At any murder, car crash or arrest in New York during the 1930s and 1940s, Weegee was invariably the first photographer on the scene. Often, he arrived before the authorities — getting early information about crimes from monitoring the police radios he had installed in his car and home, or from tip-offs from his network of bookies, pimps, call girls, and con men.
This seeming foresight gave him his nickname, Weegee — adapted from ouija boards used at seances. His real name was Usher (he changed it later to Arthur) Fellig, from Austrian Galicia, now part of the Ukraine.
Like many other Jewish immigrants to New York, his family settled in the Lower East Side which provided the backdrop for many of his images. “He captures the quintessential New York and the experience of living here,” says Denise Bethel, head of photographs at Sotheby’s New York.
Now some of Weegee’s iconic images are on show at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London, including photographs of Jewish personalities from the Lower East Side — personalities like Harvey Stemmer and Henry “The Moustache” Rosen, suspected traffickers in stolen goods who were arrested for trying to fix a basketball match, and like the customers and entertainers at Sammy’s Bowery Follies, a notoriously seedy cabaret club.
Weegee’s work tended to champion the underdog, whether within the Jewish community or among the African-Americans in Harlem. “He shows the common person with a sense of dignity and empathy for humanity. And he treated the criminals in the same non-discriminatory way,” says Howard Greenberg, owner of the prestigious Howard Greenberg Gallery which specialises in street photography.
The city’s Yiddish theatre scene which was flourishing at the time, also shaped the photographer’s work. “We can see his engagement with the Yiddish theatre in his sense of humour and his appreciation of performance,” says Brian Wallis, chief curator of the International Centre of Photography in New York which holds the Weegee archive. “At Sammy’s, for instance, he would capture anything wacky and slapstick.”
Weegee was attracted to anything bizarre and extreme. “He got the images of weird New York unlike anyone else. With his use of the open flash, he froze moments where the elements of the photograph took on a surrealist look, such as the street scene where a mannequin looks like a dead body,” says Greenberg.
Weegee encouraged his own celebrity, labelling himself “Weegee the Famous” and the “World’s Greatest Photographer.” And it is true his work stood out from other photographers of the time.
“Weegee timed things to get the shot. For example, he hung around long after the other photographers had left, or went to a different door,” says Wallis. “He could construct a narrative in a single, dramatic shot to a far greater degree than the others.”