In New York City of the 1930s and '40s, Arthur "Weegee" Fellig often worked all night, shooting the latest murder, fire or urban melee with his Speed Graphic camera. An unshaven, fedora-wearing, tough-talking, cigar-smoking loner, Weegee renamed himself after the popular Ouija board game and shamelessly cultivated a reputation for his "psychic" ability to sniff out breaking news.
Although he became famous for graphic, sensationalist and emotionally raw photographs that simultaneously exaggerate and illuminate human folly, Weegee never forgot his Lower East Side roots as an immigrant Jew.
Currently on display at the Getty Center, "Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee" focuses on the photographer as tabloid journalist and New York City-style Toulouse-Lautrec -- for his documenting of urban nightlife, particularly the clubs of Greenwich Village. But according to Judith Keller, the exhibit's curator, Weegee also had an interest in "shooting synagogues, life-cycle celebrations and other scenes of Jewish life." And like other secular, socialist-leaning Jews of his time, Weegee "was adamant about racial and social prejudice," she said.
Born at the turn of the century in Austria, Weegee immigrated to New York with his family in 1910 and grew up in various cold-water tenements on the Lower East Side. His father eked out a living as a pushcart peddler and later, became a rabbi. A high school drop out, Weegee became interested in photography around age 15. An entrepreneur, he shot passport photos and children on rented ponies. He eventually found work in the darkroom labs of Acme Newspapers.
The Getty exhibit features some 60 photographs from 1937 to 1959. In the 1950 print "Tenement Sleeping," a large man slumbers without covers on a fire escape, clearly seeking refuge from his sweltering digs. Weegee himself had spent many nights on fire escapes in cheap tenements. Mundane and almost peaceful, this photograph intriguingly stands out in a body of work that often emphasizes the dramatic and lurid.
"Scene of the Crime: Photo by Weegee," is on display through Jan. 22 at the Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles (310) 440-7300 or visit www.getty.edu.