Our Sunday Best :: Weegee drives at night

My name is Weegee. I’m the world’s greatest photographer. . . .Weegee[i]



Weegee drives at night. His 4×5 Speed Graphic sits in a special spot, ready to go, ready to arrive, ready to be a weapon, a tool, a foist.

Weegee drives at night. He’s not aimless about it. Better not to say where he’s headed, just that he’s chewing a cigar and making left after left down the increasingly darker streets of New York City.

He gets there before the cops. That’s the point. The cops’ll goof a picture with their “due process” and their “rules” and whatever. They’ll ruin the composition without realizing it— they’ve done it before.

Weegee parks his car in an alley. He grabs his Speed Graphic with the infrared flash, and flies through the open door of the apartment building where the pajama-dressed neighbors gather in a worried knot.

Before people can think, Weegee asks for the number. A woman with curlers and hairnet and a nice housecoat—good shape, real curvy—tells him which apartment. He turns his eyes upward and counts. He figures he’s got about three minutes before the cops turn up.

The cops know him. They let him get away with a lot, and he appreciates their tolerance. But Weegee likes a fresh body— the dead are easy to photograph; they don’t talk back.[ii]

Weegee is running. Don’t get in front of him when he’s in a hurry. He’ll dodge around you. He’ll “accidentally” nudge you out of his way. He’ll sweet talk you into letting him pass.

One minute.

Watch him bolt down the hallway holding his camera against his chest. Watch him scramble around the corner. Watch him go bug-eyed at the open door of a dark apartment.

Two minutes.

He smiles to himself, gripping his cigar in his teeth. He smiles at the body in front of him, face down in the dark.

From a corner of the living room by the drapes, History is smiling back at him. Weegee doesn’t see it. He’s getting ready to take the picture.

Fifty-three seconds.

Weegee hears the sirens. It’s time.

Photograph of bagel baker by Weegee taken in early morning darkness with a flash.

Max Is Rushing in the Bagels to a Restaurant on Second Avenue for the Morning Trade. [Credit: Weegee / Jewish Museum]

Who is Weegee?

He’s the most famous enigma photography has produced so far.

There are two things people say regularly about Weegee, man about town.

The first thing they say is, “That disgusting man!” and the second thing they say is, “Where’d he come from so fast?”

Where did he come from?

Weegee came from himself. He was his own creation.

But before Weegee, there was Ascher Fellig, a child born in Złoczów, Ukraine, near the Halychyna region, which has been stamped over by every titan with a weapon since the fall of the Roman Empire.

Złoczów and Ascher Fellig share one trait: They both kept having their names changed by other people.

His Jewish Lithuanian parents immigrated to New York. His parents examined their ten-year-old son with gravity. You are Arthur now, said his father. And this is America.

His old name slipped off his shoulders like a homespun coat.

It was so easy to lose a name in this country that Arthur lost his name one more time.

Call me Weegee.

Black and white stamp with the words: "Credit photo by Weegee the Famous."

All of Weegee’s freelance press photos bore his stamp.

Was Arthur Fellig a ghoul?

No. Not really. He was a product of a time, a place and a culture that craved a larger-than-life story. Fellig merely happened to be better at it than most.

And it was all because of love, you see.

In his youth, short, solid Arthur Fellig walked the streets of New York at the turn of the century, memorizing the brownstone buildings and the boys on the corner and the women of the neighborhood with their clothes from the old country patched over with flour sack fabric from the new one.

Similarly, Fellig found his history patched over with new ideas until the old fabric of his childhood could not be seen at all. Fellig became an American when he set foot on U.S. soil, but more pointedly he became a New Yorker, layer upon layer, every time he walked through the city.

[Weegee] spoke the visual language of the interloper so well that it becomes his stylistic trick, his stock-in-trade.

So it is not surprising at all that Fellig fell in love New York through his eyes first. He memorized her luscious long-legged streets. He watched her don a clean crisp dress for the day, and don her street lamp jewels at night.

Here’s the strange part: New York loved him back. She offered so much of herself to him that he came to think of the city as his own. And New York was his, for a time.  All his.

And Weegee was hers, for life.

All the time, the teenage Fellig hustled. New York taught him that. He was an assistant to a commercial photographer. Next, he blossomed into a darkroom technician for United Press International[iii]. New York taught him to be on the make for the next thing and the next.

And New York gave him something else besides her love: a craving to make his mark hard enough where people could see it. So he got out of the darkroom and became a photographer.

Fellig saved up his paycheck, got himself a police scanner[iv] for his one-room apartment on the Lower East Side. He hustled enough work to buy a sturdy secondhand car with a trunk large enough to set up his darkroom equipment.

The trunk-darkroom made it easy for him to process and present his work to his would-be editors before the on-call staff photographers had rolled out of bed and stumbled out into the night to the same crime scene.

Weegee is an anomaly, an enigma, the short, firm line that marks one phase of photography from another.

His photographs are unmistakable: High-contrast black and white images, shot at night with an infrared flash that he called his “Rembrandt lighting[v].”

He photographed murders and deaths, gore muted by his high-contrast style; sweet children asleep on fire escapes on a hot night; society women looking ghastly in his brusque flash; gangsters with hat-in-hand, tenement houses crackling with fire as families wept on the sidewalk.

In short, he photographed everything and everyone. He went farther than anybody. He spoke the visual language of the interloper so well that it becomes his stylistic trick, his stock-in-trade.

Bold in style, bold in content. Weegee’s work shook off the old pictorialist style with bravado. Really, he changed everything about the way we approached photography. And he knew it.

Weegee reclines on bed while listening to police scanner at home.

Self-portrait: Weegee listening to police scanner at home. [Credit: Weegee / ICP]

But, look, see? There was another man beneath that man, a creature so sentimental that you can see his telltale empathy even in the most distressing shots of the weeping, the drunken, and the young. He loved New York, her people, her quirks, her dirt, her secrets.

He wanted all of her to himself. And he had New York, for a time[vi].

Somehow people still slide past his sentimentality, his finesse. Famous critics have been known to say that Weegee doesn’t bother with composition or technique, that he is self-taught. (We know he wasn’t.) They think the man was crude, so his methods must be equally crude.

They didn’t listen to him talk about the editors who turned down work that was too sentimental. Editors wanted an up close shot of a burning building; Weegee said one burning building looked much like another.

The human element, he explained to these editors, and to us later, is what’s important[vii].

Children in 1943 sit in the dark watching a film at the Palace Theater in New York

Girls Watching a Movie. (Palace Theater, New York City, 1943) The sharp contrast in this shot is caused by shooting in darkness with infrared film. [Credit: Weegee / ICP]

You wouldn’t know it from the way certain critics talk that his work was by the early 1940s by the photographic establishment of the day. The Modern Museum of Art (MOMA) bought five of his photographs in 1943[viii].

That’s how he earned his name, you know. He got to crime scenes and fires so fast, the cops and the editors joked that he was like a Ouija board.

By 1943 or ’44, Edward Steichen includes him in his 50 Photographs by 50 Photographers show at the MOMA. (Steichen, as Director of the Department of Photography at MOMA, will be most likely behind the original purchase of the initial Weegee photographs.)

Later, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (who started out as a talented photographer himself) paid homage to Weegee’s high-contrast style in Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned to Love the Bomb).

Peter Sellers himself used Weegee’s unusual voice as a model for Dr. Strangelove’s unplaceable accent.

Weegee will get his fame. But is it the kind of fame he wants?

Maybe, maybe not. It’s more infamy than glory.

We arrive back at the now.

Weegee drives at night. He arranges the streets of the city in his mind like a luminous map of stars; the crackle of his private police band radio[iv] sings lullabies in his ears.

No photographer of the same period divides people’s opinions so decisively as Weegee. What he wants was fame, money, legitimacy. Divisive won’t hurt his chances, in fact it might get him there quicker. As he says himself, “You couldn’t be a nice Nelly and do photography.”

No photographer goes to greater lengths to be the x-marks-the-spot guy. Right place, right time.

That disgusting man! Where’d he come from so fast?

That’s how he earned his name, you know. He got to crime scenes and fires so fast, the cops and the editors joked that he was like a Ouija board.

Weegee takes the shot. Snap! Goes the lens. Pop! Goes the flash.

(Hey, Ouija, what disaster you gonna predict next?)

The young photographer laughed, stuck out his jaw. Ouija? Yeah, I’ll take that, he thought to himself.

He had a stamp made up to go on the back of his photographs: Credit photo by the famous WEEGEE.

That’s the stamp he’ll be using tonight after he photographs the next disaster.

Black and white photo of Weegee the photographer developing a picture in his car trunk.

Self-portrait of Weegee developing photographs in the back of his car. [Credit: Weegee]

The cops turn off the sirens. The woman who was crying is now weeping.

Such a nice man, she’s keeps saying. How’d that happen to such a nice man?

The cops clench their teeth to keep from grinning. They know who he was. This mook was not a nice man. He was a low-ranked mobster with a reputation for violence.

Forty seconds.

The cops go through the lobby door, taking their time. They know Weegee is with the body. The lead detective spotted his car on the side of the building. They make a little noise in case Weegee doesn’t know they are there.

Twenty-five seconds.

While the cops were pulling up to the door, Weegee was checking his equipment using the hall light. When the cops stopped to talk to the woman in the crowd outside, Weegee nudged the dead man’s foot a little closer to his waist so it would fit inside the frame of the image. When the uniformed men opened the lobby doors talking loudly so Weegee would hear them, he adjusted the lens.

Ten seconds.

The elevator door dings down the hall.

Weegee takes the shot. Snap! Goes the lens. Pop! Goes the flash.

Two seconds. One. Now.

The cops walk in and turn on all the lights.

Weegee blinks like a man woken from a deep sleep.

Hey, where you guys been? I been standing around here twenty minutes, two hours, summat like that. This guy. He points with his pinky. He’s dead.

The cops look at each other, snort through their noses. Weegee, you’re a laugh riot.

What are you talking about? He fights to keep his face straight. Gotta go.

Well, see ya, says the lead detective. Hopefully not too soon.

With a half wave, the self-titled Famous WEEGEE is walking down the carpeted hallway, still gripping his press camera in his big paw.

Such is his distraction, Weegee does not hear history slipping up behind him.

Hey Weegee, History whispers. You want fame? You’re going to get it. Tell your gal New York that I’m coming for you. You hear me, Weegee?

He strolls out into the night. He throws his old cigar to the gutter.

It is three a.m. on an anonymous night in 1938. Weegee whistles a tuneless tune walking all the way back to his car.

Children run and play in the cool water from an open fire hydrant on a hot summer day.

Summer on the Lower East Side. (1937) [Credit: Weegee]


[i] From the site Photography Quotations. The quote comes from “Weegee’s New York“, Harvey V. Fondiller, “The Best of Popular Photography” by Harvey V. Fondiller.

[ii] This idea is taken from the slideshow and monologue by Weegee in the video “This Is How.” (Available above.)

[iii] UPI was called Acme Newspictures back in those days.

[iv] Weegee was the only private citizen in New York to ever have a city license for a police band radio.

[v] Read this resource for a discussion of Weegee’s Rembrandt lighting. Please note that his birthplace is incorrectly identified as Austria here.

[vi] He had a brief fling with Hollywood.  It didn’t work out.  He got some great pictures anyway, which you can enjoy in Naked Hollywood. I also own the beautifully edited Weegee’s World.

[vii] This idea is also taken from the slideshow and monologue by Weegee in the video “This Is How.” (Available above.)

[viii] Reference from Wikipedia, which has brief overview of Weegee’s life and work.

BOOKS by (and about) WEEGEE

    The Weegee Guide to New York: Roaming the City with its Greatest Tabloid Photographer. Contributors: Philomena Marianari and Christopher George. (WorldCat)

    Murder Is My Business, ed. Brian Wallis, et. al. (WorldCat)

    Weegee’s World, ed. Alain Bergala et. al. (WorldCat)

    Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles, ed. Richard Meyer, et. al. (WorldCat)