Weegee Himself

Weegee, [Weegee gets a tip from a PM news seller, New York], ca. 1941 (19644.1993)


Let’s talk about that name first. Or, rather, those three names.

Usher Fellig was a greenhorn, a hungry shtetl child from eastern Europe who spoke no English. When he came through Ellis Island in 1909, at ten years old, he reinvented himself, as so many immigrants do. In his first years in New York, Usher became Arthur, a Lower East Side street kid who was eager to get out of what he called “the lousy tenements,” earn a living, impress girls, make a splash. He had turned his name (slightly) less Jewish, and his identity (somewhat) more American, as much as he could make it. As a young man, he was shy, awkward, broke, and unpolished, and at fourteen he became a seventh-grade dropout. He was also smart, ambitious, funny, and (as he and then his fellow New Yorkers and eventually the world discovered) enormously expressive when you put a camera in his hands…
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, Christopher Bonanos, p.[xiii].

Weegee, The Author of the Almost Perfect Crime, New York, ca. 1941 (19672.1993)

Arthur Fellig, as Weegee, was in the business of grabbing images that functioned as little one-act plays, both comedy and drama. They were the silver halide equivalent of that six-word novel spuriously attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” Fellig communicated in a visual language that both tabloid-reading subway commuters and arty museum curators grasped right away. You can’t say the best narrative he ever fashioned was his own—he made too many great photographs that tell vivid stories about other people—but Weegee himself was certainly the beat he sustained longest. In the archive of his work (preserved by his longtime companion Wilma Wilcox, and today held by the International Center of Photography) there are about nineteen thousand prints. Hundreds of them show Weegee himself, a mix of self-portraits and photographs by unnamed friends and colleagues. He was obsessed with his own public face…
Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, Christopher Bonanos, p.[xiii].

Weegee, [Weegee and elephants, New York], ca. 1943 (19833.1993)

Most of us have an image in our heads of the big-city newspaper photographer at midcentury: the squat guy in a rumpled suit and crumpled fedora, carrying a big press camera with a flashgun mounted on its side, a stinky cigar clamped in the corner of his mouth. Central Casting deserves only a little of the credit. Weegee is the man who created that image, and it has outlived his mainstream fame. People who have never heard of Weegee can describe him. He not only took hold of his life and redefined it; the image he created of himself lingers, fifty years after his death, to the point where he has become an archetype as much as a person. “He rather likes to pass himself off as a character,” wrote John Lewis, an editor at the newspaper PM, where Weegee did some of his best work. “He is, but not exactly the same one.” The public-facing persona furthered his career, but it was the one within who framed the shots and pressed the shutter button. Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, Christopher Bonanos, p.[xiv].

Weegee, I like to photograph children… this is a gag shot of me… with a brownie camera, New York, ca. 1940 (19809.1993)

[Wilma] Wilcox continued to work as a Quaker missionary, traveling to Kenyan villages and the West Bank to teach and support local cultures, and she took many (quite good) pictures of her own. On the side, she continued to lend Weegee’s prints for exhibition, sell some of the mountains of duplicates to collectors, and generally coax Weegee back into public view wherever she could. In 1989, she and Da Capo published The Village, the book for which Weegee had assembled a mock-up in his last years, and it is an underrated, superb document. She was a generous gatekeeper, and she is the silent hero of Weegee’s story… Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, Christopher Bonanos, pp. 318-9

Gerald Straw, [Wilma Wilcox editing Weegee’s photographs, New York], ca. 1975 (2012.52.1)

A few photos of the photogenic and often funny Fellig (fortunately at home in front of and behind a camera), and the “relentless nonconformist” and “undomesticated” Weegee, to commemorate the publication (on June 5, 2018) of the fantastic book Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous, by Christopher Bonanos. (One of the very few people who have had the pleasure of looking at and reading every single item in the Weegee Archive.)

Above, a portrait of the heroic and industrious Wilma Wilcox; below, Weegee himself:

[Weegee Himself, Weegee Archive, New Jersey], 2018

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