Weegee

27th October 2019

“I have no inhibitions and neither does my camera…”

“To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.”

Weegee

Weegee’s real name was Arthur (Usher) Fellig  but was known by his pseudonym Weegee which is pronounced like the Ouija board. This pseudonym was given to him because he was supposed to have a sixth sense as to where and when crimes and disasters were happening (mostly at night) and he would turn up to the crime scene by following the emergency services. However, it was found out hat he was listening to the police radio broadcasts and no ‘sixth’ sense was involved.

He was a photographer and photojournalist and was known for his high contrast black and white street photography in New York City. His images included scenes of urban life, night life, crime, injury and death and he also made his own films and worked with Jack Donohue and Stanley Kubrick within the Hollywood film industry.

His street photography would include images of the ‘dark and secret’ side of city life which often was hidden within the night, for example: murder victims, muggers, and transvestites. He would also photograph circus performers and street performers. As well as crowds and street people.

One of my favourite series that he took were shots of movie audiences in 1943 New York. I think this subject is special because it is a dark and private place where people are in close contact with each other and lost in the dimension of concentration. For these photographs he used an infrared flash and a special film. The shots are simply stunning, perfect in fact! They capture the ‘activities,’ facial expressions and body positions so naturally.

If you follow this link to the website, slate.com, there is an article with many more of the movie photographs. The article is called; ‘Weegee’s Classic Photos of New York City Moviegoers in the 1940s’ and is written by Jordan G. Teicher.

Below are a selection of my favourite images:

Photographic Technique

Most of his notable photographs were taken with a 4×5 Speed Graphic large-format press camera and flash– which added drama to his gritty black and white photos. It was preset at f16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet.

This pre-set camera allowed Weegee to work fast in situations where subject matter and scenes were constantly changing:

“The subject is news photography. This was the most wonderful experience for any man or woman to go through. It’s like a modern Aladdin’s Lamp, you rub it and, in this case the camera, you push the button and it gives you the things you want. News photography teaches you to think fast, to be sure of yourself, self confidence. When you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.

“Now the easiest kind of a job to cover is a murder, because the stiff will be laying on the ground, he couldn’t get up and walk away or get temperamental, and he would be good for at least two hours. So I had plenty of time.

From a 1958 interview with Weegee (source unknown, taken from website erickimphotography.com)

Weegee was also known for the use of a flash in his street photography other than the commonly used flashbulbs.

Back then a flash was not an electronic gizmo but an actual flaming torch, activated by adding a spark to magnesium metal. Weegee’s preferred method was to blow the flash powder onto an alcohol-soaked rag. It would take more than a decade before he would handle his first battery-powered flashbulb, removing at least one occupational hazard and encouraging him to fine-tune his work’s signature look: glaringly high-contrast images with the whites bleached out, as if to bring out the darkness of crumpled metal, a grimy sidewalk or a victim’s blood.

nytimes.com A Portrait of Weegee That Captures the Man and the Myth in Full by Jennifer Szalai
Weegee with the Speed Graphic press camera and flash. Image from the website International centre of photography

Here is an excellent slideshow of a mixture of Weegee photographs with an interview with him as the soundtrack. In the video he talks about his career and gives advice to those wanting to become news photographers.

Weegee interview

One of the aspects that I like about Weegee’s work is how he doesn’t always focus on the main subject. The main focus point may be the dead body, the fire in the street incident or performers etc.. What Weegee would do is photograph the crowd and capture their reaction to what was going on. In the interview he said that once you had seen one fire, one burning building they are all the same. Turn around, look around and notice the people, their reactions, facial expressions the working of the people at the incident. This is unique, this is personal and is story worthy.

As a last note to add to my research: In the 1950s and 1960s, Weegee experimented with panoramic photographs, photo distortions and photography through prisms. Using a plastic lens, he made photographs in which faces is were distorted but still recognisable.


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