For much of his career, photographer Weegee was, in his own words, “spellbound by the mystery of murder.” His images have the air of a still from a film noir, photographed as they were usually at night and often with infrared film and flash. He paid special attention to the expressions and gestures of his subjects, who for the most part came from the lower strata of New York society.
The son of a rabbi, Weegee (born Arthur H. Fellig) immigrated to America at the age of ten. He left school at fourteen and supported himself for a number of years at odd jobs, including as an itinerant street photographer. In the 1930’s he acquired his first Speed Graphic, a 4x5 hand-held camera that was then the standard model used by newspaper photographers. He habitually used on-camera flash lighting, which isolated his subjects in a blast of light against a dark background and gave a stark, punchy quality to his pictures.
Weegee’s newsbeat was New York City. He received his nickname – an allusion to the Ouija board – because he arrived early so often at the scenes of news-making crimes or catastrophes (it was a radio constantly tuned to police calls, not a mystical connection, that got him there). His 1945 book, Naked City, from which the title for a movie and popular television series was later taken, made him a celebrity; in his book he recorded bleeding corpses, gawking onlookers, firemen with body bags, and other daily events in New York. Documenting violence was his specialty in the early part of his career, and he was fond of displaying a check from Time Inc. with the notation “Two Murders, $35” neatly typed on the stub. But Weegee also photographed more benign scenes – children playing in the spray of a fire hydrant, Frank Sinatra’s fans swooning, Hollywood and New York City celebrities, and similar subjects. His photographs have a spontaneity and often a wit that go far beyond ordinary news photography.
Weegee once explained: “Here’s my formula – dealing as I do with human beings, and I find them wonderful: I leave them alone and let them be themselves – holding hands with love-light in their eyes – sleeping – or merely walking down the street. The trick is to be where the people are. One doesn’t need a scenario or shooting script, all one needs to do is to be on the spot, alert and human. One never knows what will happen…. I am often asked what kind of Candid Camera I use – there really is no such thing – it’s the photographer who must be candid”