Weegee

By: Luc Sante
June 12, 2010


WEEGEE (Usher Fellig, 1899-1968) was the archetypal American tabloid photographer. His name may have derived from “squeegee” — from early newspaper darkroom jobs — but he clearly preferred that it be thought to come from “ouija,” a reference to his allegedly precognitive talent for arriving at photo opportunities while the bodies were still warm. He is often given too much credit, for pioneering crime-scene photography, for example, an art that had been mastered by others long before his time. On the other hand he was a poet of the urban night, rivaled only by Brassaï in his ability to enhance its mysteries while subjecting them to flashbulb glare. And he was maybe the greatest populist photographer ever. Like an actor or a writer who can unassumingly articulate the wishes and fears of the average pedestrian, Weegee was the stand-in for his audience — the people who crowded around and gaped at accidents and shootouts and movie premieres. He was direct, broad in his humor, low-church in his critique, alternately sentimental and cruel. In his greatest pictures he dispensed with the ostensible subject altogether and looked at the onlookers, letting their eyes transmit the horror or pathos or occasional beauty. He faded from immediate relevance around the time his constituency fled to the suburbs. — illustration by Joe Alterio

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Egon Schiele, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Kira Roessler, Djuna Barnes.

HILO HERO ITEMS by LUC SANTE: Dashiell Hammett | Pancho Villa | James M. Cain | Georges Bataille | Félix Fénéon | Émile Henry | A.J. Liebling | Jim Thompson | Joe Hill | Nestor Makhno | Hans Magnus Enzensberger | Captain Beefheart | William Burroughs | Ring Lardner | Lee “Scratch” Perry | Serge Gainsbourg | Kathy Acker | Arthur Cravan | Weegee | Alexander Trocchi | Ronnie Biggs | George Ade | Georges Darien | Zo d’Axa | Petrus Borel | Blaise Cendrars | Alexandre Jacob | Constance Rourke | Damia | J-P Manchette | Jean-Paul Clebert | Pierre Mac Orlan | Comte De Lautreamont | André Breton | Robert Desnos | Arthur Rimbaud |

READ MORE about members of the Hardboiled generation (1894-1903).

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Art, HiLo Heroes

What do you think?

  1. I understand his importance as a recorder of Auld New York but his later “artistic” works, though–or perhaps because–they foreshadow Warhol (a fan and subject), convinced me he was little more than an opportunistic chancer who knew how to ride a wave when a hepcat handed him a surfboard. Albeit an opportunistic chancer with a great eye, as you say, for standing in for tabloid audiences. Okay. I suppose it makes him all the better a lowbrow hero that he had a go at fleecing nobrow rubes but between those atrocious efforts and his sometimes astonishing cruelty towards his subjects I just can’t celebrate him. I’ll take what I can (which is a lot) from his pics but I won’t call him hero or poet.

  2. Ah, TG, judging moral intent is a mug’s game in general, but especially so in photography, where chancers opportunistic and otherwise rule the field. And the Weege sure never fleeced anybody, except maybe himself. And those bad effects were a case of desperate water-treading in his last years, when his original context had disappeared.

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