New Budapest photo exhibition ‘Weegee – the Famous’ presents New York street life
The sensational images of Arthur Felling, widely known as Weegee, made him synonymous with the Big Apple in the 1930s. A new exhibition at the Mai Manó House presents 104 of his best photos, delving deep into the evening secrets of the city that never sleeps. On view until 20 January, 2019.
Outlaws, people fleeing flaming buildings, policemen, firefighters, strippers taking a break, people fallen asleep at strange places and those caught up in sudden calamity of crime are the main subjects of Weegee’s photographs, with ever-buzzing New York in the background. A master of down-and-dirty street photography and photojournalism, Weegee was always at the right place at the right time to capture the action amid the New York nightlife of the early 20th century.
Weegee was born Usher Felig into a Jewish family in what is now Ukraine. But when Usher was ten, as so many others at that time, the Feligs set off for America, the land of hope and dreams. Usher Felig became Arthur Fellig. When a street photographer took a picture of him, Arthur fell in love with photography and from then on, didn’t want to do anything else. He left school and got hired to take photos for magazines. He soon bought himself a pony, named Hypo after the chemical solution used to process pictures, and took photos of children on it, trying to charge their parents for the fancy shot. This didn’t really work out, so Arthur turned to news photography, and created a whole new persona: Weegee.
Arthur had an amazing ability to get to wherever he needed to be, murder, fire, suicide or car crash, at exactly the right moment. He lived close to police headquarters and, without a steady job or a family – as he once said, he never wanted a hot dinner or a husky kid – he could stay up all night to chase crime and women. From dusk till dawn, he followed police and emergency services around. Whatever happened, he was always there but beyond that, he had a fantastic talent to tell a story, which eventually made him Weegee, the Famous. He got this name, a phonetic rendering of Ouija, the board used by psychics, for sniffing out stories.
In 1938, Weegee was the only reporter in New York with permission to run a portable police-band shortwave radio, so if anything happened in the city, he was one of the first to find out. Adding a complete darkroom in the boot of his car, he was able to get his sensational images to newspapers – the Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Post, The Sun and PM Weekly – long before anyone else.
His work started attracting outside interest and his photos were exhibited at museums. His career catapulted him to success, for better or worse. He went on to publish several books and moved to Hollywood, where he played small parts in movies and even worked with Stanley Kubrick, taking stills during the filming of Dr. Strangelove. By now, Arthur was putting a trademark Weegee stamp on his photos. He learned how to distort images – like his famous photo of Marilyn Monroe – and gave up his digs near police headquarters. He also got married. Later he moved back to New York, and died of a brain tumour at age 69.
Self-taught and extremely talented, Weegee can be seen as the American counterpart of Brassaï, who photographed Paris street scenes at night. Through telling whole personal stories through a photograph, his oeuvre also paints a portrait of the nocturnal life of New York before the war.
You can see 104 of Weegee’s best photographs on display in a suitably cool black-white-and-yellow setting at the Mai Manó House until 20 January.