There were 8 million stories in the Naked City, and he didn’t want to be just one of them: He wanted to be Somebody. Born Usher Fellig in what is now Ukraine, he was given the name Arthur at the age of 11 when his family immigrated to New York City. The son of a hat peddler, he held many jobs, finally settling in as a darkroom assistant, or “squeegee boy,” at Acme Newspictures. He quit at 36 to make a name for himself as a tabloid photographer, carving out a niche after dark, when there was little competition—photography, after all, means “engraving with light.” New York was a tough town during the Depression years when he made the nights his own. He called his subject the Naked City, and he exposed its meanest streets with all the cynical glee of a hardboiled exhibitionist/voyeur. He called himself Weegee, as in Ouija board, hinting at an uncanny ability to discover where the bodies were buried. And he became a self-made legend in his own time.
Tips and stakeouts
The tools of his trade seem quaint today. Weegee lit the neon nights with the pop of the recently invented flashbulb, developing film in the trunk of his car—instant photography. He used old-fashioned shoe leather, too. He left his tiny apartment across from police HQ to roam the streets and stake out nightclubs, keeping a jaundiced eye out for celebrity misbehavior. With a dozen newspapers hot off the presses every morning, editors needed lots of fresh meat. Weegee monitored the dark side on a police band shortwave radio. He often beat the cops to the scene of the crime, capturing the reactions of gawkers as well as the gory details. Some of his pictures, like the gutter-eye view of gangster Dominick Didato (right), were considered too graphic to print—New York Post editors chose a frame taken from a greater remove, showing uniformed waiters hovering near the body. Such tableaux mordants not only made the shutterbug’s reputation but colored the way Americans viewed New York City—as a glamorous but dangerous place. That was Weegee’s World. “Murder,” he boasted, “is my business.”
Books and movies
Within a decade of going freelance as a journalist, the prince of the darkroom had become the Prince of Darkness. The Museum of Modern Art acquired some of his work in 1943; his book Naked City (the dedication: “For you, the people of New York”) became an instant best seller in 1945—and Hollywood bought the rights to the title. Intrigued by filmmaking, Weegee worked as an actor (often playing himself) and consultant. He is credited as the still photographer for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964; he is uncredited as the voice coach for his influence on Peter Sellers’ accent. Weegee traveled in Europe, but always kept a home in New York. A decade before his death in 1968, he moved in with social worker Wilma Wilcox, who later donated his archives to the International Center for Photography. The center’s current exhibit, “Murder Is My Business,” which includes a recreation of his old coldwater flat, confirms that this immigrant did indeed make it big. He was Somebody: He was Weegee.
Originally published in the August 2012 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.