Nineteen-thirties New York was a newspaper photographer’s dream. It was the golden age of Murder Inc., a gang of Jewish hitmen, and small-time wiseguys and would-be stool pigeons were getting popped left and right, as governmental agencies tried to clamp down on organized crime. Plenty of photojournalists prowled the streets, consigning all that blood to history. But perhaps none was more inventive, or, to the point, more sensational, than an Austrian-born immigrant who went by the name of Weegee.
It fell to this resolute ambulance chaser and self-proclaimed “staff photographer for Murder Inc.” to bring the grisliest scenes of 1930s and ’40s New York–not just gangland violence, but also gruesome car accidents, and wild tenement fires–into America’s kitchen. The casual goriness of his dramatic, black-and-white photographs helped set the standard for what we think of today as tabloid photojournalism. No doubt, they also had an influence on film. It’s impossible to watch the piano photomontage scene in The Godfather and not think of Weegee.
Weegee was born Arthur Fellig. As legend has it, he earned the nickname Weegee, because he was thought to have a sixth sense for sniffing out crime before everyone else, like some sort of underworld Ouija board. In fact, he was just lucky enough to live across the street from police headquarters and clever enough to understand cop chatter on his police-band radio receiver. He also made a point of cozying up to the baddies, befriending everyone from Bugsy Siegel to Lucky Luciano. Weegee claimed he snapped 5,000 murders over the course of his career–an estimate that the International Center of Photography (ICP) calls “perhaps only slightly exaggerated.”
On Friday, the ICP is set to unveil an exhibit on Weegee and the “urban violence and mayhem that was the focus of his early work.” Weegee: Murder Is My Business will feature rare examples of his most iconic crime-scene images, in addition to films, books, and earlier photographs. We’ve got the lurid highlights above. Hope you have a strong stomach.
[Images courtesy of ICP]