Weegee, a pseudonym of Austrian-born Arthur Fellig, photographed crime-scenes for the tabloid press during the 1930s and 40s in the Lower East Side of New York. Although he sold his raw, uncensored photographs to the New York newspapers, his visual understanding and social concern operate at a higher level. He has been said to be the authentic voice of the proletariat.
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Weegee was infamous throughout New York for his candid yet detailed study of humanity. His book Naked City is considered the foundation stone of modern photojournalism. Renowned for being the first to every scene, Weegee’s home and car were notoriously equipped with shortwave police radios as well as a portable darkroom in the boot, which meant he never missed a moment, sometimes arriving before the police themselves. His work is best known for it’s witnessing of the darker sides of city living, but Weegee should be remembered as the man who used photography to reveal the flourishing multiplicity of city life. Weegee was photographing in a time when the camera was yet to be involved in everyday life, and his unrelenting commitment to the medium has meant he made an indelible mark on how we view and understand photography and city living.
Weegee used a hand held, large format camera called a Speed Graphic, which was the standard equipment of a news photographer in the 1930s and 1940s. The camera was slow and heavy, and as a result Weegee used a harsh flash to illuminate his photographs. This is what marks the nature of his work, with its contrasted and raw aesthetic. Weegee was not a formally trained photographer, however using his in-car darkroom he was able to nourish a distinct style, producing photographs instantaneously, which would be rushed to the tabloid newspapers for the morning press.
Weegee’s work was a part of tabloid newspapers’ stylish visual vocabulary, depicting sensational images that went on to influence cinema. One particular film, ‘The Naked City’, was based on the aesthetic of Weegee’s 1945 collection of photographs with the same title. In 1941 he started experimenting with 16mm filmmaking himself, and worked in the Hollywood industry until the early 1960s as an actor and consultant. He had also been commissioned on advertising and editorial assignments for magazines such as ‘Vogue’ and ‘Life’.
Although he was the epitome of the tough news photographer, the image of Weegee the paparazzo belies the profundity and strength of his documentary work. He became an art-world celebrity, who exhibited and lectured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Weegee died of a brain tumour on 26 December, 1968. In 1993 his widow donated the entire Weegee archive to the International Center of Photography in New York.