The inspiration for the 1992 movie “The Public Eye” starring Joe Pesci, Weegee was every bit as colorful as Hollywood portrayed.
Born Usher Fellig in Zloczew, Austria (now Zolochiv, Ukraine) in 1899, Fellig emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1909 and moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was there he changed his name to Arthur because it sounded more American. Self-taught, Fellig took many odd jobs as a photographer and photographers assistant. In 1924 he became a darkroom technician and part time news photographer and at Acme Newspictures which later on became United Press International Photos (UPI).
In 1935, Arthur Fellig decided to become a freelance photographer, says Fellig:
“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.”
Arthur Fellig would soon become known as Weegee, the phonetic pronunciation of the word Ouija, because of his uncanny ability to often appear at crime scenes before the authorities. His photos were soon published by the Herald Tribune, World-Telegram, Daily News, New York Post, New York Journal American, Sun, and others. Weegee worked at night, developing his photos in the darkroom he set up in the back of his car in order to expedite getting his photos to the waiting press. He also had a great feel for what photos sold best.
“Names make news. There’s a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that”
“Crime was my oyster,” Weegee wrote in his 1961 memoir, “Weegee by Weegee.” “I was friend and confidant to them all. The bookies, madams, gamblers, call girls, pimps, con men, burglars and jewel fencers.”
Weegee’s peak period as a freelance crime and street photographer ran from the mid-1930s into the postwar years. He took thousands of photographs that defined Manhattan as a nightscape of hoodlums and gangsters, Bowery bums and tenement dwellers and victims of domestic disturbance, fires and car crashes. Aptly, he named it “The Naked City”. Weegee became a celebrity in his own right even creating a rubber stamp that he used to sign his photos that read “Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous”.
By the early 1940’s, Weegee was beginning to achieve success outside the mainstream media when in 1941, The Photo League in New York held and exhibition of his work and later in 1945 with an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art. Weegee published 3 books of his work in the later 1940’s and his book “Naked City” inspired the movie “The Naked City” in 1947 which prompted him to move to Hollywood.
Weegee mingled with the Hollywood crowd, getting a couple of bit parts in small films, but by 1951, he was back in NY. Until his death in 1968, he spent his time experimenting with trick photography and distortions. He also toured the United States and Europe giving lectures and relishing in his fame.
Weegee still remains popular today and is still shown in galleries and museums around the world. His work is now owned by the International Center of Photography in New York.