It’s history, entertainment and art in one bleeding, naked, lurid and introspective package, the whole range of life visible to one flawed, unflinching artist.
Ah, the intrepid photojournalist! The Platonic ideal of this hallowed occupation is the shutterbug that tells the unvarnished, unbiased truth in pictures that make magazine covers fly off the newsstands (kids, ask your parents what those are). The reality is more complicated. When the eye stakes its claim through a glass-and-steel machine that translates the world into silver particles or bits and bytes, objectivity is all but impossible, and in today’s 24-hour news cycle, sensationalism is the rule of information delivery. But let’s not romanticize the past; publishers, in dying print form as much as in clickbait, always had to make money, and sometimes, the pursuit of a paycheck can lead to something like art. That’s what you have with Weegee’s Naked City, first published in 1945. Especially in a new handsome facsimile edition published by Damiani in conjunction with the International Center of Photography, these images created to sell papers reveal a sensitive eye, thirsty for the sea of humanity at its beautiful worst.
The first book from celebrated crime photographer Weegee, born Arthur Usher Fellig, Naked City is, as the title promises, an energetic and sometimes salacious thrill. The title alone inspired a kind of hard-boiled franchise, from Jules Dassin’s 1948 noir staple to the TV shows that launched in 1958 with the perennial favorite tagline, “There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” The title was much later taken for one of avant-garde bad boy John Zorn’s most ear-shattering groups—they even used a Weegee picture of a fallen gangster for the cover. All this seems appropriate for images created for cheap newsprint, and early editions of the book were printed in a limited tonal range that reinforced the notion that Weegee was little more than a tabloid huckster looking for kicks to pass along to buy-eyed readers.
That’s not completely inaccurate, but the wider tonal range of this facsimile reveals a gentler side to a lens man perhaps best known for capturing gangland slayings. “The people in these photographs are real,” he writes in an intro, and if his subjects frequently seem grotesque, he lends humanity to underworld characters. Think of him as a Skid Row Sherwood Anderson and Naked City the Winesburg, Ohio of a long-gone New York. Weegee dedicates the book “To You The People of New York,” and the first image in the book demonstrates this showman’s intentions: bleeding across the title spread, a lightning bolt hits the skyline at twilight. With a shock, he turns on the lights, and what does he show you?
A Sunday morning cityscape, stacks of newspapers waiting for delivery; a department store employee dusting off a mannequin of FDR; a man sleeping off the previous night’s salon intake in front of a funeral home; a family huddled together on a fire escape to escape the heat; that last one is at once innocent and lascivious, with a young girl’s bosom slightly exposed; this is the tension between Usher Fellig the sensitive observer who wants to see real emotion and Weegee the lecher who later had a bit part in a nudist colony exploitation movie. Weegee thrilled at the sight of blood and flesh and knew that his readers did too. But who did he happen to be at the right place at the right time?
The answer lies in the origin of his nom de camera—at least, in one telling of the story. Weegee liked to say that his pseudonym came from the Ouija board, because he seemed to be able to predict where he could find a story. But he wasn’t prescient, exactly; he did leg work, he listened in on police radio, and when you do that enough you find the goods, and maybe develop a sixth sense in the process. He benefited from alarming coincidences; on one occasion, a man he photographed on the street was the victim of an accident just five minutes later. Such are the tales you can and should read about in Christopher Bonanos’ essential 2018 biography Flash, which reads like an adventure serial about an old-time newspaper man finding his forte (crime and accidents) and then losing as the industry and the street changed.
Weegee put together Naked City some 10 years after the photos included were taken, during a lull in his night owl routine. Maybe that’s why some of the photos selected are reflective; maybe it’s just that, gathered in one place, his fixations and visual tics turned out to be more than just a lusty, morbid voyeurism. What made Weegee different from any other crime scene photographer? It’s the same thing that made his work such a valuable chronicle of The Way We Were: when he arrived at the scene of tragedy, a blazing apartment or a devastating accident, he’d watch the watchers: aghast, exhausted, excited, the whole range of expression and reaction is on view in these shots, unadulterated. Sure he’d stage a shot now and then, recruiting barroom regulars to pose as soused dowagers leaving the scene of the opera. But like Orson Welles’ corrupt cop character in Touch of Evil, if he lied sometimes, it was to tell the truth; Welles was telling his own story in that movie, of the filmmaker embellishing reality in order to get at something that representation alone couldn’t achieve. Weegee, in his way, was the Welles of New York nights, hovering and waiting for that unforgettable shot that could shock the hardened urbanite and soften the jaded heart. It’s history, entertainment and art in one bleeding, naked, lurid and introspective package, the whole range of life visible to one flawed, unflinching artist.