WEEGEE


WEEGEE (1899–1968), U.S. photographer. Born Usher Fellig in what is now the Ukraine, Weegee went to the United States, where he was renamed Arthur, as a boy. He was the second of seven children of Jewish parents who fled antisemitic pogroms spreading throughout the Russian *Pale of Settlement. Weegee became the ultimate crime-news photographer in a newspaper career that ran from 1935 to 1946.

Weegee attended local public school on the Lower East Side up to seventh grade. At 15 he left home and earned his living selling candy to factory workers and working in restaurants. He became an assistant to a photographer, loading glass-plate holders and magnesium flash power. For a time he accompanied silent films on the violin, and he later wrote that he loved playing on the audience's emotions. One critic said he simply switched instruments. After years on the fringes of photography as a street portraitist, darkroom assistant, printer, and technician, he set out as a freelancer, hanging out at Manhattan police headquarters, waiting to fill the needs of picture-hungry tabloids and magazines. He specialized in the night shift, from 10 P.M. to 5 A.M. He lived in a rundown room near a police station and woke up as night fell. He was the first photographer given a permit to install a short-wave radio for police and fire calls in his car, and he had a small darkroom in his trunk. He was usually the first to arrive at a murder scene, a fire, an arrest, or a rescue. Gangland killings became a trademark, but he had remarkable range, from the homeless, to strivers, to freaks, politicians, and celebrities to tender shots of people afflicted or uplifted by everyday life. He exposed the faces of accident victims, survivors, and helpless sufferers. In one famous image, two women watching relatives burn to death in a fire are convulsed with grief and horror. In his book Naked City, Weegee said he cried when he took the picture. A critic said he combined "instincts of a bloodhound, a Peeping Tom, a showman and a human-interest editor." Weegee himself said, "Crime was my oyster, and I like it, my postgraduate course in life and photography."

Weegee used infrared film to register in the dark or low light to catch lovers in the movies and on the beach at night. His artless, mostly unposed, shots not only made him famous but also inspired a generation of younger photographers, from Diane *Arbus to Andy Warhol. One of Weegee's more famous photographs, "The Critic," of 1943, shows two elegantly clad women, furred and jeweled, sweeping grandly past a shabby, angry-looking bystander as they arrive at the opera. The truth, as Weegee revealed in his 1947 book, Weegee's World, is that he asked an assistant to ply the "bystander," a regular at bars on the Bowery, with cheap wine and then pose her near the curb as the socialites emerged from their limousines. Disheveled and barely able to stand up, she stared drunkenly at the women as Weegee's flashbulbs popped.

His only steady affiliation, with the newspaper PM, lasted 4½ years, beginning in 1940. Some of his most important work appeared in PM. After the publication of Naked City, Weegee went to Hollywood, where he served as a consultant on the film made from his book and played some minor film roles. He was the set photographer and technical consultant for Stanley *Kubrick's antiwar classic Dr. Strangelove (1963). Kubrick originally ended the film with a pie fight in the war room. He didn't like that ending, so he destroyed the negative and replaced it with the final wild cowboy ride on a nuclear bomb. The only record of the pie-fight sequence is Weegee's photographs.

No one is sure where he got the name Weegee, which he adopted in 1938. Some said it came from his job as a "squeegee boy," removing excess water from prints before they were put in darkroom dryers. Others suggested that it reflected a craze in the 1930s for the supposedly clairvoyant Ouija board, whose fanciful border was illustrated by fictional characters, one of whom resembled the photographer. Weegee himself said the name reflected his own clairvoyance at sensing photo opportunities, but his statements were not always trustworthy. Later he elaborated the name to Weegee the Famous.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.