In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a short, slightly stout, cigar-smoking photographer stalked New York for news, night after night, with a Speed Graphic camera and a pocket full of flashbulbs. He shot murder after murder, fire after fire. He found time to document Bowery drunks, war parades, Harlem night-clubbers, couples necking on the beach and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
His stark, black-and-white crime photos, heavy on the flash, just as heavy on the darkness, were shown in the Museum of Modern Art as early as the mid-1940s. Now 150 of his photos are on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 15, on loan from the International Center of Photography (ICP) in New York.
Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama covers the full range of the photographer's known work, from packed crowd shots at Coney Island to his images of bloody gangsters, face down on the sidewalks, from shots of goofy-faced entertainers at Sammy's — a favorite Bowery hangout — and candid pictures of burlesque dancers to his distorted portraits of famous people, such as Marilyn Monroe.
Arthur Fellig — aka "Weegee" — spent his life as a salesman, whether he was pushing Wrigley's Chewing Gum and Hershey Bars as a teen-ager, passport photos years later or, with less success, his distorted, experimental photos during the last 15 years of his life. He even turned his later TV appearances into real-life product placements, wearing cameras and other products and slipping in a promotional line or two. The multiple guerrilla ads netted him hundreds of dollars at a time.
In his pitch for a place among the era's great photographers, Weegee, like many salesmen, probably stretched the truth a bit, calling into question some of the stories he told about himself in his 1961 autobiography, Weegee on Weegee. His drive to succeed and the looser journalistic ethics of the day raise the likelihood that at least a few, if not more, of his thousands of photos were posed or altered in some way.
"He was an independent. That meant that if he didn't sell his photos, he didn't eat," says Miles Barth, author of Weegee's World, the 1997 book based on the ICP's collection.
In years of research, Barth found that Weegee wasn't beyond changing his photos to make a few more sales. In "Shorty, the Bowery Cherub, New Year's Eve at Sammy's Bar," a midget wearing a diaper and a hat labeled "1943" drinks a pint of beer while standing next to other bar patrons. Barth saw the same photo in newspapers in following years, except that Weegee changed the year to 1944, then to 1945.
"And somehow it was never detected," Barth says. Or editors didn't care. "There were no real rules at that time."
But Barth believes this was the exception for Weegee. "I think the vast majority of his photographs were straight photographs, not manipulated."
Simple truths, mysteries
Weegee, born Usher Fellig, came to the U.S. with his parents and three brothers in 1910 at the age of 10 from what was then Austria. A bureaucrat at Ellis Island Americanized his first name to Arthur.
We know Fellig took thousands of pictures for New York newspapers in a freelancing career, especially from 1937 to 1946, before he moved to Hollywood. There he began experimenting with distorted lenses and consulting on films, but he lived off his reputation as a crime photographer until he died in 1968, probably from diabetes-related complications, according to Barth.
But there's a lot we'll never know about Fellig. He wasn't close to his family or many people in general, and he kept very few records. He wasn't Weegee until his co-workers at Acme Newspictures in the 1920s or 1930s nicknamed him "Ouija," after the paranormal board game, for his ability to get pictures first.
Fellig coined the phonetic spelling "Weegee" and spent the rest of his life trying to live up to the name.
For example, his autobiography matter-of-factly talks about his psychic powers, as if there were no question he could foresee crime. Years after he stopped taking crime photos, he went on talk shows and kept up his image as a hustling crime photographer, although he seemed to have quit that line of work because the gruesome scenes had become too much to handle.
"I think Weegee just gave up. I just think that he couldn't deal with it," Barth observes.
Fellig also granted himself a reputation for doing well with the ladies. He wrote about meeting women in camera clubs for amateurs during his Acme days when he was a darkroom man.
"I would take the girl up to Acme, show her a few pictures from the file and have a ball," he wrote.
But he also described visiting whorehouses the way someone else might talk about buying a loaf of bread or going out to dinner. And he wrote about the many times he picked up women from street corners in New York, hoping for some intimate companionship. Sometimes he gave them rides home, sometimes he bought them dinner or a movie, but always they ditched him before the first kiss. It was always a dupe from the beginning, and he usually spent a couple dollars in the process. He seemed to be as interested in how they were going to swindle him as he was in the potential for a brief romance.
Somehow the sadder parts of Weegee's life are more believable than his bragging, although there's no way to know if there's truth to any of it. In the same paragraph when he talks about picking up camera club girls and having "a ball" in the darkroom, he inadvertently shines a little light into his personality.
"Any woman who takes up photography as a hobby has something lacking in her life; she must be emotionally starved, as I was," he wrote.
Weegee's life's story was further clouded by the 1992 movie, The Public Eye, starring Joe Pesci, much of which was filmed here in Cincinnati. Howard Franklin, the movie's writer and director, was inspired to create the cigar-smoking photographer, Leon "Bernzy" Bernstein, after seeing a show of Weegee's photos in the 1980s. Franklin repeatedly denied the movie was about Weegee, and Wilma Wilcox — the woman in charge of the photographer's estate and his self-described "soul mate" — died in 1993, a year after the film came out, without trying to publicly denounce or correct it.
It's only appropriate that someone else borrowed his life's story to make a new fictional character.
Whether Weegee was more of a ladies man or a lonely man, he — with a lot of help from Wilcox, a Quaker and social worker he met in the 1940s who later became determined to preserve his work — left behind an extensive collection of pictures documenting New York City in the late 1930s and early 1940s. His photos are a World War II-era insomniac's view of the city.
The young Fellig's first job, he wrote in his autobiography, was independently selling Wrigley's Chewing Gum, Hershey Almond Bars, Greenfield's Sponge Candy and other candy when he quit school at the age of 14.
After a street tintype photographer took his picture, Fellig used some of his money to buy a camera outfit from a mail-order company. After several months of using it, he got a job with a commercial photographer who shot sofas, pianos, chandeliers and other items too heavy for traveling salesman to carry. The company also documented burned buildings for insurance claims.
"The place looked more like a morgue than a photo studio," he wrote.
Fellig received his first photo assignments from the commercial. He lugged an 8-by-10-inch camera, a tripod and flash powder around New York to shoot buildings. He mainly ran errands, dried prints and swept up.
Two years into the job he became a camera operator but got only a $2.50 raise to $7.50 a week. The former camera operator had been getting $25 a week. Fellig was denied half that, so he quit.
He'd also been working nights selling candy at a burlesque theater. He used some of that money to buy a secondhand 5-by-7 view camera. He rented a pony and named it "Hypo" (after a darkroom chemical used to remove fixer from prints) copying another photographer he worked for. He roamed the neighborhood on weekends, when kids were better dressed, and lured them into his frame with Hypo.
"So I'd grab them, wipe their dirty faces, give them a little ride, and shoot their pictures — not forgetting to take their names and addresses," he wrote. Then he'd print the photos and visit the parents. Some families had no furniture, just soapboxes. But he made enough sales to get by.
"The people loved their children and, no matter how poor they might be, they managed to dig up the money for the pictures," Fellig wrote.
A month of rain and 10 weeks of stable fees for Hypo put him $500 in the red and ended his business. He tried using a toy car instead, but the kids didn't like it. It was 1918, and Fellig was 18.
By now he had left home and was sleeping in parks, missions and Penn Station, getting to know the type of people who later starred in his photos. Fellig eventually got a job as a busboy and began staying in Bowery flea-bag rooms that cost 25 cents a night. Soon he began to feel fenced in by the busboy job. It was a feeling that — combined with his ego — later led him to quit several well-paying photography jobs.
"He had a problem dealing with his lack of recognition," Barth says. "And I think that continued his whole life."
The photographer moved from job to job. He handled a pick and shovel, washed dishes, mixed candy, made biscuits and even punched holes in Life Savers candy, he wrote. He also worked with banquet photographers, portrait photographers and other photography-related jobs.
Then he caught a break and got a job with a passport photo studio, starting at $15 a week. Customers only needed two photos, but Fellig found he could sell some of them a 24-photo deal for $25, which landed him a raise to $40 a week. After three years there he again had that restless feeling, so he quit to take a job with Acme Newspictures as a "darkroom man" for $20 a week.
"But I didn't care about the money. I would be learning something new, and that would be exciting," he wrote in his autobiography.
Acme, the precursor to United Press International (UPI), was where he learned what news pictures were about. Through his hands passed history, from the first photos ever transmitted by telephone, to dirigible crashes, to World Series photos, and so on.
The legend of Weegee began. He was good at getting pictures in quickly. Once he used a rented ambulance to shuttle boxing photos to Acme while unsuspecting cops cleared the way. He developed the negative during the drive. The scoop earned him a $2-a-week raise.
The Acme editors eventually let him cover stories at night because no one else was around to shoot them. He also began shooting for The World Telegram at night, but his photos were always credited to Acme Newspictures, not Weegee.
By 1935 he was earning $50 for his darkroom work at Acme, but he was feeling restless again. He wanted to be a full-time photographer who got credit for his work. Acme never put photographers' names under the pictures.
"I was unhappy and restless. I still wanted to move ahead. I knew that I was destined for fame, for big things, and there I was still stuck in the darkroom developing other people's pictures, waiting for the off-chance picture assignment to keep me happy. I yearned to go out and shoot all the pictures myself," he wrote in his autobiography.
So Weegee once again left a comfortable job for an uncertain future. He picked an apartment behind the police headquarters in Manhattan, got a police radio and started his shift at midnight by stopping by headquarters.
"Crime was my oyster and I liked it — my post-graduate course in light and photography," he wrote.
Those were his days
The next 10 years of his life, culminating in his best-selling book, The Naked City, in 1945, transformed Fellig fully into Weegee, and Weegee into a man in demand.
When he started as freelancer, he earned $5 a photo, and editors were interested in mob murders, fires and accidents. Once Life magazine paid him $35 for two photographs of murder victims.
"Life magazine pays $5 a bullet. One stiff had five bullets in him, the other had two," he wrote. Other newspapers paid $5 per alarm for fire photos; a three-alarm fire meant a $15 check.
By now he had taken most of the guess work out of his shooting. He set his camera and flash to take shots at 10 feet or 6 feet, effectively turning it into a point-and-shoot camera.
In a matter of years, Weegee had photographed so many shootings of men wearing "pearl gray hats," the uniform of the rank-and-file mobster, that newspaper editors were bored and had trouble telling them apart.
He branched out into more feature-style photography after being offered a weekly paycheck at PM, a progressive newspaper that emphasized photography and accepted no advertising. During its run, 194048, PM became a magnet for talent, publishing stories by Ernest Hemingway and photos by Margaret Bourke-White, among many others. Weegee took assignments, but was also left to take the photos he wanted to.
This 10-year span was the era when he made his mark. It gave him the material for Naked City and the follow up, Weegee's People, which opened up freelancing gigs in Vogue and other magazines. But once Weegee stopped taking his gritty news photos, he was never as successful.
Barth talked to a man who was an editor at Popular Photography in the 1950s. Weegee repeatedly tried to sell him his distorted photo experiments, but the editor turned him down almost every time. Finally the editor began sneaking out a back door every time he heard Weegee coming in. Barth figures Weegee received similar treatment more than a few times later in his career.
"It's something that I don't think Weegee ever got a drift of," Barth says. "Overall, I think (Weegee's) story is more of a sad one than a happy one."
Thanks to Wilcox, the ICP has more than 14,000 prints by Weegee and about 1,000 negatives. It's not a large collection, considering how many he shot. Often he turned over his negatives to the paying newspapers.
The earliest photo that can definitely be linked to Weegee was shot in the mid-1930s, when he began to get credited for his work. But this journalistic phase of his career ended when he left New York in 1946, Barth says.
"It was a very short career by comparison to other photojournalists," Barth observes.
There are many gaps in Weegee's work and in his autobiography. He undoubtedly shot many hundreds of photos he was never specifically credited for during his Acme days. In his 10 years of freelancing in New York, Weegee claimed to have worn out 10 cameras and five cars and to have consumed 20 cups of coffee and 20 cigars daily.
Until the mid-1950s, he took occasional crime and news photos for magazines and newspapers but, at one point, he gave it all up to concentrate on his distorted photography.
"One night at about 8 o'clock, in January 1954, I was riding around Greenwich Village," Weegee wrote. "From force of old habit, I had my police radio switched on. I picked up an alarm. An airplane had crashed into a Wall Street skyscraper. I knew that I could have been on the scene before the ambulance arrived. But I said to myself, 'No!' I was through with that stuff and that kind of picture. My blood bath was over."
And so was the drive that turned a poor Austrian immigrant into a cigar-chomping, photographic celebrity.
Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama, a traveling collection of 150 of Arthur Fellig's photos, is on display at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Sept. 15.