The other day, Flavorwire, one of my favorite pop culture sites, posted a most anticipated art exhibits of 2012 list. In it, they mentioned a photographer I never heard of: WeeGee, or Arthur Fellig.
WeeGee was a press photographer in the 30s and 40’s who documented life and death in New York City. He never shied from photo-taking at crime scenes and made sure to get the most dramatic photos possible (even if it meant staging the photo, as seen with ‘The Fashionable People’ three photos down). According to Wikipedia, WeeGee carried a dark room in his trunk and worked out of nightclubs to ensure his promptness.
WeeGee’s gritty photography quickly earned him acclaim and in the mid 40’s, his work was shown at MOMA, and he released his first book of photography. Later on, he even was honored by the great acting talents of Joe Pesci, who loosely played WeeGee in the film The Public Eye.
What do you think of WeeGee’s work? Do you think it’s exploitative or do you find it an important documentation of history?
WeeGee is one of America’s most important pop culture icons. His work inspired, or at least influenced, generations of street and documentary photographers to explore our culture beneath the banal facade.
Apart from crime scene photography, while his photos may at first glance seem exploitative, a closer look reveals a real rapport and sense of empathy. At worst his photos occasionally show ironic juxtaposition of elements. But his photos weren’t deliberately cruel and didn’t mock his subjects.
Also, some of his photos of people in places like movie theaters (such as the above photo of lovers necking at a 3D movie) were not quite as overtly intrusive as they may appear – he used infrared film and flash with a heavy filter that blocked visible light. Whether that technique was privately intrusive is debatable.
BTW, WeeGee inspired several fictional characters in movies and TV, including one of your favorite shows, The X-Files. Take a peek at the episode “Tithonus” with Geoffrey Lewis playing a seemingly immortal photographer named Alfred Fellig.
Wow. Thanks for all of that! I must be the only bozo who had no idea who WeeGee was! I actually remember that ep of X-files!