June 12, 1899 is the birthdate of Arthur Fellig, better known by the “lens name” Weegee. He was a photojournalist of the night, whose stark images of society’s outcasts and outlaws gave rise, a generation later, to the unsettling work of Diane Arbus.
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Ascher “Usher” Fellig was born in Zloczow, Galicia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today Zolochiv, Ukraine), to Barnard and Rachel Fellig.
The family emigrated in 1909 to New York, where his name was changed to Arthur. Fellig grew up in poverty on the Lower East Side, his father struggling to support his wife and three children as a street peddler. (His son would later write in his memoir, “Father went back to the synagogue and fulfilled his life ambition by becoming a rabbi, which was quite an honor for the family.”) Although Fellig enjoyed school, he left at age 14 in order to bring in money to the family.
Fellig caught the photography bug after seeing an image of himself made by a street photographer. He sent away for his own tintype camera. He later worked in a commercial studio, but quit after a few years after arguing with his boss over money.
He then began renting a pony on weekends, giving rides to neighborhood children and selling the pictures he shot of them on ponyback to their parents.
Fellig lived with his family until age 18, and thereafter roomed in flophouses and sometimes spent the night sleeping on a bench in Manhattan’s Bryant Park. During the day, he worked as an assistant to a passport photographer.
In 1924, he began working as a darkroom technician for Acme Newspictures (which became United Press International Photos). When needed, he also filled in as a photojournalist, though that word didn’t yet exist. He also took violin lessons, which allowed him to pick up extra cash by accompanying silent movies at a theater on Third Avenue.
Only in 1935 did Fellig finally begin working as a freelance photographer, making his office a back room in the Manhattan police headquarters, where he was the first to learn about major crimes, via the police teletype. He sold his photos to the city’s many tabloid papers, including the New York Mirror, the Daily News and the New York Post.
“Weegee” was Fellig’s phonetic spelling of Ouija, for the apparent prescience that allowed him to reach crime scenes before other photographers, and sometimes before the police. In fact, he was the only photographer who was permitted to ride with a police radio in his car. He also traveled with a mobile darkroom.
From the mid-1940s, he began rubber-stamping his prints “Weegee the Famous,” which only added to his mystique.
His photographs were not sophisticated — he worked with a 4-by-5 inch Graflex Speed Graphic camera, with preset focus and speed — but he had a tabloid sensibility, specializing in voyeuristic images of people caught at their most vulnerable moments: family members at a murder scene, a woman whose apartment is ablaze with her children trapped inside — and the upper classes at their most obnoxious. (He took a lot of photos of men in tails and women in tiaras at the opera.) Sometimes, to avoid using a flash, for example when he shot a young couple necking at movies, he used infrared film.
After he published a collection of New York photographs, “Naked City,” in 1945, Weegee became something of a celebrity. Hollywood bought the rights to the title, and the 1948 movie “The Naked City,” which shared something of Weegee’s aesthetic, won two Academy Awards.
His work was exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art and showcased in Vogue magazine. Weegee moved to Los Angeles in 1947, where he turned his lens on movie stars. He was a stills photographer on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” and began experimenting with photographic special effects.
In 1956, after developing diabetes, Weegee married Wilma Wilcox, a social worker and photographer, who cared for him in his final decade.
Weegee died of a brain tumor on December 26, 1968, at age 69.