The real name of "Weegee" (a bastardization of Ouija, for his other-worldly ability to find fresh crime scenes) was Arthur Fellig (1899-1968), though nobody ever used (or knew) his straight name. He came penniless from Austria and made his name in the Big Apple. Through the 1940s and '50s he was the boss of freelance photography, the cameraman the New York City newspapers preferred to their own men.
As a reviewer once remarked: "[He] had that special touch, some sharp-focus insight into people, some private knowledge of the darkroom chemistry of human beings.... Weegee's single great talent is his unmatched ability to give a 'routine' news shot the savage, dramatic impact it has to the people in the picture."
Weegee is still adored today; a recent exhibition of his work in New York was featured this week in The New York Times. Unfortunately, the recent piece from the Times on Weegee was written by someone without much knowledge of or appreciation for the true crime genre.
We can leave it to the New York Times to excoriate true crime while writing an article lauding a legend of true crime reporting.
The Times article says Weegee "is credited with helping create American tabloid journalism, paving the way for The National Enquirer and TV shows like 'America’s Most Wanted.'"
Hmm. This is grotesquely inaccurate. Weegee might have been a terrific photographer, but he did NOT create "tabloid journalism." Crime reporting was very much alive and well long, long before Arthur Fellig learned how to pop a flashbulb.
Then the Times article goes on to run down so many true crime tangents that I forgot the piece was supposed to be about Weegee. From the article:
His tabloid photos have, since then, been supplanted by cable television and the Internet, which allow Americans to be part of the 24-hour media circuses that endlessly rehash the legal sagas of people like Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson.
Living as we now do in a tabloid culture, it is hard not to identify with Weegee’s ravenously curious onlookers, but it is also hard not to feel a bit wistful, and even worried, about what Weegee has wrought.
In his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” the cultural critic Neil Postman warned that the “age of show business” is not only degrading the culture but also undermining democracy.
While some people worry about America becoming an Orwellian dystopia, the nation as totalitarian prison, the greater threat, Mr. Postman argued, is Aldous Huxley’s, from “Brave New World,” of America becoming a mindless burlesque.
No good can come, he cautioned, “when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act.”
As the nation struggles in an Iraqi quagmire, the economy sputters, and the world turns more intently against us, the American viewing public — the direct descendants of Weegee’s inquisitive street crowds — is growing ever more fascinated by “CSI”-style criminal procedurals and celebrity babies.
If a fraction of the people who instant messaged their votes for “American Idol” had called their congressmen to demand a minimum wage increase, we would not have gone nearly a decade without one.
Phew. How do we get from the photography of a man who documented grim crime scenes to The National Enquirer, a gossip rag, and then to "American Idol" and the minimum wage? Is true crime responsible for all the evils of the world? I have to shrug at that one.
Truth be told, newspapers of today are less graphic than they were in Weegee's day. Trust me on that one -- I've seen some stunning pictures in some yellowing yellow journals that would never see print today. I'll include some examples of Weegee's photography below this post to prove the point. Now tell me the last time your local paper had shots like these.
If you find yourself anywhere near New York City any time soon, you can catch an exhibit called “Unknown Weegee” at the International Center of Photography through August 27.
Death through a lens: that was Weegee.