Previously: The Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine.
When I first stumbled upon the Wikipedia page for the photographer Weegee, who is known primarily for his street shots, documentation of the activity of New York’s emergency services, and crime scene photography, all I could think was, “Gee, this… sounds an awful lot like Maguire from Road To Perdition.” And, it turns out, there’s a reason for that: Maguire was based in part on Weegee. The real-life Weegee wasn’t nearly as murderous as his fictionalized counterpart was, but he did make a name for himself photographing subjects that most people shy away from — crime, pain, death — and selling those photographs to the highest bidder. Knowing this, then — knowing that you have to be a particular kind of person to do this work, and to do it well — I was not at all surprised to find that Weegee the person was as fascinating as his work was.
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“Weegee,” of course, was not his given name. When he first arrived in the United States in 1909 at the age of 10, it was under the name Arthur Fellig. But this, too, was not the man who would be Weegee’s given name; like many immigrants of the era, he had adopted an Americanized — or, at the very least, Anglicized — name upon arrival. When he was born on June 12, 1899 in what was then Złoczów in the Austro-Hungarian Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria — now Zolochiv, Ukraine — the baby was named Ascher, later amended to Usher. Ascher became Usher became, once the Felligs settled on New York’s Lower East Side, Arthur. (We’ll talk about where “Weegee” came from in just a bit.)
According to Weegee’s autobiography, which he published in 1961, his fascination with photography began early, when young Arthur was in seventh grade. After a street tintype photographer snapped his picture, he ordered his own tintype-making kit by mail and learned how to use it. By the time he was 15, writes Thomas Mallon at the New Yorker, he was securing paid work by a variety of means: He took photos for insurance companies and mail-order catalogs; he bought a pony, took pictures of kids on it, and then enticed parents to pay for the shots ; and, eventually — by 1924, when he was around 25 — he worked first in the darkroom for Acme Newspictures (now United Press International, or UPI), then later as a photographer for the same organization. His images were uncredited, but it was a start.
In 1935, he left Acme and went a different route: He became a freelance photographer, working mainly at night and photographing mainly crime scenes. He had a particular knack for arriving at crime scenes faster than just about anyone else — even, sometimes, the police — and during the 1930s and 1940s, he made a name for himself by seizing the opportunities to work as soon as they arose. In many ways, in fact, he made his own opportunities. As Weegee himself put it:
“In my particular case I didn’t wait ‘til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself — freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.”
It’s not totally clear where Weegee’s professional name, which he started using around this time, came from. He claimed it was derived from the Ouija board — that is, that people were so impressed at how quickly he was able to get on the scene to shoot that they named him after the divination device, assuming that preternatural abilities was the only way to account for his speed. However, it also may have come from his early work in newsroom darkrooms, where he was what’s referred to as a squeegee boy.
Regardless, he leaned into it; indeed, over time, he began to refer to himself as Weegee the Famous.
Weegee’s knowhow wasn’t limited to simply knowing where to go to find the stories he photographed. He also had a keen sense of what made a specific story worth photographing — what made it “mean something,” as he put it — in the first place. He was particularly interested in the messier parts of New York — the tragedies, like building fires and murders. “Now the easiest kind of a job to cover was a murder because the stiff would be laying on the ground,” he once wrote. “He couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental. He would be good for at least two hours. At fires you had to work very fast.”
During his early freelance years, these two subjects made up a huge portion of the events he photographed. There were other things, too, of course — street scenes were his specialty, both candid and partially staged (“gently nudged in the right direction,” you might say) — but murders and fires always sold. And they always paid handsomely.
It’s telling that Weegee’s first self-curated exhibition, which was displayed courtesy of the Photo League in 1941, was titled Murder Is My Business.
Weegee reached something of a turning point in the mid-1940s, though, when, when his photographs were shown at the Museum of Modern Art. After that exhibition, he shifted from crime scene photography to “artsier” subjects, started publishing art books, started doing more commercial work, and dabbled in Hollywood. Arguably, his later work — the stuff he produced throughout the 1950s and ‘60s — is less interesting than the crime scene and street photography he specialized in during the 1930s and ‘40s; indeed, his legacy today is still tied to his earlier work than the post-MoMa stuff.
Weegee died on Dec. 26, 1968 at the relatively young age of 69; the cause was a brain tumor. But his work remains — and his influence does, too.
You’d be surprised how many fictional characters created in recent years have a little bit of Weegee in them.
Flash: The Making Of Weegee The Famous by Christopher Bonanos. This 2018 volume is considered to be the definitive Weegee biography. It was very well-received; as Jennifer Szalai put it at the New York Times:
“With Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, Christopher Bonanos has finally supplied us with the biography Weegee deserves: sympathetic and comprehensive, a scrupulous account with just the right touch of irreverence. Bonanos, the city editor of New York magazine and the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid, takes the photographer seriously without letting him and his self-mythologizing off the hook.”
Notably, Flash won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Best Biography of 2018.
You can read an excerpt over at Vulture. The excerpt focuses not on Weegee’s crime scene photography, but on what’s probably his most well-known photograph, “The Critic”; still, though — it gives you a pretty good idea not only of what the biography is like, but also what Weegee himself was like.
“Weegee The Famous, The Voyeur And Exhibitionist” by Thomas Mallon for the New Yorker. For a slightly shorter read, this piece in the New Yorker — which isn’t so much a review of Flash, but in dialogue with it — is a good place to start when it comes to exploring the life and times of Weegee the Famous. I say “shorter read” because this one is an article, rather than a full book; it’s still quite in-depth, though, so be sure to set aside an adequate amount of time for it.
Weegee: The Autobiography. Weegee wrote an autobiography towards the end of his life which is still available in print today. The current edition is titled Weegee: The Autobiography; however, you might also see the book referred to as Weegee By Weegee or Weegee: An Autobiography — titles used when the volume was originally published in 1961.
They’re all more or less the same book, though — which means that they’re all, as Thomas Mallon described Weegee By Weegee in his New Yorker piece, “loudmouthed” and “unreliable.” If you’re looking for a straight-up factual account of Weegee’s life, this isn’t it. What it does give you, though, is a look at how Weegee mythologized himself — and that, as we’ve discussed here at TGIMM before, can be quite telling indeed.
ArtCurious Podcast: “The Wild And Wonderful World Of Weegee.” An alternative way to get your Weegee history lesson: The podcast ArtCurious did a full episode on the photographer and his work in March of 2019.
Written, produced, and hosted by contemporary arts curator Jennifer Dasal, who holds an MA in art history from the University of Notre Dame and has been a curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art since 2008, ArtCurious is geared towards exploring “the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history” — and if “unexpected,” slightly odd,” and “strangely wonderful” don’t all describe Weegee to a T, I don’t know what does. Dasal’s work is engaging and approachable, so even if you’re not an art history person, ArtCurious might still be up your proverbial alley.
A transcript of the Weegee episode can be found here. He was also featured in the fifth episode of ArtCurious way back in 2016; for that episode, which positions Weegee as a precursor to Andy Warhol, head here. That transcript, meanwhile, is here.
Where To See Weegee’s Photographs Online. Weegee’s work can be seen at a wide variety of institutions — and on a wide variety of websites, often belonging to those institutions. Here are a few places you can browse lots and lots and lots of Weegee’s photographs online:
If you can get a hold of the reprint of Weegee’s first photo-book, Naked City (originally published in 1945), that’s worth checking out, too.
“Weegee’s City Secrets” by Alan Trachtenberg. In 1953, Weegee published a little book he called Weegee’s Secrets. It was, in essence, a how-to book for budding photographers penned by Weegee — but unfortunately, it’s a little hard to get a hold of these days. Happily, though, this academic article, published open access, provides a rundown of the book’s contents. Some key tips:
- For “party pictures”: “Walk around, mingle with everybody. When anyone starts to pose, turn away, don’t take their picture… in time they’ll get the point.”
- For photographs of fires: “Bring along a pair of fireman’s boots, ‘watch for fire hoses,’ and don’t throw your used flash bulbs in the street.”
- For news photography: “News photography is my meat. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have my camera by my side, on the prowl for a ‘scoop.’ … My first love is still following (or preceding) the police cars and fire engines.” In other words: Stay on top of things and go where the stories are.
A Brief History of The Speed Graphic Camera. Over at Anatomy Films, a thorough but overwhelming overview of the Speed Graphic camera — the type of camera Weegee used for much of his career, particularly during his crime scene photography years. In production between 1912 and 1973, the Speed Graphic is known as “the most famous press camera ever produced”; indeed, it was the standard used by most press photographers in the United States until the 1960s.
That photograph of Weegee that’s pretty much always used whenever anyone wants to show an image of the man himself? The one where he’s holding a big ol’ camera with a huuuuge flashbulb on top? The camera is a Speed Graphic.
“Seattle Man Finds Cache Of Historical Photos By Famed Crime Photographer Weegee In His Kitchen Cabinet” in the Seattle Times. In 1970, David Young bought a box of old photographs at a secondhand store in Philadelphia. “It was this really funky store with nooks and crannies, and I saw this box,” Young would tell the Seattle Times nearly 50 years later. “I peeled one [photograph] off and there’s police officers hovering over a dead body. I said, ‘God, that’s weird.’ So I peeled off another and it was a car wreck. I said, ‘These are cool. I think I’ll buy these for $2.” He schlepped the box around with him for a number of years, eventually losing track of it after he moved into his current home in 1987. (He’s in the Wedgwood area of Seattle.) He rediscovered the box in 2019, though — it had been hiding in a cabinet in his kitchen — and this time, as he sifted through the photographs again, he realized that a number of them had a name on them: A. Fellig.
Young, it turned out, had bought a box of extremely rare crime scene photographs shot by Weegee himself circa 1937 all those years ago.
Young eventually flattened the photos, scanned them, and sent the scans to Christopher Bonanos, who pinned down exactly why these images in particular are so notable. “That’s just about the time Weegee really started to shoot like Weegee,” he told the Seattle Times. “This year, 1937, was really when he learned how to do it, through a lot of hustle, and it shows in the pictures. … I feel like I can see his slow-motion breakthrough starting to happen here.”
Remarkable, no? Check out the full story of the discovery here; it’s pretty amazing.
A Gallery Of The Recently-Discovered Weegee Photos. After David Young sent the scans of the photos he had unearthed to Christopher Bonanos, Bonanos — who is an editor at New York Magazine — got the okay to publish a bunch of them in a gallery at Vulture. You can see that gallery here.
Bonanos says he was able to identify the news events depicted in about 80 percent of the photos; according to him, they were “nearly all … shot in April and May 1937” and consist of “two tenement fires, a couple of nasty car crashes, and at least eight murders.” Christopher George, the curator of the Weegee collection at the International Center Of Photography, told Bonanos that in these photographs, “we can see his method: Taking several photos of an event, making them into a story, sometimes numbering the margins.” Bonanos believes that “not one of these pictures has been published for 82 years.”
Two Evil Eyes (1990), segment “The Black Cat,” dir. Dario Argento. Numerous films (and other pieces of media, for that matter) have used Weegee — both his work and his life — as sources of inspiration. The 1990 anthology film Two Evil Eyes, which featured one segmented directed by George Romero and one by Dario Argento, is one of them — or at least, Argento’s segment, “The Black Cat,” is. Based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story of the same name, “The Black Cat” follows crime scene photographer Rod Usher (Harvey Keitel) as his life unravels following his girlfriend’s adoption of a black cat. There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, but that’s the general gist of the whole thing. You can read the original Poe story here.
Argento has, apparently, said that Usher was inspired by Weegee; I haven’t been able to source the direct quote, but for what it’s worth, it’s hard to mistake the similarities, right down to Usher’s philosophy that “still life’s [his] art.” (“Still life’s my art”; “murder is my business”; you see where I’m going with this, right?) I’m assuming the actual sound byte from Argento is somewhere in the special features of the 2019 release from Blue Underground. Either way, though, reviewers have been describing Usher as Weegee-like since the film’s initial release, as this 1991 review from the Washington Post demonstrates.
The Public Eye (1992), dir. Howard Franklin. When Howard Franklin first conceived The Public Eye, he intended it to be a biopic about Weegee himself. However, when he was unable to secure the rights to Weegee’s story, he instead turned it into a film loosely based on the idea of Weegee, instead. It wasn’t entirely successful; it plunks the Weegee stand-in, Leon Berstein (Joe Pesci), right down in the middle of a ‘40s noir/mobster tale, which reviewers at the time found to “never quite take off,” per the New York Times. The Baltimore Sun, meanwhile, wrote that the film was “beautiful but inert; it includes you out. It’s full of pretty pictures, not one of which has the raw urgency of Weegee at his best.”
It has its strong points, though; Pesci, for example — hot off his Oscar win for GoodFellas — was praised for his characterization of Bernstein, and the movie does look stylish, if the vintage ‘40s vibe is your thing.
The Public Eye is available to rent via Amazon Prime Video for $3.99.
Road To Perdition (2002), dir. Sam Mendes. In Sam Mendes’ big screen adaptation of the 1998 graphic novel by Max Allan Collins, Harlen Maguire (Jude Law) is introduced to us — and to former mob enforcer on the run Michael Sullivan (Tom Hanks) — a crime scene photographer. “I shoot the dead,” he tells Sullivan. “Dead bodies, that is. I don’t kill ‘em.” It turns out he does kill them, though: Maguire is more than just a photographer — he’s also an assassin.
In that, obviously, he differs from Weegee; Weegee may have partially staged some of his more provocative photos, but he only photographed crime scenes — he didn’t create them. But there absolutely is something Weegee-ish about Maguire; indeed, as Andrew Hamilton noted at Counter-Currents in 2013, Weegee not only served as inspiration for the fictional photographer/hitman, but even acted as a source for some of Maguire’s photographs: “The photographs in Harlen Maguire’s apartment in the movie are real-life 1930s crime scene pictures, some taken by Weegee himself,” wrote Hamilton. In alignment terms, Maguire is the chaotic evil version of Weegee, who I’d peg as chaotic neutral.
Maguire is actually absent in the graphic novel; he’s a composite of several smaller characters brought together to help streamline the film. It’s one of those rare cases, though, where the composite works — Maguire is fascinating and terrifying, with a pitch-perfect performance from Law.
Road To Perdition is available to rent via Amazon Prime Video for $3.99.
Nightcrawler (2014), dir. Dan Gilroy. When Dan Gilroy read Weegee’s photo-book Naked City back in 1988, he was struck by the “amazing intersection of art and crime and commerce” in Weegee’s work. Using that as a springboard, he wrote a treatment for a film he said had a Chinatown-like bent to it — and then, just a few years later, The Public Eye was released. Thinking — probably correctly — that it would be far too soon for another Weegee-inspired film to have a chance, Gilroy put the idea away. He came back to it much later, after he had moved to LA, seen how local news coverage worked there, and learned about stringers (basically the modern-day equivalent to what Weegee was doing in the ‘30s). When all of that came together in Gilroy’s brain, Nightcrawler is what came out.
Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), the stringer at the center of Nightcrawler, isn’t quite as evil as Road To Perdition’s Maguire is; however, he’s also nearly not as — playful? Whimsical? — as Weegee himself. Weegee may have manipulated his photos a little bit sometimes, but not nearly to the same degree that Bloom does. Indeed, even if he’s not as overtly terrifying as Maguire, I’d argue that the combination of moral bankruptcy and the desperation born of hitting rock bottom make Bloom terrifying, too — it’s just a different kind of terrifying.
It’s only fair, right?
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[Photo via David Joyner/Flickr, available under a CC BY-SA 2.0 Creative Commons license.]