A Portrait of Weegee That Captures the Man and the Myth in Full

Posted May 30, 2018 5:48 p.m. EDT

Photographer Arthur Fellig, better known as Weegee, lugged his enormous Speed Graphic camera around the nighttime streets of New York City in the 1930s and ‘40s, cultivating a persona as stark and as memorable as his tabloid pictures. He was the wisecracking tummler in the rumpled suit, always on the lookout for a car crash or a dead gangster.

“I have no inhibitions, and neither has my camera,” he declared in a 1961 autobiography — a fascinating and problematic document if there ever was one, given Weegee’s compulsion for exaggeration and self-promotion. This, after all, was the man who titled his first solo exhibition “Murder Is My Business” and likened a picture to a blintz: “Eat it while it’s hot.”

He knew that a good story, like a good image, could sometimes use a little extra. Which isn’t to say he was insincere — far from it. He was a “sentimental cynic,” in Luc Sante’s spot-on phrase, or what you might call a “real character,” with all the authenticity and hyperbole that implies.

With “Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous,” Christopher Bonanos has finally supplied us with the biography Weegee deserves: sympathetic and comprehensive, a scrupulous account with just the right touch of irreverence. Bonanos, the city editor of New York magazine and the author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid,” takes the photographer seriously without letting him and his self-mythologizing off the hook.

As his fans know, “Weegee” was a cute spelling of “Ouija” — a nickname he earned the hard way, by arriving so early to crime scenes that he seemed to have a sixth sense about what would happen before it did. “My elbow itches,” he would later say of what sent him to murder sites, honing his claim to be not just lucky but psychic.

This was Weegee’s authorized version of his name’s genesis, although Bonanos prefers another origin story, located in Weegee’s early stint drying prints as a “squeegee boy” in the darkroom of The New York Times. (Weegee, as much of a taker-outer as a putter-inner, omitted his squeegee work for The Times from his autobiography.) “He was able to turn a vaguely humiliating nickname into what we now would call a personal brand,” Bonanos writes, making his achievement “even more impressive.”

The photographer had hoisted himself up from humble beginnings to achieve his celebrated career. Before Weegee was Arthur Fellig, he was Usher Fellig, born in 1899 in Zolochev, Galicia, one of the poorest corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He arrived at Ellis Island when he was 10, living with his family in a cramped tenement on the Lower East Side. His interest in photography started early, as a teenager: a mail-order tintype kit was followed after a few months by employment at a commercial photo studio, where he would learn the spectacular illuminating powers of the flash.

Back then a flash was not an electronic gizmo but an actual flaming torch, activated by adding a spark to magnesium metal. Weegee’s preferred method was to blow the flash powder onto an alcohol-soaked rag. It would take more than a decade before he would handle his first battery-powered flashbulb, removing at least one occupational hazard and encouraging him to fine-tune his work’s signature look: glaringly high-contrast images with the whites bleached out, as if to bring out the darkness of crumpled metal, a grimy sidewalk or a victim’s blood. It all sounds extremely unsubtle, and Weegee, who once called himself the “reincarnation of Leonardo da Vinci and Grandma Moses,” liked to present it that way. But it wasn’t all grisly accidents and lurid crime scenes. His instincts were more nuanced than his own caricature of himself would allow. As much as he had a penchant for cheap jokes (corpses juxtaposed with ironic signs) and maudlin titles (“I Cried When I Took This Picture”), he also captured the full range of human expression, documenting the seamy side of a world-class city, sticking around after a tragedy to photograph the onlookers.

“He was always, always there,” Bonanos writes. “He put himself on call, all the time.” Weegee had started to work nights because it gave him an edge, first for the agency Acme Newspictures and later as a freelancer. He also learned how to develop negatives on the fly and said he once slipped a dollar to a subway conductor so that he could shut himself in the motorman’s booth with his chemicals. He rented a tiny hovel of an apartment down the block from police headquarters on Centre Street in lower Manhattan. He told a reporter that he didn’t have time “to live regular”; he was too committed to his nighttime exploits with life and death to come home to “a good-looking wife, a hot dinner, a husky kid.”

Weegee did get married, although that didn’t last; and he left his beloved New York for Los Angeles to act in movies, although that didn’t last either. Bonanos covers it all, including Weegee’s more self-consciously “arty” work, like his distortion photos of Salvador Dalí with four eyes and Liberace with his teeth stretched into piano keys. The art criticism on offer in “Flash” is like the best of Weegee’s street photography: revealing and unpretentious.

Bonanos also directs our attention to what might have been the most important and consequential relationship of Weegee’s adult life: his on-again, off-again love affair with a Quaker social worker named Wilma Wilcox. Weegee left her out of his autobiography, but Wilcox was the one who donated his archive of 19,000 images to the International Center of Photography and ensured that his legacy lived on — a fate that was far from assured when Weegee died of a brain tumor, at 69, in 1968.

The 1960s were tough on Weegee, when the deluge of attention he once enjoyed had slowed to a trickle. He kept shooting, even as getting around was harder for him the frailer he became. The last exhibition he arranged for his work was held in a sandwich shop. He had played the outsize role of Weegee the Famous so long he confessed he had a hard time knowing who he really was.

His biographer knows, though. “Flash” gives us Weegee in full, offering a measure of protection against the oblivion he feared the most.

“Flash: The Making of Weegee the Famous”

By Christopher Bonanos

Illustrated. 379 pages. Henry Holt & Co. $32.