Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, was the proto-paparazzo, introducing wartime America to the pleasures of gawking at crime scenes and misbehaving rich people.
The first photojournalist to be granted permission to carry a New York City police radio, Weegee had a murky relationship with accuracy, freely admitting to recreating events, inking puddles of blood or paying drunks to be in his shot.
“Any ethics he had were mostly about identifying with the working class,” said Richard Meyer, associate professor of art history at USC College and co-author with Anthony W. Lee of Weegee and ‘Naked City’ (University of California Press, 2008). The book is part of a new series titled “Defining Moments in American Photography.”
“Weegee would identify more with the paparazzi than with celebs,” he added, noting that one way to understand paparazzi culture is as revenge against the rich and famous.
However, Weegee would soon become a minor celeb himself. Meyer provides a detailed look at how the publication of the photography book Naked City in 1945 brought art-world credibility to Weegee’s work and helped the lowbrow tabloid form become more acceptable to highbrow audiences.
“Naked City allowed people who would not otherwise want to admit that they liked to look at these sorts of images to look at the photography under the guises of art or literature,” Meyer explained.
Collecting photographs from Weegee’s career as a freelancer and staff photographer for news wires and tabloids like PM Daily and the New York Post, Naked City was an instant blockbuster and went through a printing a month in its first six months of release.
After the success of Naked City, The New York Times, which had repeatedly refused to publish Weegee’s work as journalism, ran a photograph in the Arts section.
“Weegee might not have been a great artist, but he was a great tabloid photographer, and the time has come to reckon with him on his own low terms,” Meyer said.
For the first time since their original publication, Weegee’s photographs are presented in Weegee and ‘Naked City’ as they appeared to tabloid readers in the ’30s and ’40s. Many of the most expensive Weegee prints on the market were rescued from newspaper files, but “even though the prints are now valuable, no one wants to talk about what else was in the newspaper with them,” Meyer said.
Weegee often wrote the captions and articles that accompanied his photographs, taking the opportunity to mock the “high hats” of society or to mention that he arrived on the scene before the police.
“What the art world wanted was trash. When Weegee thought he was making news, making the most lurid imagery, that’s what later became valued as art,” Meyer said.
Surprisingly, even though Weegee’s most prolific period was from 1935 to 1945, there is almost no reference in the book or his photographs to World War II, Meyer noted.
“There is violence in Weegee’s pictures, but it is almost always local violence — freak accidents or mob hits,” Meyer said. “He provided a colorful account of city life that drew people’s attention away from world events in a way that was somehow pleasurable.”