Arthur H. Fellig [1899 – 1968], better known by his pseudonym Weegee, was an American photographer and photojournalist renowned for his stark black-and-white street photography of New York City.
He emerged in the 1930s as a chronicler of the city’s underbelly, capturing the raw and often gritty realities of crime, poverty, and urban life. Weegee’s work was characterized by its immediacy, use of flashbulbs, and unflinching portrayal of the human drama.
He was known for his ability to capture the unexpected moment, often using his Rolleiflex camera from the hip, earning him the nickname “The Naked Eye.”
Weegee’s photographs became iconic images of New York City, capturing its energy, social contrasts, and enduring appeal. His work continues to be admired for its honesty, its historical significance, and its enduring impact on the field of photography.
Read the full Biography below.
Photography Quotes From Arthur H. Fellig
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Weegee’s nickname originated from his fascination with the Ouija board.
Videos about Arthur H. Fellig
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Weegee’s darkroom was famously located in the trunk of his car.
Photography Books: Arthur H. Fellig
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Weegee’s work extended beyond photography into filmmaking and writing.
Biography of Arthur H. Fellig
Early Life and Emigration to the U.S.
Weegee, born Usher Fellig on June 12, 1899, in Złoczów (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Ukraine), immigrated to the United States with his family in 1909, settling in New York City’s Lower East Side.
The Fellig family faced the typical challenges of immigrant life, living in poverty and struggling to assimilate into American society. These early experiences in a rough, bustling urban environment would later profoundly influence Weegee’s photographic work.
Early Career and Name Change
Initially working odd jobs to support his family, Weegee eventually discovered photography, a medium that would define his career. He changed his name to Arthur Fellig (later adopting the moniker “Weegee,” a phonetic rendering of “Ouija,” due to his seemingly supernatural ability to arrive at crime scenes before the police).
Rise as a Crime Photographer
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Weegee began his career as a freelance photographer, focusing on crime scenes in New York City. He worked primarily at night, listening to a police radio and rushing to crime scenes to capture photographs before other reporters arrived. His uncanny ability to be the first at the scene of a crime or disaster earned him a reputation among the police force and other journalists.
Distinctive Style and Approach
Weegee’s photography is characterized by its raw, unfiltered portrayal of urban life. His flash photography captured the gritty reality of New York City during the 1930s and 1940s, a period marked by the Great Depression and the rise of organized crime. His subjects ranged from murder victims and perpetrators to the crowds of onlookers that gathered at crime scenes.
Weegee’s work did not shy away from the macabre or sensational; instead, he presented life in the city with an unvarnished truthfulness. His images often contained a stark, almost brutal honesty, portraying the city as a place of drama, tragedy, and occasionally dark humor.
Influence and Recognition
By the 1940s, Weegee had become a notable figure in New York City. His work was regularly published in newspapers and tabloids, influencing the visual language of photojournalism and crime reporting.
He was one of the few photographers at the time who focused on lower-class subjects, offering a window into aspects of life that mainstream media often ignored or glossed over.
Weegee’s Photographs in the Art World
Weegee’s photographs eventually gained recognition in the art world. His work was included in exhibitions and acquired by museums, acknowledged for its artistic value and its documentary significance.
His unorthodox compositions, use of harsh flash, and stark contrasts added a dramatic quality to his images, elevating them beyond mere crime scene reportage.
Later Career and Experimentation
In the 1950s, Weegee moved to Hollywood, working less on crime photography and more on celebrity portraits and film set photography. This period also saw him experimenting with photographic distortions and manipulations, creating surreal and often whimsical images that contrasted sharply with his earlier work.
Legacy and Death
Weegee died on December 26, 1968, in New York City. His legacy lies in his unique portrayal of New York City life, capturing moments of drama, pathos, and irony with a directness and intensity rarely matched. Weegee’s work documented the city’s history and influenced generations of photographers and artists who drew inspiration from his candid, impactful style.
Today, Weegee is remembered as one of the pioneers of American street photography, transforming how urban life is perceived and depicted in photographic imagery. His unflinching eye and relentless pursuit of the decisive moment continue to resonate in the world of photography and beyond.