Weegee: Murder Was His Business [HISTORY]

Posted on: June 30th, 2016 at 5:12 am by

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Facing the back of the old Police Headquarters

Picture Depression-era New York. Wait, you don’t have to because he took the pictures for you – Weegee a.k.a Usher Fellig. The man who earned his name based on an uncanny, clairvoyant-like ability to beat police to crime scenes…as if he knew…Ouija. He did, however, live across from the old police headquarters and owned a police scanner in his car and by his bed. So…

Weegee came to New York City from Austria in 1910 at the age of 11. By 1913, he left school and began work at Ducket & Adler photography (below, 60 Grand Street, once the Wintergarden Theatre). He continued on to the New York Times, Acme Newspapers and by 1935, Weegee was freelance. He stalked the city looking for murder scenes, thereby coining the phrase and making it his mantra, “Murder is my Business.”

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Courtesy of Walter Grutchfield

New York Times, June 9, 2006:

“Whadda you kidding? It’s a zoo out there. Two deli stickups at 12 on the dot; one of the perps getting plugged. I got the picture. Roulette joint bust on East 68th. Society types. You shoulda seen the penguins run. Three a.m.: Brooklyn. Car crash. Kids. Bad.”

“Four a.m., bars close. Guys asleep in Bowery doorways. But just before dawn is the worst: despair city. The jumpers start, out the windows, off the roof. I can’t even look. So that’s the night, New York. Ain’t it grand? What a life.”

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Murdered Husband with Wife in Tenement

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Dominick Didato dead on Elizabeth Street

New York’s Photo League held an exhibition of his work in 1941, and the Museum of Modern Art began collecting his work and exhibited it in 1943. Weegee published his photographs in several books, including Naked City (1945), Weegee’s People (1946), and Naked Hollywood (1953).

His widow later donated all of his work to the International Center for Photography which just opened at 250 Bowery on the Lower East Side.

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An installation view of Weegee Murder Is My Business

In a 2006 article entitled “Unknown Weegee, on Photographer Who Made The Night Noir,” New York Times reporter Holland Cotter described his technique.

‘He prowled the streets in a car equipped with a police radio, a typewriter, developing equipment, a supply of cigars and a change of underwear,’ Mr Cotter wrote, dubbing Weegee a ‘one-man photo factory’.

‘He drove to a crime site; took pictures; developed the film, using the trunk as a darkroom; and delivered the prints.’

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His studio at 5 Centre Market Place:

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Weegee’s studio

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Weegee’s studio

When he wasn’t immersed fully in the macabre, Weegee had another side to him. The Lower East Side, to be exact:

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By 1947, the gruesome murder and gore had taken its toil. Weegee took off for the Left Coast to become a paparazzo of sorts. He developed an affinity for distortion, his subjects running the gamut from the Queen to Doris Day:

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Queen Elizabeth

For more on those, go here.

Finally, we come to Weegee’s most “famous” photograph, “The Critic” (1943) and it was staged.  Weegee asked his assistant, Louie Liotta, to bring a Bowery bar patron to the season’s opening of the Metropolitan Opera.  After getting the woman drunk, they positioned her near the red carpet resulting in this:

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Below are more of his works including that from his art show. Enjoy and remember, the streets are watching…

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As always, Ah, New York. My stunning and gritty, sparkling and filthy, tremendous, transcendent metropolis – you were forged by the keepers of secrets and those secrets I plan to find and reveal, one brick at a time.

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