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Weegee
biography and exhibition of the American photographer in the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. Get the catalogue from
Amazon.com.
Added in October 1999, Cosmopolis N° zero, October 25/November 30, 1999


"Murder at the Feast of San Gennaro",
September 22, 1939; 31 x 26.4 cm.


"Ambulance Plunges Bringing Death to Two",
August 24, 1943; 33.8 x 26.8 cm.


"The Critic", November 22, 1943; 25 x 32.3 cm.
First published in LIFE, December 6, 1943.

Copyright for the three photos: Weegee/International Center of Photography/Hulton Getty.





Weegee was born in 1899 in Zlothew near Lemberg. Then, the city was part of the Austrian province of Galicia, today part of Ukraine. His real name was Usher (later Arthur) Fellig. He was the second of seven children from Jewish parents. In 1903, antisemitic campaigns spread throughout the Russian Pale. Pogroms unseen since the 1880s forced thousand of Jews to emigrate. In 1905 Russian revolutionaries almost succeded to overthrow the Tsar. The Fellig family acted as intermediariy between the local farmers and the central government supplying food and other provisions to the Austrian army. Because of their Jewish background, they lost their army contract and were left on the brink of ruin. Therefore, Weegees father left Europe in 1906. His family followed him in 1910 to the land of oppportunities. But life wasn't easy at that time in New Yorks Lower East Side where Weegee attended the local public school up to seventh grade. At that time, more than 500 000 Jewish immigrants lived in the neighbourhood. Only fifteen, Weegee left home and earned his living selling candy to factory workers and working in restaurants. In 1917, he got a job in a photo studio that produced photographs of objects for traveling salesmen's portfolios and architectural views of Lower Manhattan's new buildings. Soon he became an assistant to a camerman.  Weegee had to load and change the glass plate holders and to prepare the magnesium flash powder. An ensuing arguement over wages cost him his job. He did some work on his own with his secondhand camera and he continued to play the fiddle. In 1921, he got a part-time postion in the darkrooms of the New York Times and its agency Wide World Photos. But soon afterwards he switched to Acme Newspictures. The agency was a source of photographs for the three New York daily newspapers Daily News, World Telegramm and Herald Tribune. Frustrated with the lack of recognition for his work,  not having his name on his photographs, he became a freelance news photographer by late 1935.

He almost instantly got succes. He specialized on the night shift between 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m. His reputation spread quickly for always being one of the first to arrive at a murder scene, a fire, arrest or rescue event. Among this type of photographs, there is the one above: Murder at the Feast of San Gennaro, September 22, 1939. By 1937, his success had earned him profile pieces in LIFE and Popular Photgraphy magazines. In 1938, as one of the first civilians and as the first photographer, Weegee was granted a permit to install and operate a shortwave radio capable of receiving all police and fire transmissions from his 1938 Chevrolet. In the jargon of the newsroom, the different corpses were classified as roasts (fire victims), dry divers (people jumping off buildings) or bottom feeders (victims of drowning), like the ones in Amulance Plunges Bringing Death to Two (August 24, 1943).
 
In 1940, Weegee got a job as special contributing photographer for PM Daily, a paper created in June 1940. Now, Weegee not only had his photographs signed, but from time to time he could add text to his pictures or even write whole stories. He got exhibitions and up to the publication of his first book in 1945, Nacked City, Weegee stayed with PM Daily. His photobook was a huge success. Among Weegees favourite subjects was New York's night life, with its bars and all types of entertainment. Weegee showed <his> New York, in all its contrasts. Classes and culturs clashed in the nightly activities, such as in the third photograph on this page, The Critic (Nobember 22, 1943). Weegee cared about the ordinary people as much as about the high society and the stars. For a short time, Weegee experimented unsuccessfully with film in Hollywood in 1948. He returned to New York in 1952. In his later years, Weegee made also experiments with manipulated photographs. Among them is a series of disfigured heads of stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Jerry Lewis.
 
In the fifties and sixties, Weegee published several books on (technical instructions to) creative photography. In 1957, he was diagnosed as diabetic. Weegee spent his last eleven years with his friend Wilma Wilxoc. After his death on December 25, 1968, she cared about his photographic heritage and saved it for posterity.


Our article on Weegee is based on the exhibition catalogue: Miles Barth, editor: Weegee's World. Little, Brown & Company, 1997, 262 pages, 265 black & white photos. Get it from Amazon.com.

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