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“Murder is my business” – said Weegee, the real-life Nightcrawler

Tijana Radeska
Weegee

Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur (Usher) Fellig, a photographer and photojournalist, recently known as the inspiration for the main character (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) in the movie Nightcrawler.

Being the only New York newspaper reporter with a permit to have a portable police-band shortwave radio made him one of the most noticeable and unique photographers in history.

He also maintained a complete darkroom in the trunk of his car, to easier get his freelance product to the newspapers. Weegee worked mostly at nightclubs; he listened closely to broadcasts and often beat authorities to the scene.

Usher Felling (he later adopted the name, Arthur, because of it’s ‘American sound’) was born in Złoczów, Austria-Hungary (now Zolochiv, Ukraine) and emigrated with his family to live in New York in 1909. He was a self-taught photographer and held many photography-related jobs from the age of 14. In 1924 he was hired as a dark-room technician by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International Photos). He left, however, in 1935 to become a freelance photographer.

Describing his beginnings, Weegee stated:

“In my particular case I didn’t wait ’til somebody gave me a job or something, I went and created a job for myself—freelance photographer. And what I did, anybody else can do. What I did simply was this: I went down to Manhattan Police Headquarters and for two years I worked without a police card or any kind of credentials. When a story came over a police teletype, I would go to it. The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something.”

After he started working as a freelancer he centered his practice around police headquarters and in 1938 obtained permission to install a police radio in his car. This allowed him to take the first and most sensational photographs of news events and offer them for sale to publications such as the Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Post, the Sun, and PM Weekly, among others.

Weegee's rubber stamp for signing his pictures. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Weegee’s rubber stamp for signing his pictures. Wikipedia/Public Domain

Most of his notable photographs were taken with very basic press photographer equipment and methods of the era, a 4×5 Speed Graphic camera preset at f/16 at 1/200 of a second, with flashbulbs and a set focus distance of ten feet.
While Fellig would shoot a variety of subjects and individuals, he also had a sense of what sold best:

“Names make news. There’s a fight between a drunken couple on Third Avenue or Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares. It’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that.”

Weegee is famously credited for answering “f/8 and be there” when asked about his photographic technique. Whether he actually said that or not, the saying has become standard advice in some photographic circles.

In 1957, after developing diabetes, he moved in with Wilma Wilcox, a Quaker social worker whom he had known since the 1940s, and who cared for him and then cared for his work. He traveled extensively in Europe until 1968, working for the Daily Mirror and on a variety of photography, film, lecture, and book projects.

Dr. Strangelove poster. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8705446

Dr. Strangelove poster. Source

He also experimented with 16mm filmmaking himself beginning in 1941 and worked in the Hollywood industry from 1946 to the early 1960s, as an actor and a consultant. He was an uncredited special effects consultant and credited still photographer for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

On December 26, 1968, Weegee died in New York at the age of 69.