The Photographer Who Could Predict Crime Scenes Like A Ouija Board

“It’s like a modern Aladdin’s lamp—you rub it, in this case it’s a camera. You push a button and it gives you the things you want.” —Arthur “Weegee” Fellig

In A Nutshell

As a New York tabloid photographer from the 1930s to the 1950s, Arthur Fellig liked to call himself “Weegee the Famous” for his ability to predict the locations of crime scenes like a Ouija board. A cross between a serious photojournalist and one of today’s paparazzi, Weegee often raced to the scene of a crime before the police, got the shot, and developed the pictures from equipment he carried in the trunk of his car. For the most part, Weegee didn’t waste his time with nobodies because he believed that “names make news.” He photographed society affairs and society brawls. Whatever made the money. Yet Weegee is described in one New York Times article as a “folk hero.”

The Whole Bushel

As a New York tabloid photographer from the 1930s to the 1950s, Arthur Fellig liked to call himself “Weegee the Famous” for his ability to predict the locations of crime scenes like a Ouija board. A cross between a serious photojournalist and one of today’s paparazzi, Weegee often raced to the scene of a crime before the police, got the shot, and developed the pictures from equipment he carried in the trunk of his car.

But the truth is, he didn’t have any psychic abilities, special powers, or even gifted insight to make his predictions. Weegee had a police radio in his car, along with a typewriter and his photographic equipment. He drove around at night looking for shots because his competitors didn’t work then and the “best” crimes tended to occur after dark.

Unlike most photographers of his time, Weegee was a storyteller looking for the unscripted emotions in life, the reaction of a woman and her daughter staring in hopeless horror at a burning tenement instead of a clinical shot of flames consuming a building. But Weegee was also a man looking to make money by exploiting people’s pain, embarrassment, and vulnerability. As he said, “Even a drunk must be a masterpiece.” At 5:00 AM one Sunday, Weegee found that drunk passed out beneath a funeral home’s canopy. Weegee titled the picture Dead Drunk.

One time, he cornered a female jewel thief in a cell at Manhattan Police Headquarters. She tried to cover her face because she didn’t want her friends and relatives to see her picture in the paper. But Weegee wasn’t leaving without the photo. He argued with her, finally persuading her that it would be better to let him take a glamour shot than to have her mug shot appear in the newspaper.

Weegee liked to take self-portraits, too. In one photo, he waits like a paparazzi stalker for the night’s first arrest as he lies on the floor of a police paddy wagon with his camera. He particularly liked to cover murders because the victim couldn’t get away or lose his temper.

For the most part, Weegee didn’t waste his time with nobodies because he believed that “names make news.” He photographed society affairs and society brawls—whatever made the money. Yet Weegee is described in one New York Times article as a “folk hero.”

Whether you consider him a photojournalist or a founding member of the modern paparazzi, Weegee was lucky to work at the time he did. Today, serious photojournalism is dying. In 2013, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off many of its full-time photographers to cut costs. The paper prefers to use freelancers or have their reporters shoot pictures with iPhones. Photos and videos are increasingly seen as commodities.

The lives of the paparazzi have changed, too. Sometimes, their subjects fight back, such as when Woody Harrelson smashed the camera of 40-year-old pap (singular for “paparazzi”) Vladimir Labissiere in an airport. Undeterred, Labissiere pulled out a minicam to film Harrelson, so Harrelson jumped on Labissiere’s back and began punching him.

That time, Labissiere felt violated. Although no charges were filed against Harrelson, Labissiere was the most upset by TMZ’s reaction. As he complained in an interview with Rolling Stone, “This dude just attacked me, and all I hear back is, ‘Did you get the shot?,’ not ‘Are you OK?’ . . . It’s like they only cared that I got the picture.” Fortunately for TMZ, Labissiere did get the shot.

In another turnabout, celebrities often exploit the paparazzi now. The stars or their publicists may tip off the photographers to the location of a shot when the celebs want publicity to help their careers. The competition is also more intense. Between stars posting their own pictures to social media and hordes of paparazzi taking the same shot, it’s a race against time to be the first pap to upload a digital photo. Paps often have to upload pictures and video while they’re driving. The days of driving around with a police scanner and no competition are over.

If Weegee were alive and working today, it’s hard to believe that he would be honored with comparisons to Andy Warhol and Robert Frank and with an exhibit of his work at the International Center of Photography in New York City. Except in 2012 when that exhibit was held, the glory days were over, and it was called “Unknown Weegee.”

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo via Wikipedia
Bomb: Weegee by Weegee
NY Times: He Made Blood and Guts Familiar and Fabulous
Rolling Stone: Attack of the Paparazzi
NY Times: ‘Unknown Weegee,’ on Photographer Who Made the Night Noir
Mother Jones: Can Photojournalism Survive in the Instagram Era?