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Mob photography: The daring who captured a violent history

American mob photography exposes the brutalities and grisly nature of that underground world. While there are the more famous photo of John Gotti in the courtroom and the iconic mugshot of Joey Gallo, other photographers of the past have captured a more authentic portrayal of the American mob.

Photography isn’t always shooting portraits to make people realize their inner beauty. Like any art, photographs don’t have to depict something beautiful. Sometimes the most striking and powerful images depict ugliness. Sometimes, photography is about shooting bloody corpses.

Thus, these three photographers deserve great acclaim for their ability to capture in their photography the heart of what it means to be in the American mafia.

The connected Arthur “Weegee” Fellig

Since the early 20th century, photojournalists have captured the harsh and gritty realities of urban crime. For example, there was Ukrainian American photographer Arthur “Weegee” Fellig.

Fellig captured black and white photos of early New York during the ’30s and ’40s with a heavy Speed Graphic camera with an attachable flashbulb.

Fellig’s fame grew after he snapped Dominick Didato laying dead in a pool of his own blood. The photo, which was taken in 1936, was celebrated as a capture of a mob killing.

mob photography
Murder victim David Beadle, known as David the Beetle, in front of the Spot Beer Tavern in Manhattan, with Weegee and a police officer in 1939. Bettmann/Getty Images.

He also photographed Dutch Schultz, Jack “Legs” Diamond, and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll in jail.

Fellig’s connections gave him the advantage over other photojournalists. He lived above a police supply store near police headquarters and frequented the Headquarters Tavern, a restaurant where officers and journalists often shared stories.

He also owned a police radio permit, allowing him to hear of breaking stories before competitors. Fellig also wrote that he made friends with many criminals, including pimps, gangsters, and thieves.

A dangerous occupation, practically living and practicing photography with some of the most dangerous and ruthless American mob members. But surely, one that Fellig believed was worth it.

Shooting the Mafia with Letizia Battaglia

The 2019 documentary Shooting the Mafia gave praise to Italian photographer Letizia Battaglia for her photography which raised awareness about the toll of mob violence in Italy.

Battaglia started at a newspaper, living with death threats. She referred to her crime photographs of the ’70s and ’80s as her “archive of blood.” Two of her photos even played an important role in linking mafioso Nino Salvo to former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti.

Confronting dangerous, violent hypermasculinity with her camera, Battaglia is an excellent example of a photographer and a woman who was unafraid. She even staged an exhibition of her photos in a neighborhood that was under heavy control by several mob bosses.

The man who captured Al Capone: Junnosuke Fujita

Many have seen the gruesome photos of the famous Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre, but few know the name behind the lens.

Only last year was Junnosuke Fujita (Jun for short), America’s first Japanese American photojournalist, recognized for his photography and poetry.

Jun Fujita photographed the dead bodies of gangsters from George “Bugs” Moran’s gang, murdered Feb. 14, 1929, at the garage at 2122 N Clark St. in Chicago, by Al Capone’s gang, led by “Machine Gun Jack” McGurn. It became known as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. (Topical Press Agency / Getty Images)

Starting in Chicago with camera in hand, knowing only about one hundred English words, Fujita was up to a challenge.

He became the only photojournalist for the Chicago Evening Post and gained fame with a photograph from the capsizing of the SS Eastland.

Fujita photographed celebrities and mobsters, including mob boss Al Capone as a part of his catalog of mafia photography.

Fujita faced hardship during the ’40s when the United States determined him to be an enemy alien. This was despite having lived in the country for over 30 years. But the Japanese internment camps are a dark stain on American history.

His artworks extended to poetry and color photographs, in which he explored the difficulty of being a Japanese American in the Midwest. Only about 5 percent of Japanese Americans lived outside of Hawaii and the West Coast at the time.

To the next generation of gangster and mob photography

Fellig, Battaglia, and Fujita all were masters of their craft in mafia photography. It is as dangerous a gig as there ever was, especially back a half-century or more ago.

It took bravery, innovation, and a heavy stomach to witness what they did. And then want to help share it with the rest of the world.