Persons looking on Weegee’s incredible photographs for the first time find it hard to believe that one ordinary earth-bound human being could have been present at so many climactic moments in the city’s life.
The simplest explanation of the phenomenon is that true love endows a man [or woman] with superhuman qualities, and Weegee is truly in love with New York. Not the New York that you and I know, but the New York that he has known, first as a poor immigrant boy and later as a free-lance newspaper photographer specializing in crime and violence.
Loving the city, Weegee has been able to live with her in the utmost intimacy. When he goes to bed in his room across the street from police headquarters, the city murmurs to him from the police-approved shortwave radio beside his bed. Even in slumber he is responsive to her. He will sleep through fifteen unpromising police calls and leap out at bed at the promising sixteenth. In sickness and in health he will take his camera and ride off in search of new evidence that his city, even in her most drunken and disorderly and pathetic moments, is beautiful. Of course Weegee, being an Artist, has his own conception of what constitutes beauty, and in some cases it is hard for us to share his conception; but insofar as we can share it, we can share his love for the city.
When he cruises in his 1938 Chevrolet. his love is beside him, talking to him from another shortwave radio: and as he listens to her he is also watching her, and he will stop to photograph the drunk asleep in front at the funeral parlor as further evidence of his love’s infinite variety.
Weegee is a rather portly, cigar-smoking, irregularly shaven man who has seen and recorded a great deal of ugliness and disaster, but he remains as shy and sensitive as if he had spent his life photographing babies and bridesmaids. This, I think, is further evidence that he has been inspired not by a taste for sensationalism but by his love for the city and her children – especially the troubled and unfortunate ones, the kitten-loving ones who sleep on fire escapes in the summer.
I think that Weegee’s subjective portrait of New York must be regarded as a work of creative art, because, although all at the elements were there for anyone to use, no one has ever used them as Weegee has. This portrait lived
first in Weegee’s heart and imagination. He patiently sought and painstakingly assembled those elements in a manner that would make it possible for us to see his city and believe it, and love it — and yet want to make it better. You don’t want those kids to go on sleeping on that fire escape forever, do you?
New York, Editor, PM Picture News”
It’s Naked City week…
Since we are in the second day of the 70th year since the publication of Naked City…
“A Book is Born
One just doesn’t go up to strange men, women, children, elephants, or giraffes and say, “Look this way please. Laugh- cry show some emotion or go to sleep underneath a funeral canopy.” They would have called me crazy and called a cop who would have called the wagon with the guys in white and I would have wound up in the psychopathic ward at Bellevue Hospital in a strait jacket.
For the pictures in this book I was on the scene; sometimes drawn there by some power l can’t explain, and l caught the New Yorkers with their masks off. . . not afraid to Laugh, Cry, or make Love. What I felt I photographed, laughing and crying with them.
I have been told that my pictures should be in a book, that they were a great social document. As I keep to myself, belong to no group, like to be left alone with no axe to grind, I wouldn’t know. Then something happened. There was a sudden drop in Murders and Fires (my two best sellers, my bread and butter). I couldn’t understand that. With so many millions of people, it just wasn’t normal, but it did give me a chance to look over the pictures I had been accumulating. Put together, they seemed to form a pattern. I pasted the photographs up into a “dummy” book and left it with the publishers with a note “This is my brain child . . . handle care please.”
The people in these photographs are real. Some from the East Side and Harlem tenements, others are from Park Avenue. In most cases, they weren’t even aware they were being photographed and cared less. People like to be photographed and will always ask “What paper are you from, mister, and what day will they appear,” the jitterbugs and the Sinatra bobby-sock fans even want to know on what page it will appear. To me a photograph is a page from life, and that being the case, it must be real.”
Naked City, pp. 11-12
Perhaps today marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Naked City. To commemorate this historic event… Starting with what might be the first “rave notice” in print:
LETTERS From the Editor
“There’s a new book in the stores today by Weegee, who bills himself as “the famous” – and is.
It’s a book of pictures – pictures such as you’ve never seen before, except maybe in PM. It is called Naked City, published by Essential Books, sells for $4 – and is worth it.
I’ve been through my copy now three times, and every trip there’s something new.
The book is a collection of the better pictures Weegee has taken in the years he has spent as a freelance photographer, mostly of murders and fires, but sometimes of love. Many of them have appeared as news pictures in PM, and you’ll remember some of them – certainly the ones of Joe McWilliams, the Nazi lover, with the rear end of his horse, and Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh with the late Lady Decies and their jewels at the opera.
It is unfair to use a single illustration as typical, but I’m using the one in the next column of the Bowery floozy’s gam because I like it, and because I like Weegee’s caption: Ladies keep heir money in their stockings…
Weegee is a rumpled, heavy-set, cigar-smoking man with a camera who lives with one ear at a police radio. He rather likes to pass himself off as a character. He is, but not exactly the same one.”
-John P. Lewis
PM, July 18, 1945, p. 19
Naked City by the numbers:
Inspired by the quote: “Many of them have appeared as news pictures in PM” and being naturally curious, we decided to investigate the publication history of the photos in Naked City.
Naked City: 246 pages with 247 photos
Photos published before their publication in Naked City:
78 photos were published in PM
6 significant variant photos were published in PM
4 photos were published in The New York Daily News
3 photos were published in Life
2 photos were published in The New York Post
1 photo was published in The New York Herald Tribune
The earliest photo that we could conclusively date in a publication is “Balcony Seats at a Murder,” published in the New York Post, on Nov. 17, 1939.
The latest photo that we could conclusively date in a publication is “Opening Night at the Opera,” published in PM, on December 3, 1944.
To be continued…
Unable to proceed, owners of these cars abandoned them on West Side Highway, near 90th St. Mayor LaGuardia refused to permit use of water to clear streets. He said water crisis is worse than snow crisis.”
(Presumably this is one of the last fotos by Fellig to appear in the Daily News. By 1945 he receives credit… Typical “stark” photo made at night for a tabloid… A frozen dessert… The icing on the cake…)