Arthur Fellig is one of the most famous American photographers of all time and must surely rank amongst the top ten best known street photographers, with his easily recognizable style of black and white imagery which he developed by following the emergency services to the scene of the crime or accident and documenting what he found there.
It is the realism that he captured with his camera that has emblazoned his name in the history books forever more.
His photos of car-accidents with the occupants lying in their own blood, criminal acts and other shocking scenes, remain in memory long after the image has been removed from view. Almost paradoxically, he also loved to stage images such as the picture of two ladies wearing capes with fur collars and tiaras walking past a woman of the street in 1943.
He was known as the photographer Weegee, a nickname he was given by his colleagues, a phonetic spelling of Ouija, the board game, which was given to him by his colleagues who jokingly said he had psychic powers and could accurately predict when a disaster would strike.
He used to drive a maroon coloured Chevvy coupé fully equipped with a portable darkroom in the boot, extra cameras, flash bulbs, a typewriter, a supply of cigars and salami and even a change of underclothes. Armed with a police radio he always had the scoop on every crime as he would rush to the scene of the crime before any other photographer could get there. He thrived on disasters: fires, murders, gang wars, kidnaps, shootings... the stuff of tabloid dramas.
His car was his second home and he would start out at around midnight, moving from one crime scene to the next all through the night. The first hour or so were the minor crimes, such as peeping Toms, then from one o' clock to two a hold up in the local store; from two to three were the car accidents and fires; by four o clock the bars were all closed and the drunks out in full force creating mayhem; from four til five came the break-ins and smashed windows; and from five onwards were the suicides....
Weegee was never trained as a photographer and he never planned any of his shots. He used to set his camera to f/16 and 1/200th of a second and a focal distance of ten feet and he always used a flash. He wasn't interested in style or even whether the photograph was a good one or not. What he wanted was to capture a moment in time, the moment where emotional impact was greatest.
And although Weegee had systematized the taking of a photograph, he never became emotionally detached. When he photographed a woman and daughter crying helplessly as the woman's other child and a young baby were burning to death inside a house, Weegee said of the photograph he took: "I cried when I took this picture." And the public cried too when they saw his photos.
That was he what he wanted, to involve his audience, to move them to empathy or reduce them to tears, and that is why he is still today one of the best known of all the famous black and white photographers and why he was a great artist.
It's true that most of Weegee's subjects were criminals or victims of crime but to believe that he had a morbid interest in humanity or even that he was a ruthless journalist is to miss the heart of his work. His stories were not designed to be sensationalist but to evoke in the viewer the deeper emotions that he himself felt towards a suffering humanity. Perhaps it would be best to end with a quote from Arthur Fellig himself, which seems to sums up this great photographer:
"When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track." - Arthur Fellig
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