Weegee: life and crime in black and white

Photographer Weegee—born Usher Fellig in 1899—got his nickname thanks to his Ouji Board–like ability to arrive at crime scenes almost as fast as the bullets flew and the bodies fell.

But Weegee, at left at his 5 Centre Market Street apartment, wasn’t psychic.

The Austria native, who grew up on the Lower East Side, had a shortwave radio that let him listen in on police calls.

He also built a darkroom in his car so he could get his photos to New York’s tabloids in record time.

Weegee didn’t earn his iconic status simply because he was quick. His stark black-and-white shots of gangsters, street kids, regular joes, trashy women, and crowds defined the New York noir style of the 1930s and 1940s.

[At left, “Joy of Living,” 1942, chronicles a hit and run death outside a Third Avenue movie theater]

His 1945 book of photos was even the inspiration for the 1948 classic crime drama, The Naked City.

He wasn’t all about blood and grit. Weegee had a Fellini-esque eye for the weird and wonderful, as well as a soft spot for the tender—such as his 1938 photo of city kids sleeping on a tenement fire escape.

In his 1961 memoir, Weegee wrote: “Crime was my oyster. I was friend and confidant to them all. The bookies, madams, gamblers, call girls, pimps, con men, burglars and jewel fencers.”

He died in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment in 1968. Here’s more on Weegee’s life and photos, from the International Center of Photography.

[Above: “Crime Scene of David ‘the Beetle’ Beadle” 1939]

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11 Responses to “Weegee: life and crime in black and white”

  1. quotidianhudsonriver Says:

    I love his work. He really did define the style didn’t he?

  2. Lisa Says:

    Love the fact that he built a darkroom into his car– what hustle, what can-do attitude! (Not like today’s baby-men digital paparazzi, who just mail ’em in!) .

    I can’t imagine a more perfect NY character than Weegee, or one so aptly named (–but only by a nose over Julius Knipl, Ben Katchor’s fictional NY real-estate photographer).

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Apparently he was quite a character. “Weegee the famous” was his tagline. I wonder what he’d be like if he was around in the reality TV era.

  4. Lisa Says:

    Weegee’s “caricatures”–created by darkroom manipulation– are pretty great, too. Check out Picasso:


  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Interesting. He did a distorted Marilyn Monroe too:


  6. Lisa Says:

    More Monroelike than Monroe herself– like all good caricature.

  7. chas1133 Says:

    That gun outside his window looks just like the one outside Jovino’s on Grand St….wonder if it’s the same one

  8. NYCDreamin Says:

    Seeing his work never gets old no matter how many times you’ve seen it previously.

  9. Nancy Says:

    @NYCDreamin- that’s the definition of an artist.

  10. A posh Nolita alley’s rough and tumble past « Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Centre Market Place also had an illustrious resident in the 1930s: crime photographer Weegee. […]

  11. The cat rescued from a Hell’s Kitchen mailbox | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Meet Blackie, a sleek inky furball who ended up inside a mailbox in Hell’s Kitchen just before World War II. Here she is, posing for renowned crime and police photographer Weegee. […]

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