New Yorkers are talking about murder. Pictures of murder, that is. For the last week, there's been a tremendous buzz around the opening of Weegee: Murder is My Business, an exhibition dedicated to the crime photos of "one of the most relentlessly inventive figures in American photography (to quote New York's International Center for Photography [ICP], which is hosting the show).
There's no doubt that Weegee's gritty crime photos are part of what made him famous in the '30s and '40s. Oddly enough, however, his best known photograph had nothing to do with crime -- or, at least, nothing directly. It's "The Critic," a cartoonishly unsubtle commentary on the gulf between rich and poor.
Weegee: The Fashionable People [title first used for "The Critic."] Life magazine, 6 December 1943.
"The Critic" is classic Weegee. And, as much as it hurts to admit it, the photo was staged. Here's how the ICP tells the story:
In a recent interview, Louie Liotta, a photographer who acted as Weegee's assistant, recalled that Weegee had been planning this photograph for a while. Liotta, at Weegee's request, picked up one of the regular women customers at Sammy's on the Bowery at about 6:30 p.m. With a sufficient amount of cheap wine for the woman, they proceeded to the opera house. When they arrived, the limousines owned by the members of high society were just beginning to discharge their passengers. Weegee asked Liotta to hold the now intoxicated woman near the curb as he stood about twenty feet away from the front doors of the opera house. With a signal worked out in advance, Weegee gave the sign to Liotta, who released the woman, hoping all the while that she could keep her balance long enough for Weegee to expose several plates.
Well, all the excitement over the exhibition prompted the folks at the New York Daily News to rummage through their photo archive, and what did they find? "The Critic's" fraternal twin.
New York Daily News: Among those present at the Met's Diamond Jubilee opening were Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh (left) and Lady Decies, both of whom had polished up their diamonds for the occasion. Among those missing was the Queen of American Society, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt.... 22 November 1943.
Sure enough, the Daily News sent photographers to cover the Diamond Jubilee, and one of them came back with a picture that's almost a dead ringer for Weegee's -- although, as the Daily New tweeted, "sans hired help."
There's actually nothing surprising about this particular photo convergence. In spot news coverage, it happens all the time. Sometimes the resulting photos are eeirily similar.
For instance, take the iconic photo of "Tank Man," the white-shirted protester who confronted a column of tanks in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, in June 1989. Four photographers made virtually identical pictures -- but only one was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The New York Times' Lens Blog tells the story behind the photos, here.
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PS I should add that, at the time Weegee made "The Critic," it was common practice for photojournalists and documentary photographers to stage or "direct" photos. Most of his contemporaries -- Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, and many others -- did the same thing. It wasn't considered unethical, as it would be today.