Weegee: The First Paparrazzi

By Barry Morrison

Weegee’s New York, Photographs 1935-1960. Grove Press, New York, N.Y.
Weegee, also known as Arthur Fellig, was the origin of the archetype of the photojournalist who was always on the scene of the crime, often before the police arrived. Weegee, what an unusual name for a photographer. Weegee the Famous, as he liked to call himself later in his career, fashioned his name after the “Ouija,” a game board which supposedly can be used to make predictions. His ability to predict where the action was, especially at night, may not seem at all that supernatural; after all, he had a police radio in his car and could hear what was going on in the city.

His motto was “F/11 and be there.”

This book is a compilation of 35 years of photographing New York City. The pictures cover everything from fires to murders to strippers, to you name it. Weegee shows us the seamy side of life. We see drunks sleeping on the street in the Bowery, and the aftermath of murders. A photograph entitled “Their first murder” is not of the victim lying in a pool of his own blood, but of a group of onlookers, children gazing at the scene of the crime with a look of strange fascination in their eyes. It is a most unsettling photograph, to say the least.

Weegee was always looking for the scoop, looking at the life of New York, people at work, at play, at love, and at death. He claimed to have covered 5,000 murders in ten years of photographing from police headquarters. The man clearly had a fascination with death, the bizarre the unusual.

Weegee covered a wide range of subjects, but the photographs as a body paint back to one thing: the man was merciless in his portrayal of people, catching them with their pants down, as it were. He did that quite literally in some of his photographs of people escaping from flaming buildings. In one shot, we see a man climbing down a fire escape wearing an overcoat, hat, and shoes, but no pants. Another photograph shows an old man coming down a hallway with no pants on If Weegee saw it, he shot it. One of his most famous images, “The Critic,” appears to show us the striking difference between the rich and the poor, recording an encounter between two heavily bejeweled women on the way to the opera and a poorly dressed, shoddy-looking woman who angrily looks at them and seems to be giving them a piece of her mind. Weegee exploited everybody.

When he was refused permission to photograph or wanted not to be seen, he used infrared film and flash photographed on the sly. Many of his pictures are taken at theatres, at the beach, in exclusive nightclubs, all with the subjects totally unaware of his presence. “Lovers at the Movies I” is a striking image of a young couple at a 3-D movie, oblivious to those seated around them, and the rest of the audience is just as unaware of their actions. Weegee got a thrill out of showing the horror during the strange adventure of New York Nightlife. He uncovers people as they really are, he removes the masks that people hide behind. Many times he deliberately spied on people, always after the photograph that unmasks, that fascinates. The photographs of the murders horrify, the lovers at the beach show private moments that Weegee spied on. A picture o a fat man sleeping on a tenement fire escape during the summer shows how merciless Weegee could be. He didn’t care about portraying his subjects in a flattering manner. He got what was really there.