Hollywood hit Nightcrawler transformed the tales of the real-life press photographer, known as ‘Weegee’, into an award winning US blockbuster that grossed more than $50million (£40million) at the box office. While the fictional adaptation captivated audiences, actual accounts about the crime scene snapper are just as intriguing. Contrary to the film, Weegee was not known to have killed anyone but regularly would get to the sites where murders and accidents took place long before authorities. This would lead to the birth of his nickname ‘Weegee’, which he adopted and soon became his brand trademark. Some of the photographs have not been seen for more than eight decades but they offer a greater insight into the man behind the iconic images and gruesome goings on in New York.
While many may only know of Weegee through the film ‘Nightcrawler’, the legendary documentarian’s photographs are considered among the most famous and defining of 20th Century journalism.
Through his camera lens, he was able to immortalise a now long-lost New York, whose gritty beginnings are but a mere memory.
The gruesome and shocking shots taken by Weegee are far divorced from the glitz, glamour and bright LED billboards seen in the Big Apple today.
Weegee documented murders, fires, car crashes, court cases and street life from the Thirties until 1968 when he died.
Unearthed photographs were sold by Heritage Auctions last month, who told Express.co.uk about the fascinating man behind the myth.
Nigel Russell, Heritage Auctions Director of Photography, explained that Weegee was “the archetype for the cigar-chomping, hard-boiled news photographer portrayed in many Hollywood films”.
They include Jake Gyllenhaal’s character Louis ‘Lou’ Bloom in the 2014 film ‘Nightcrawler’ and Joe Pesci’s role Leon ‘Bernzy’ Bernstein in the 1992 hit ‘The Public Eye’.
Mr Russell explained that long before the infamous nickname, which he stamped as ‘Weegee the Famous’ on the back pictures, the photographer was named Arthur ‘Usher’ Fellig and was a Ukrainian immigrant.
He told Express.co.uk: “He got the nickname ‘Weegee’ from the police and other photographers, as he always seemed to be first on the scene before anyone else.
“They would joke, ‘How could he possibly be there? He must have a ouija board’, which he adopted with a different spelling.
“It turned out that he was one of the first people outside of law enforcement to have what would be the equivalent of a police radio back then.”
Mr Russel believes he must have obtained one through “bribing a police officer” or through other unlawful means.
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He told Express.co.uk: “This meant he would listen to the calls and get to the scene often before the police got there, where he would photograph dead bodies before anybody else arrived.
“You just couldn’t do what he did nowadays, the police cordon off the area and they don’t let anyone in – but back then they would let him photograph whatever he wanted to.”
Mr Russell explained that these graphic shots would have been published in the newspapers of the time as precautionary tales about murder, drink-driving and more.
He believes there has been a “continual fascination” with Weegee because his now-iconic images “capture the dark underbelly of New York”.
The unearthed photographs were discovered in a junk shop near to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
They were taken before Arthur Fellig adopted the name ‘Weegee’ in around 1940, but captured the same raw side of New York he would later become famed for.
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Among the images were murders scenes that graphically show dead bodies, raging fires that ravaged buildings and criminals of the time including several gangsters.
Mr Russell stated that his favourite of the Weegee lots, wasn’t overly shocking and showed the crime scene where a violinist had been clubbed to death in 1937.
He told Express.co.uk: “It shows a detective looking at a trail of blood as it leads out of the room.
“It’s not a graphic photograph or an image of a dead body, it leaves the scene to your imagination.”
Another he favoured, was named ‘Triboro’s Baptism of Blood’ in the New York newspaper that it was published in back in 1937.
It showed the “first serious accident” on the then-newly erected Triboro Bridge, where nine people were injured after a “truck carrying picnickers” overturned.
Mr Russell told Express.co.uk: “It’s quite an unusual and amusing photograph because on the back of the pickup truck, which was pictured on its side, there is the word ‘DANGER’.
“Then there are also some great fire shots, with firemen on the ladder and smoke billowing out of the buildings.
“I also like the shot of several press photographs taking a nap on steps of a courthouse, waiting for an interesting murder suspect to appear to take their picture.”
Mr Russell explained that some of the magic of Weegee’s work was the story behind the photographs, including one which appeared deceptively in contrast to the real life event.
He added: “There’s one of a fairly nice-looking couple and it transpired that they had stabbed their children to death, poured gasoline on them and walked away.”
For more information on the Weegee photographs visit: www.ha.com.
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