Exploring The Ugly

Weegee, a notoriously gruff photographer, prowled the streets of New York during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. He photographed accidents, crime scenes, fires, children and drunks. He liked working at night, he said, because that was when bad things happened.

"Everybody likes beauty, but there's ugliness," he once said. "Don't forget, it's human.

Born Arthur Fellig, son of a rabbi, Weegee grew up on New York's Lower East side. He began his career in his teens, and later worked in the darkroom at The New York Times. That's how some think he got his nickname.

"When they needed someone to dry prints they would call, 'Squeegee boy, squeegee boy.' He translated that into Weegee," said Willis Hartshorn, director of the International Center of Photography, where Weegee's photographs are being displayed.

Hartshorn says the other story is that he is named after an Ouija board.

"In 1938, he got a police band radio and had it in his apartment and in his car," Hartshorn told CBSSunday Morning host Charles Osgood. "So he would arrive on the scene often times before the police and that led to this name of Weegee in terms of the Ouija board and his apparent psychic ability to understand the things that were happening."

By day, Weegee would try to peddle his pictures to the newspapers and magazines. Bert Keppler, who was an editor at "Modern Photography" in the 1950s, said Weegee would "sit down, pull out a cigar, and start smoking, look around."

At his office, Keppler said that Weegee provoked the same reaction every time he came to the office:

"'Oh, good grief. He's here again. Now what are we going to do?'," Keppler said his staffers would say. "Because he was a very forceful person."

Married and divorced, Weegee later had a common-law wife, Wilma Wilcox, who was careful to preserve his work after he died. She willed all 20,000 of Weegee's prints to the International Center of Photography in New York — works that feature everything from murder to circus animals to children.

"Here's a box of photographs that he made at the opera," Hartshorn said as he went through a box kept in the museum. "Let's see, Weegee loved to photograph people either at the movies or in the opera. He actually did them with an infrared light so that you couldn't see the flash going off."

Displaying a photograph of actress Bettie Page, Hartshorn said that Weegee is not necessarily photographing her but rather the photographers who are snapping her picture.

Another photo taken on Coney Island on July 28, 1941, is what Hartshorn called a "performance piece."
  • Caitlin Johnson

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