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On show – Weegee's iconic images of New York's seamy underbelly

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Born near Lemburg in what’s now the Ukraine, Usher Fellig emigrated to the US in 1909 when he was ten. There he acquired a new, Anglicised name, Arthur, and started working as a photographer just three years later.
In 1924 he was hired as a darkroom technician by Acme Newspictures (later United Press International Photos), and by 1935 – “spellbound by the mystery of murder”, as he put it – he had left to become a freelance news photographer. Centring his work around Manhattan’s police headquarters, his seemingly uncanny ability to get to crime scenes early earned him another new name – Weegee, inspired by the Ouija board (though another account traces it to his time as a darkroom “squeegee” boy).

Shock. Sudden Death for One…Sudden Shock for the Other. Mrs. Dorothy Reportella, Accused of Hitting Bread Truck with her Car, Sept. 7, 1944. Image © International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Shock. Sudden Death for One…Sudden Shock for the Other. Mrs. Dorothy Reportella, Accused of Hitting Bread Truck with her Car, Sept. 7, 1944. Image © Weegee/International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
His talent for prescience was actually down to a portable police-band shortwave radio, which he got permission to run in 1938 – the only New York reporter to do so. Adding a complete darkroom in the boot of his car, Weegee was able to get his sensational images to newspapers such as the Herald-Tribune, Daily News, Post, The Sun, and PM Weekly long before anyone else.
Often shot at night, with a powerful flash, Weegee’s images soon started to attract institutional support, with New York’s Photo League holding an exhibition of his work in 1941, and the Museum of Modern Art starting to collect and exhibit it in 1943. He went on to publish several books, including Naked City (1945), Weegee’s People (1946), and Naked Hollywood (1953).
Untitled, c.1940s. Image © International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Untitled, c.1940s. Image © Weegee/International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Weegee moved to Hollywood in 1947, where he collaborated with film-makers such as Stanley Kubrick and made several 16mm films; he also made a series of images called Distortions, which lead to experimental portraits of celebrities and political figures. He returned to New York in 1952, and lectured and wrote about photography until he died on Boxing Day 1968.
Now Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York is holding an exhibition of Weegee’s work, focusing on his most prolific decade – the 1940s. Presenting more than 40 images, the exhibition includes iconic images which helped make his reputation, but also rarer, less familiar shots. The exhibition is open until 01 April, and is accompanied by a solo show by Magnum photographer Alex Majoli, SKĒNĒ.
Weegee is on show at HGG2 until 01 April. www.howardgreenberg.com
Untitled, August 3, 1945. Image © International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Untitled, August 3, 1945. Image © Weegee/International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Untitled, c.1940s. Image © International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Untitled, c.1940s. Image © Weegee/International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Untitled, c.1940s. Image © International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Untitled, c.1940s. Image © Weegee/International Center of Photography, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy

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