Austrian photographer and photojournalist, Arthur Fellig, came to notoriety in the 1930’s and 40’s as a press photographer while working in the lower East Side of New York City. His most notable photo’s came from his work on crime scenes, where he was able to capture unflinchingly realistic scenes of urban life, crime, and death.
Fellig worked incredibly quickly and efficiently, earning him the nickname “Weegee” – a phonetic rendering of “Ouija” – because of his prescient arrivals at scenes only minutes after crimes. He practically lived out of his Chevy, where he had converted the back seat into a homemade darkroom. A self-taught photographer, Fellig was economical with his equipment, most of which was “very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16, @ 1/200 of a second with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet.” This provided an instantaneous result to his photography that gave the impression of a “hot off the press” sensation.
His work belongs to the darker side of the American psyche, closely associated with the cinema of film-noir and the paintings of George Bellows and Edward Hopper. As metropolitan areas such as NYC were expanding into grandiose pillars of American ingenuity and prosperity, Fellig resided in the dark, murky shadows casted by the excessively adored skyscrapers. His photos are violent examples of sensationalism that reflect not the romanticized American dream, but the realistic American nightmare.
In Gordon Theisen’s book, Staying Up Much Too Late, he analyzes Fellig’s work as an example of art as a craft: “They [the photos] glisten with anguish and, taken as a group, provide a powerful vision of the most modern of cities as a modern inferno, where anything but especially death – whether accidental or resulting from passion or ruthless calculation – can happen anywhere, on any corner” (Theisen 50).
Fellig’s photography from crime scene’s have an underlining sense of eerie anonymity, perhaps because his camera captures the result rather than the cause – the corpse but not the killer. Theisen goes further to provide explanation for this eeriness by implying that Fellig imposed an antagonistic sense of personification on NYC as the real killer: “…because the gritty night congeals around his parade of misfortunate victims, we don’t know whom or what to blame but the city itself […] What can people do, crammed together in such conditions, but kill one another on occassion? They do kill and steal and destroy, but it’s the city’s fault” (Theisen 51). Fellig depicts New York as “strange, unforgiving, and egregiously capricious deity.”