He captured tenement infernos, car crashes, and gangland executions. He found washed-up lounge singers and teenage murder suspects in paddy wagons and photographed them at their most vulnerable — or, as he put it, their most human. He caught couples kissing on their beach blankets on Coney Island and the late-night voyeurs on lifeguard stands watching them. And everywhere he went, he snatched images of people sleeping: drunks on park benches, whole families on Lower East Side fire escapes, men and women snoring in movie theaters. He was the supreme chronicler of the city at night.
Born Usher Fellig in what is now the Ukraine, Weegee moved to New York’s Lower East Side in 1910 at the age of eleven. By fifteen he had left home, supporting himself through odd jobs and sleeping wherever he could find a place: the benches of Penn Station and Bryant Park (to which he would later return, camera in hand), or the Bowery’s flophouses. He became a street photographer’s assistant and later a roaming photographer himself, snapping pictures of children to sell to their poor but proud parents. During the 1920s he worked and often lived in the darkrooms of the New York Times and Acme Newspictures, and soon he was filling in for photographers when they couldn’t make their late shift. By the thirties, his intimate chronicles of disasters both natural and man-made were being featured in PM, Life, Popular Photography, and all of the New York dailies. He went on to become one of the most prolific and famous news photographers of the century. His first book, Naked City, which helped established his fame and is still in print today, was published in 1945.
Today Weegee is credited with ushering in the age of tabloid culture, while at the same time being revered for elevating the sordid side of human life to that of high art. Here is a rare interview with Weegee, recently discovered at the Recorded Sound division at the Library of Congress. It was conducted in July, 1945, by nationally-syndicated talk show host Mary Margaret McBride on WEAF in New York, soon after the publication of Naked City.
Recorded in New York City. Premiered June 11, 2000, on Weekend Edition Sunday.
This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.