The Critic

1943
Photograph by Weegee

I couldn’t see what I was snapping but could almost smell the smugness.

Weegee

Arthur Fellig had a sharp eye for the unfairness of life. An Austrian immigrant who grew up on the gritty streets of New York City’s Lower East Side, Fellig became known as Weegee—a phonetic take on Ouija—for his preternatural ability to get the right photo. Often these were film-noirish images of crime, tragedy and the denizens of nocturnal New York. In 1943, Weegee turned his Speed Graphic camera’s blinding flash on the social and economic inequalities that lingered after the Great Depression. Not averse to orchestrating a shot, he dispatched his assistant, Louie Liotta, to a Bowery dive in search of an in­ebriated woman. He found a willing subject and took her to the Metropolitan Opera House for its Diamond Jubilee celebration. Then Liotta set her up near the entrance while Weegee watched for the arrival of Mrs. George Washington Kavanaugh and Lady Decies, two wealthy women who regularly graced society columns. When the tiara- and fur-bedecked socialites arrived for the opera, Weegee gave Liotta the signal to spring the drunk woman. “It was like an explosion,” Liotta recalled. “I thought I went blind from the three or four flash exposures.” With that flash, Weegee captured the stark juxtaposition of fabulous wealth and dire poverty, in a gotcha style that anticipated the commercial appeal of paparazzi decades later. The photo appeared in life under the headline “The Fashionable People,” and the piece let readers know how the women’s “entry was viewed with distaste by a spectator.” That The Critic was later revealed to have been staged did little to dampen its influence.

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