by the New York experimental musician John Zorn.
1950s and 1960s
Weegee experimented with 16mm filmmaking himself beginning in 1941 and worked in the Hollywood industry from 1946 to the early 1960s, as an actor and a consultant. He was an uncredited special effects consultant and credited still photographer for Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. His accent was one of the influences for the accent of the title character in the film, played by Peter Sellers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Weegee experimented with panoramic photographs, photo distortions and photography through prisms. Using a plastic lens, he made a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe in which her face is grotesquely distorted yet still recognizable. For the 1950 movie The Yellow Cab Man, Weegee contributed a sequence in which automobile traffic is wildly distorted. He is credited for this as "Luigi" in the film's opening credits. He also traveled widely in Europe in the 1960s, where he photographed nude subjects. In London he befriended Harrison Marks and the model Pamela Green whom he photographed.
In 1980 Weegee’s widow, Wilma Wilcox, Sidney Kaplan, Aaron Rose and Larry Silver formed The Weegee Portfolio Incorporated to create an exclusive collection of photographic prints made from Weegee’s original negatives. As a bequest, Wilma Wilcox donated the entire Weegee archive to the International Center of Photography in New York. This 1993 gift became the source for several exhibitions and books include "Weegee's World" edited Miles Barth (1997) and "Unknown Weegee" edited by Cynthia Young (2006).
The lead character of Bernzy, played by Joe Pesci, in the 1992 film The Public Eye, was strongly inspired by Fellig.
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