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.
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]