Ascher “Arthur” Fellig was born on June 12, 1899 in Lemberg, Austria (later Zloczew, Poland, and now Ukraine). At the age of 10, his family moved to New York, and when he had his picture taken by a street photographer as a teen, he stumbled upon his future profession and lifelong profession. He quit school when he was 14 and became a freelancer for various New York publications and the Acme news agency. He developed an early reputation as an ‘ambulance chaser,’ and his innate ability to scoop his competitors apparently led to his nickname ‘Weegee,’ a colloquial reference to the Ouija board.
While freelancing, Mr. Fellig learned the challenges of news photography, having to prepare magnesium powder to produce a nighttime flash. No scene was too gruesome for his lens, and graphic crime scenes became his specialty. He began using the durable 4x5” Speed Graphic one-shot camera equipped with an automatic flash, two shutters, and three viewfinders. Mr. Fellig later observed, “If you are puzzled about the kind of camera to buy, get a Speed Graphic… it is a good camera and moreover, it is standard equipment for all press photographers… with a camera like that the cops will assume that you belong on the scene and will let you get beyond police lines.”
From 1935 to 1947, Mr. Fellig worked for several New York publications and news outlets, including the New York Post, the Herald Tribune, and Vogue. When ‘Weegee’ was on the scene of a crime or accident, his photographs in and of themselves generated memorable headlines. His fellow photographers struggled mightily to keep up his frantic pace, but none succeeded. He knew police officers by name, and they would give him valuable tips. He would also frequent tenement areas and interact with derelicts, incorporating the settings and their inhabitants into his photos. There was a grittiness associated with Mr. Fellig’s images that transported a local crime scene into a nationally reported event. If ‘Weegee’ was there, it was newsworthy.
By 1946, he was a lecturer at the New School for Social Research, and participated in curator Edward Steichen’s exhibition, “50 Photographs by 50 Photographers” at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. In 1947, he moved to Hollywood, where his photographs chronicled celebrity nightlife. Mr. Fellig authored several books during this period, including Naked City (1945), Weegee’s People (1946), and Naked Hollywood (1947). Throughout the 1950s, his handmade lenses were manipulated to transform cultural icons into macabre distortions. Mr. Fellig’s unique photographic style lent itself well to film noir, and he served as a still photographer and technical consultant for a string of films.
Arthur Fellig, age 69, died of a brain tumor on December 26, 1968. His collections are currently housed within New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art; San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, and Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art in Great Britain. A 1992 film, The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci, was a fictionalized account of Mr. Fellig’s life and career.
2004 Strange Days, Dangerous Nights: Photos from the Speed Graphic Era by Larry Millett (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press), p. 5.
2018 Weegee (Arthur Fellig): The J. Paul Getty Museum (URL: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1851/weegee-arthur-fellig-american-born-austria-1899-1968).
2018 Weegee (Arthur Fellig): Museum of Contemporary Photography (URL: http://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=objects&type=browse&f=maker&s=Weegee+%28Arthur+Fellig%29&record=0).
2018 Weegee (URL: http://www.stevenkasher.com/artists/weegee).
2008 Weegee and Naked City by Anthony W. Lee, Richard Meyer (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press), pp. 16, 20.
2018 Weegee the Famous: The Master of Down-and-Dirty Street Photography (URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/01/books/review/flash-christopher-bonanos-weegee-biography.html).
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