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Weegee (Arthur Felig) (1899-1968)Weegee (Arthur Felig)


Biography: WEEGEE examines the intriguing career of Arthur Fellig, the news photographer cum photojournalist whose images of murder, mayhem and other dramatic events appeared regularly in the New York press during the thirties and forties. Although stories differ as to how he came to use the name "Weegee," the most colorful is based upon his claiming with varying degrees of seriousness that his "psychic powers" enabled him to be first at the scene of crimes, fires, accidents and the like. The name was derived from a phonetic spelling of Ouija, the popular fortune-telling game. Weegee's career spanned four decades and both coasts as well as Europe, although he is most celebrated for his extraordinary photographs of New York and New York characters.

A New York character himself who achieved an albeit limited celebrity status, Weegee was largely (despite any disclaimers) the inspiration for the 1992 film The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci. His influence as a photographer, direct or indirect, can be traced in the work of such important artistic heirs as Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Larry Clark, Garry Winogrand, Les Krims and Eugene Richards. Always defying categorization, Weegee has been variously described: as a populist social critic; as a street photographer who came "as close to a photojournalist as any photographer ever got to be;"1 as a "primitive pioneer of a new formalism;"2 and as a mass media photographer, a working professional and master of the spectacle, who must "be rescued from 'museumization'" because "museumization" attempts to convert the raw power and historical importance of his reality-of his photographs as carriers of significant fact-into art.3 There is clearly discomfort in the seeming contradiction between the obvious timelessness and sheer visual appeal of many of his images and their creation as timely, on-the-spot news shots of the vagaries and extremes of human behavior, with the circumstances of creation leading some critics to demand that news pictures must always be contextualized-at the same time admitting that the best news pictures are those which need the least explanation. Further, even the damaged condition of many of Weegee's extant photographs has not mediated against their inclusion in museum exhibitions and this speaks to the persistence of his images in the mind's eye rather than to some bizarre perversity on the part of curators.

Born Usher (Arthur) Fellig in Zloczew, Austria (now Poland) in 1899, Weegee emigrated to America with his family and grew up in a tenement on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Around 1923, he joined Acme Newspictures (which later became United Press International Photos) as a darkroom technician, occasionally filling in as a news photographer. Later, around 1935, armed with his Speed Graphic camera and working out of Police Headquarters in lower Manhattan, he began his career as a freelance press photographer. His images of dead gangsters and his own flamboyant personality established his reputation as New York's resident "crime photographer," a reputation and persona he nurtured to the point of ultimately stamping the backs of his pictures, "Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous." His territory expanded from the Bowery to Greenwich Village to the activities of the uptown social elite and his clients included such periodicals as Life, Look and Vogue as well as the "legitimate" newspapers, the daily tabloids and everything in between. Among the most supportive of his clients was PM Daily, founded in 1940. Weegee worked with them until 1945, when he began a short stint as a society photographer for Vogue. From around 1947 to 1951, Weegee worked periodically in Hollywood, serving as a technical consultant and playing cameo parts in several motion pictures. Between 1948 and 1967, he made several films himself, both in black and white and in color, using varying locales, from New York to Hollywood to Europe. He also served as an advisor on special effects to Stanley Kubrick for Kubrick's now classic 1964 film, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Weegee's popular book about New York, Naked City, published in 1945, inspired the Hollywood film noir, The Naked City, although he was apparently not directly involved in the production. He authored a number of publications following Naked City, including Weegee's People (1946), Naked Hollywood (1953) and Weegee by Weegee, An Autobiography (1961), all of which, rather than being taken entirely literally, need to be read as part of Weegee's lively attempt to create and re-create his own self-image.

The dramatic close-ups, brightly-lit shots of spectators, cropping variants and tonal contrasts of Weegee's early work derive from his extraordinary flair for telling a story with directness and immediacy over and above the general stylistic conventions demanded by the dictates of newspaper production. In contrast to most other news photographers, he consistently and intentionally blurred the dividing line between being a participant in the action and spectator to it. His use of visual puns and his wise-cracking captions for many of his images evidence his intrusion into his subject matter, an arch commingling of his life and his art. Although he had some interest in exploiting the technical aspects of his medium throughout his career, his most involved technical experimentation came in the early- to mid-fifties when he began devoting himself almost full time to producing optical distortions. To create these images, which have often been criticized rather harshly, he used everything from mirrors to kaleidoscopes and specially designed lenses and filters, presaging the interest in manipulated photography that would develop two decades later during the seventies. Weegee's distortions ranged from rather Daumier-like, reportorial caricatures to kaleidoscopic pinwheels with subjects as varied as helicopters and London street minstrels. Their existence has led many of Weegee's admirers to postulate a "good" Weegee and a "bad" Weegee, the latter being the press photographer gone astray in attempting to turn himself into an artist. Although never given significant attention by museums during his lifetime, Weegee did come to the attention of both Beaumont Newhall and Edward Steichen at The Museum of Modern Art, where he was included in such shows as Action Photography (1943) and 50 Photographs by 50 Photographers (1948). The Photo League in New York gave him a one-person exhibition as early as 1941, Weegee: Murder Is My Business. In 1960 and 1962, he had one-person shows at the Photokino in Cologne, Germany, and following his death in 1968, his photographs were shown at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona (1975) and the International Center of Photography in New York City (1977), both of which maintain important archives of his work. The photographer Diane Arbus did the preliminary research for The Museum of Modern Art's 1973 exhibition From the Picture Press that included several Weegee images, one of which was used for the cover and end papers of the show's catalogue. A decade ago, in 1984, Weegee's work was once again the subject of a one-person exhibition, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. (Diana L. Johnson, Brown University)

More on Weegee (Arthur Felig):

The Photography of Arthur Felig - Brown University
Extensive Examples of Felig's work, Including an Exhaustive Biography.

Weegee's World
Large Site, Dedicated to the Work of Weegee.

Side Photographic Gallery
43 images from a UK collection of Weegee's work donated by his widow Wilma Wilcox

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