Weegee was the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig. For a decade from 1935 the Austro-Hungarian photojournalist made a name for himself recording crime scenes, criminals and corpses on the streets of New York City, principally on the Lower East Side. In doing so he invented a new form of reportage: lurid and provocative, his pictures were snapped up by the grocery store tabloids of the day: True, Hush and Scandals. "The bloodier and sexier the better," Weggee later noted in his autobiography. "[The] millions of readers had to have their daily blood bath and sex potion to go with their breakfast."
But his pictures, shot in black-and-white using a press photographer’s standard issue 4x5 camera, were also brimming with humanity, style and anthropological currency. Commenting on one image "Gang Gets Revenge" (1939) he wrote "a just shot gangster, lying in the gutter, well-dressed in his dark suit and pearl hat, hot off the griddle..." Yearn too far for the trappings of America's new consumerist culture – smart suit, silk scarf, quality shoes – they seemed to suggest, and it could come back and bite you.
Weegee stayed one-step ahead of his rivals by tuning in to police radio: his nickname was a phonetic reading of 'ouija', reflecting his spooky ability to show up at crime scenes while the blood was still running. Later he'd make his own short films and collaborate with Stanley Kubrick. Today his cultural legacy is inarguable: it lives on in L.A. Confidential, Goodfellas, The Sopranos and, most recently, Gangster Squad.
A new book Weegee: Murder Is My Business takes the form of a 264-page hardbacked dossier and follows its subject’s transformation from jobbing freelancer to photo-detective. Compiled by Brian Wallis, chief curator at the International Centre of Photography in New York, it’s compelling, voyeuristic, ocassionally horrible, stuff. But it's always shot with style.
Weegee: Murder Is My Business is published on 30 September by Prestel Books; £30.