Arthur Fellig earned his nickname “Weegee”, a phonetic rendering of Ouija, because of his frequent arrivals at scenes only minutes after crimes, fires or other emergencies were reported to authorities. He is variously said to have named himself Weegee or to have been named by either the staff at Acme Newspictures or by a police officer.
Another version claims that the nickname originates from his work as a darkroom assistant, also known as a "squeegee" boy.
Some photos, like the juxtaposition of society grandes dames in ermines and tiaras and a glowering street woman at the Metropolitan Opera (The Critic, 1943), turned out to have been staged.
Most of his notable photographs were taken with very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4x5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet. He was a self-taught photographer with no formal photographic training. Weegee developed his photographs in a homemade darkroom in the rear of his car. This provided an instantaneous result to his work that emphasized the nature of the tabloid industry and gave the images a "hot off the press" feeling. While Fellig would shoot a variety of subjects and individuals, he also had a sense of what sold best.
In 1938, Fellig was the only New York newspaper reporter with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio. He maintained a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car, to expedite getting his free-lance product to the newspapers. Weegee worked mostly at nightclubs; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene.
In 1943 five of his photographs were acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. These works were included in their exhibition entitled, Action Photography. He was later included in "50 Photographs by 50 Photographers", another MoMA show organized by photographer Edward Steichen, and he lectured at the New School for Social Research. Advertising and editorial assignments for magazines followed, including Life and beginning in 1945, Vogue.
Weegee experimented with 16mm filmmaking himself beginning in 1941 and worked in the Hollywood industry from 1946 until early 1960s, as an actor and a consultant. He was an uncredited special effects consultant and got credited as still photographer for Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. His accent was one of the influences for the accent of the title character in the film, played by Peter Sellers.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Weegee experimented with panoramic photographs, photo distortions and photography through prisms. Using a plastic lens, he made a famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe in which her face is grotesquely distorted yet still recognisable. For the 1950 movie The Yellow Cab Man, Weegee contributed a sequence in which automobile traffic is wildly distorted. He is credited for this as "Luigi" in the film's opening credits. He also traveled widely in Europe in the 1960s, where he photographed nude subjects. In London he befriended pornographer Harrison Marks and the model Pamela Green whom he photographed.
In 1966, two years before his death, Weegee starred as himself in a "Nudie Cutie" exploitation film, intended to be a pseudo-documentary of his life. Called The 'Imp'probable Mr. Wee Gee, it saw Fellig apparently falling in love with a shop window dummy, which he then traces to London, before finally ending up in Paris, all the while pursuing or photographing various women.
Photo credit: © WestLicht Photographica Auction