When Mount Holyoke professor Anthony Lee’s book, Weegee and “Naked City,” came out in 2008, it reminded curator Wendy Watson that the Museum had no images by this important New York crime and street photographer. Lee’s fascinating study—co-authored with Richard Meyer and the latest in the series Defining Moments in American Photography—provided the impetus for rectifying that situation.
Arthur Fellig (American, 1899-1968), better known as “Weegee,” prowled the New York streets at night with his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera and developed a deep familiarity with the city. He acquired his unusual moniker because of an almost magical knack for showing up at a crime scene even before the police arrived. This uncanny ability was likened to that of the Ouija board, a popular fortune-telling game—and he was dubbed “Weegee,” the name by which he was known ever after. His seeming prescience was also helped, perhaps, by the fact that he had a police radio in his car.
All three of the newly acquired photographs exemplify Weegee’s unwaveringly sensational and often sordid depictions of American urban life. Two of them depict intoxicated men—one shot in a dismal, grimy Los Angeles drunk tank, and the other through the door of a paddy wagon in New York’s Bowery district. In the third image, a woman collapses into the arms of two policemen as she realizes that her husband, concealed behind the car door, is dead. A relentless self-promoter, Weegee often stamped the back of his photos—as he did with Wife of the Victim—“Credit Photo by Weegee the Famous.”