rthur “Weegee” Fellig is best known for his crime scene photographs taken around New York throughout the mid-1930s and 40s. Untrained by formal means, Weegee had a natural eye for composition, which effectively added an aura of artistry to his routine shots of dead bodies and stunned on-lookers. His unique approach and friendly nature soon made him as well known as his photos, and yet despite fame, Weegee chose for the most part to remain loyal to the very streets he grew up on.
Weegee started out in the newspaper business around 1924 as a darkroom technician. He began filling in as a news photographer soon after, and by 1935, he was freelancing full time. He was well known then by the major newspapers and equally known amongst the local law enforcement agencies whose districts he covered. Being a likable guy, he was able to install a police radio in his car (which also contained a portable darkroom in the back seat and a typewriter in the trunk) giving him not only his pick of scenes to photograph, but the obvious ability to get there faster than the competition.
Aside from his work with crime – and later his celebrity photography, Weegee also spent many hours photographing the street scenes of his lower east side neighborhood, capturing the faces and personalities that inhabited it. Here, his natural eye for composition captured something quite different from his usual post mortem fare; a slice of life from streets, as poignant as any produced by Margaret Bourke-White and as timeless as the sentiments of a Steinbeck novel (although probably closer to a Hubert Selby, Jr. novel the more I think about it).
How can it be that photos taken in New York during the 1940s seem more relevant today than today’s actual photos? It’s true that investigative journalism has all but been erased from mainstream formats and replaced by meaningless infotainment (or worse, the outright lies seen daily on Fox news), but we can’t just blame the system. We have the Internet after all.
And if not today’s then tomorrow’s photojournalists will surely benefit from comparing the vanilla point and shoot photography we have to look at everyday in our local papers against Weegee’s almost 70-year-old body of work. We as designers clearly know a picture truly is worth a thousand words. Today we should be asking who those words really belong to. Weegee’s subjects spoke a truth, no matter how gritty or raw, alive or dead. A truth that was so clearly communicated, the results strangely reflect our present day reality far more effectively than our actual present day reality does.
For more information on Weegee, check out the following links: