Weegee the Famous was born Usher Fellig in the Ukraine in 1899, but when he and his family moved to New York in 1909, he became Arthur. After a succession of odd jobs he began working as a freelance photographer and as an assistant to a commercial photographer before being hired as a darkroom technician by the photo agency, Acme Newspictures. It was here that he received the apprenticeship which allowed him to go fully freelance in 1935.
New York was Arthur’s city, the area around the Manhattan police headquarters his locale and the night his photographic canvas. Thanks to a police wave radio fitted into the boot of his car (he was the only newspaper reporter with a permit to have such a shortwave radio; he also had a mobile darkroom fitted into the boot) he would get to any crime scene before the police would or could, get his picture and escape to sell it to the next morning’s newspapers. Such was his almost psychic ability to do this that he soon earned the nickname Weegee: a phonetic rendering of ‘Ouija’. Arthur added ‘the Famous’, and had a stamp made to imprint his newfound moniker on the back of his prints. Arthur was not slow in coming forward and promoting both himself and his work, and by 1938 he and his 4×5 Speed Graphic (preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second), large flashbulbs and set focus of 10ft were a permanent fixture of New York’s nighttime clubbing underbelly.
In 1943, the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) bought five of his photographs and commissions from both Life and Vogue magazines soon followed. But it was his first book published in 1945, devoted to his adopted city and his nighttime images, Naked City, that established him as a creator of the iconic images which have come to epitomise the city, its inhabitants and the Thirties. Its cinematic qualities were immediately recognised by the filmmaker Mark Hellinger, who bought the rights to the title from Weegee and used the aesthetic of his images as the visual foundation of his 1948 film, The Naked City, about a model’s murder.
Throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Weegee experimented with 16mm filmmaking, and worked in Hollywood from 1946 through to the early ’60s, as both an actor and a consultant. Most notably he was the unaccredited special effects consultant and credited stills photographer for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. His heavily Russian-accented New York speaking style was also one of the major influences on Peter Sellers’ portrayal of the title character.
At heart Weegee was a restless spirit, and throughout the 1950s and ’60s he experimented with panoramic photography, photo distortions, plastic lenses and prisms. He contributed a sequence featuring distorted traffic to the 1950 film, The Yellow Cab Man. He photographed nudes, befriended pornographers and, in 1966 – just two years before his death – he starred as himself in a nudie-cutie exploitation film intended to be a pseudo-documentary of his life titled The ‘Imp’probable Mr. Wee Gee. Weegee loved the concept, if not the reality of, celebrity and, with his arrival in Hollywood in 1946, he found himself able to photograph the subjects he really loved; instead of the New York murder scenes that had given him his own celebrity. Once relocated he could photograph the Hollywood celebrities, starlets, autograph seekers and shop window mannequins that intrigued him. “Now I could really photograph the subjects I liked,” said Weegee of his newfound career in Los Angeles. “I was free.”
Soon after his arrival there, however, Weegee quickly realised what a strange culture Hollywood was, and set about developing a trick elastic lens in response that would stretch and twist an otherwise glamorous photograph into something grotesque; revealing what he saw as the ugly side of celebrity. As such, Naked Hollywood is like a dysfunctional relative to its brutal, in-your-face companion, Naked City. It’s like Tom Waits versus Lou Reed.
His aspirations of becoming a rich and famous star were never realised in Los Angeles, however, and he moved back to New York City in early 1952. The 200 images within Naked Hollywood document the lurid, irresistible undersides of stardom, fandom, commerce and self-promotion in mid-century Los Angeles that so obsessed Weegee. But as well as showing Weegee as a photographer and documenter of the darker side of the Hollywood dream gone awry, Naked Hollywood also explores his work as an author, filmmaker and photo-essayist. Naked Hollywood was originally published as a hardback in 1953, before then being reissued in true Weegee style as a pulp paperback in 1955. Although they are both still available through specialist dealers, this latest edition is as comprehensive a document of one of photography’s most charismatic characters as you need – and believe me, this is a book you need.
© Grant Scott 2012
Naked Hollywood: Weegee in Los Angeles: Richard Meier, Skira