(Poland, United States of America 12 Jun 1899 – 26 Dec 1968)
16.5 x 19.5 cm image (irreg); 25.3 x 20.7 cm sheet (irreg)
‘I keep to myself, belong to no group, like to be left alone with no axe to grind.’ Weegee 1945 1
Weegee represented the antithesis of all that had gone before in American photography. Born Usher H Fellig, he was given the nickname Weegee (from the ‘Ouija’ board) for his uncanny ability to anticipate breaking news. A freelance tabloid photojournalist to the New York dailies between 1936 and 1946, his sensationalised and voyeuristic representation of the nocturnal character of New York, teaming with victims and vice, read like an ‘extraordinary psychological document’.2 Working with a 4 x 5 inch Speed Graphic press camera and electric flash, Weegee’s hit and run technique was similar to Jacob Riis in that he shot in the dark whether people acquiesced or not, relying on intuition and chance.3 Both the front pages of the daily newspapers and art-gallery walls celebrated his brutally direct and bold photographs. Early exhibitions were held at the Photo League in 1941 and 1944; the first was titled ‘Weegee: murder is my business’. His work was included in the 1943 ‘Action photography’ exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 1945 his book ‘Naked city’ became an instant classic, granting him celebrity and a ticket to Hollywood.
Over the course of his freelance career, Weegee recorded many facets of New York. In addition to the tragedy of everyday life, he photographed fleeting moments of comedic relief, although with the same penchant for sarcasm and irony. In ‘Tramp’ 1940s (AGNSW collection) Weegee’s fortuitous timing reveals a visual pun between the shopfront advertising message ‘official tire inspection station’ and a homeless man’s actions, who is seated on the sidewalk examining his feet.
An image of Beat lifestyle is encountered in the quirkily contrived depiction of a soirée in ‘Greenwich Village pad’, reflecting not only a widening of representation in Weegee’s repertoire of urban subjects, but also his transition from 1940s street scenes to more creative photographic pursuits in the 1950s. In ‘Tramp’ and to a lesser degree in ‘Greenwich Village pad’ the subjects are encircled by light which brilliantly illuminates them in bold contrasts as though they were actors on a stage.
1.Vettel-Becker P 2005, ‘Shooting from the hip: photography, masculinity, and post war America’, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis p 71
2. Newhall N quoted on the cover of Weegee’s ‘Naked city’ 1945, in Roth A ed 2001, ‘The book of 101 books: seminal photographic books of the 20th century’, PPD Editions, New York p 118
3. Westerbeck C & Meyerowitz J eds 1994, ‘Bystander: a history of street photography’, Thames & Hudson, London p 335
© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007
Martyn Jolly, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'International photo-documentary', pg.151-167, Sydney, 2007, 163 (illus.).