Just imagine a charismatic, almost tragicomic figure driving around New York City in his Speed Graphic with a bulb flash and a permanently lit cigar. Now picture this figure as he speeds through the streets of the city that never sleeps, listening to the radio frequencies broadcast by Manhattan police radios. Well, now visualise him one last time arriving at the scene of the crime before the patrols and managing to capture a moment that will net him hundreds of dollars.
Well, if you’ve managed to imagine all that, and if you’ve even better set it in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps even adding a noir atmosphere, then you’ll be able to believe the story I’m about to tell you.
Today I am talking about Arthur Fellig, better known in the world of photography and photojournalism as Weegee.
A strange name for a character with just as many peculiarities. Weegee, probably derived from Ouija (the well-known demonic board game) or from “squeegee” or “squeegee boy”, was the nickname that brought fame to this Austro-Hungarian photojournalist, who photographed crime stories in the period before the Second World War, reporting not only for documentary purposes but also for artistic purposes.
It has to be said that Fellig was brave enough to do what made his name; the risk of running into the wrongdoer was always high. Yet he wasn’t interested in being afraid, and Weegee seems to have had a motto linked both to his way of photographing and to his way of working: “f/8 and be there”. A particularly harsh motto if we think that his subjects were often freshly dead bodies, people who were injured, traumatised or in particularly difficult conditions.
But not only that, some of his shots depicted the more worldly, party-going and sometimes boorish aristocracy, revealing a side of them that must have appeared almost carnivalesque to other social classes at the time. Weegee’s aim, however, was to show in an authentic and unfiltered way what he saw and perceived, showing the “dark side” of certain events and environments that were often sugar coated in those years.
His twisted mind can hardly be described in words, so much so that his images, purchased by the MoMa, spoke for themselves at the time as they do now. New York’s most famous freelance photojournalist was riding high at the time, and remained so until the 1950s.
His most important side-projects included collaborations with authors and artists such as Stanley Kubrick and other big names in cinema. It wasn’t until later in the 1900s that Howard Franklin wrote the film The Public Eye (1992) based on the figure of Fellig, played by Joe Pesci.
Personally, one shot that I find amazing is Woman Shot From Cannon, which was taken during a project about the freaks, acrobats and circus people of those years. The shot itself is of course very self-descriptive, but the compositional power of it is stunning and the elements depicted give the scene an almost cartoonish feel.
Weegee has been a strong source of inspiration for the generations that have followed him, and his shots have proved instructive for many aspiring photojournalists who wanted to experience and breathe in the air of last-second snapshots and rush work that characterise the profession of the storm photographer.