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Weegee's Naked City: Reviewed by Blake Andrews


Book Review Weegee's Naked City Photographs by Weegee Reviewed by Blake Andrews With Naked City, his first publication, Weegee gave his images the photobook treatment. Weegee’s eye for surprising juxtapositions and the minutiae of city life is in full force in the images chosen and their inventive, playful sequencing, all narrated in the photographer’s own distinctive voice.

Weegee's Naked City. By Weegee.
https://www.photoeye.com/bookstore/citation.cfm?catalog=DT850
Weegee's Naked City  
Photographs by Weegee

Damiani/International Center of Photography, 2020. 
292 pp., 6½x9¼".

It’s a truism that a single photograph can be a time travel machine. Less commonly known, however, is that under proper conditions so can a photobook. Consider the recent reprint of Weegee’s Naked City (ICP/Damian, 2020). With a few exceptions —a new afterword and improved print quality— it’s a facsimile copy of the 1945 original. As before, Weegee’s photographs remain the centerpiece. But the other aspects —the layout, typography, size, and tonality— clinch the deal, delivering the reader into yesteryear. You can almost smell cigar smoke emanating from the film noir lettering on the clothbound cover.

It’s the early 1940s. It’s wartime in America. While other photographers dodge bullets overseas, Arthur Fellig’s singular focus is New York City. He sleeps with a police scanner. Using its Ouija-like (pronounced “Weegee” in some quarters) predictive power, he’s first on the scene to any event day or night, Speed Graphic in hand. An hour of shooting and it’s off to the next accident or movie premiere, and so on.

Weegee's Naked CityBy Weegee.
The trail of pictures Weegee left in his wake reveal a photographer of insatiable curiosity, bluster, and humanism. A girl fired from a cannon, male singers at the opera house, a sleeping elephant. He captured a bewildering array of material, most of it at night — close-up, brightly flashed, and in fleeting moments. The majority were shot for tabloids, but these images went beyond mere photojournalism. They were works of art. “Weegee turns the commonplaces of a great city into extraordinary psychological documents,” chirped the Naked City cover blurb by Nancy Newhall. Hers was the imprimatur not of any newspaper, but of MoMA.

Weegee would push these creative leanings later in his career, playing with lens effects, multiple exposures, soap bubbles, and so on. Naked City has no such overt artiness. But the inklings of genius are still evident. His photographs of tenants on a landing, witnesses at a murder scene, a bloody body in the gutter, and more have become iconic. Today they’re more likely to be found on a gallery wall than in the news. They point the finger of history back to Weegee in a state of creative transition. He was exploding with photographic energy, but still unsure how to channel it beyond newsprint.

Weegee's Naked CityBy Weegee.
Weegee's Naked CityBy Weegee.

In 1945, Naked City became his first monograph, offering a new direction for that energy. Pictures form merely one element of the visual novel. Told in chapters and captioned with the breezy dialect of wartime newsreels, Naked City is built on a solid narrative arc. The material is heavily illustrated, with just a few words interspersed here and there. All its text can be read easily in one sitting.

Weegee's Naked CityBy Weegee.
Nearing the end the book the pace slows while Weegee spends two chapters delightfully ruminating about “Personalities” and “Camera Tips”. Here his personality shines through. The language is gruff and direct and charming. If he weren’t a photographer perhaps he could’ve made it as an essayist. The “Camera Tips” are fairly straightforward, while “Personalities” is more revealing. Weegee describes a recent visit with Alfred Steiglitz, who he found in poor health, forgotten, and nearly destitute in his final years. “The master of the camera and what did fame get him?” asks Weegee rhetorically. Stieglitz’s circumstances are described with tender honesty by Weegee, who perhaps sensed the karmic wheel at work. A few decades later Weegee would find himself in similar straights, poor and unknown, unable to enjoy the posthumous boom in his notoriety.

While in his prime he was determined to ward off such a fate. On the back of every print he stamped WEEGEE THE FAMOUS in all capitals. An act of sheer will. Not that he was widely known at the time. But Naked City would change that. It became an immediate bestseller in 1945, making Weegee’s name.

The book has remained in print since, spanning several editions (some given more thoughtful treatment than others). Over 75 years, publishers have attached to it a variety of design, size, and cover ideas. But nothing fits quite as well as the original. For the 2020 edition, ICP/Damiani have hewn closely to the 1945 standard, and theirs is the most faithful reprint yet. It’s a fitting treatment for an all-time classic. Naked City belongs on every photographer’s bookshelf. If you don’t already own an older edition, or even if you do, this edition deserves consideration.

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Weegee's Naked CityBy Weegee.
Weegee's Naked CityBy Weegee.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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