By Chuck Myers
Knight Ridder Newspapers
NEW YORK -- It's shocking. It's buoyant. Sometimes it's
Mostly, it's unforgettable.
Welcome to ''Weegee's World.''
Between 1936 and 1945, Arthur Fellig, a k a Weegee,
scoured New York City with his Speed Graphic camera,
seeking out newsworthy events high and low. Relentless
in his approach, his camera was indiscriminate and his
His subjects are vivid and varied -- Bowery drunks,
underworld hoodlums, the poor in tenement housing, circus
performers, bar denizens, Sinatra teeny-boppers, lovers
in a theater, lovers on the beach, transvestites --
you name it.
Everyone and everything was fair game when Weegee made
Weegee's unique and irresistible chronicle of big-city
life, made by the man who came to embody tabloid-style
photography, is highlighted in an exhibition at the
International Center of Photography Midtown (1133 Avenue
of the Americas, New York).
''Weegee's World: Life, Death and the Human Drama''
contains over 200 of his spirited images, drawn exclusively
from ICP's archives. The show was organized by ICP curator
Miles Barth and will be on view through March 8.
Fellig was born in 1899 in what is now the Ukraine.
His family immigrated to America and landed in New York
City in 1906. Growing up on the Lower East Side, Fellig
had an impoverished upbringing, and had to sell candy
after school to help support the family.
Fellig's early experience in photography began with
darkroom jobs during the 1920s, first at the New York
Times and later at Acme Newspictures.
While at Acme, he learned the tricks of the trade, and
occasionally went out on photo assignments. Over time,
he grew increasingly frustrated with Acme's practice
of not giving photographers picture credit for their
work. By the end of 1935, Weegee was ready to go out
on his own.
Depending on which version of lore you choose to believe,
Fellig was baptized ''Weegee'' either as a result of
his days working as a ''squeegee boy'' in the New York
Times' darkroom, or because his appearance and poor
hygiene lent itself to a likeness of a fiendish character
found on a Ouija board.
Either way, it's a moniker not easily forgotten.
The show is presented in sections that reflect Weegee's
own picture organization.
One lively set of images spotlights an eclectic group
of festive regulars at ''Sammy's'' -- a favorite Bowery
haunt of Weegee's.
Another suite captures the terror and anguish of tenants
made homeless by a blazing apartment fire.
At the circus, audience onlookers -- taking in comedy
routines and death-defying acts -- were as important
to his imagery as the performers themselves.
Among a series of images taken at Coney Island is a
phenomenal view from July 1940 of an afternoon on the
beach, where nary a square foot of sand can be found
amid the overwhelming throng of lively sun worshipers.
Perhaps the most vivid aspect of Weegee's works is a
striking sense of
immediacy. Although now more than 50 years old, his
photos still possess an uncanny sense of place and time
that virtually draws the viewer right into the setting.
There's also a decidedly voyeuristic element to Weegee's
photos -- a chance to peer into a vortex of human experiences
that exist largely beyond the norm of conventional,
Nowhere is this more evident than with his riveting
Weegee's crime-scene photographs detail victims, perpetrators
and bystanders alike.
From a bird's-eye perspective we look upon gunned-down
gangsters sprawled out on Manhattan sidewalks. We see
gambling fixers under arrest, covering their faces to
the camera's presence. We meet transvestites as they
exit police wagons. And we encounter the grief, concern
and curiosity of a group of Brooklyn neighborhood children
and adults as they react to an unseen victim in ''Their
A tireless night owl, Weegee initially followed the
nocturnal doings of the police and fire departments
either on a Teletype machine or through information
provided by his contacts. Later, he received a permit
to operate a short-wave radio, which allowed him to
monitor events more easily.
Weegee was never employed as a newspaper staff photographer
per se. He worked primarily as a free-lance photographer,
and shot on retainer for PM Daily, a New York daily
tabloid, during the early 1940s.
Weegee's popularity peaked in 1945, following the publication
of 229 of his engaging photographs in ''The Naked City.''
Enthralled with a movie adaptation of ''The Naked City''
two years later, his interests changed direction, and
he headed out for Hollywood.
His tinsel-town experience did not go entirely well.
After some consulting work and a few bit parts in movies,
Weegee returned to New York in 1952.
Rather than return to photographing life on the streets,
Weegee spent nearly the rest of his life experimenting
with photo distortions and abstractions. A selection
of these images is also found in the show.
Diagnosed with diabetes in 1957, Weegee died on Christmas
Day in 1968.
After ''Weegee's World'' closes at ICP, it will begin
a tour of Europe that starts in Paris later this year.