Madly in love with the Naked City

Weegee (1899-1968), Naked City, 2020

Weegee and Mary Margaret McBride talking about the recently published Naked City on radio station on WEAF, New York, in July, 1945, from Sound Portraits Productions:

ANNOUNCER: It’s one o’clock, and here transcribed is Mary Margaret McBride.

MARY MARGARET MCBRIDE: Who’s always been madly in love with New York City, but maybe Weegee, I’m not quite as much in love with it as you are. The way everybody talks about you and this book, this beautiful book that you’ve done, I think maybe you not only love it better than I do, but you know it a doggone sight better than I do. You’ve been studying it how long?

WEEGEE: Well, all my life, down on all the streets, I know ’em all because I drive all night long. I know every block, every sign-post, every cop, every beggar, everything

Unidentified Photographer, My Midnight Police Radio Car Tour, ca. 1942 (19647.1993)

MCBRIDE: Weegee, you must have another name and even I don’t know what it is.

WEEGEE: Well, let me see now. Oh yeah, my name, my real name, is Arthur Fellig, but nobody knows me by that. It’s Weegee.

MCBRIDE: I must tell you about Weegee — that’s a funny name, isn’t? W – double E-G double E. He got it, I’m told, because somebody said ”That guy acts as if he were propelled by a Ouija board.” Is that what they said?

WEEGEE: Oh yeah, I was named right after the Ouija board.

MCBRIDE: But they spell it differently?

WEEGEE: Well I used to spell it O-U-I-J-A, but I changed it to W-E-E-G-E-E to make it easier for the fan mail which I sometimes get.

Unidentified Photographer, [Weegee with “Weegee” sign, New York], ca. 1955 (22648.1993)

MCBRIDE: Well, the reason they said he was like a Ouija board, it is because he’s psychic, he can pick up crime where there are no indications at the moment. He’ll just go to a spot, and there’s a feeling inside him. Isn’t that it, Weegee?

WEEGEE: That’s right. I can sense it. I hover around a neighborhood knowing something is gonna happen.

MCBRIDE: You don’t know what exactly?

WEEGEE: No — I can’t — I don’t know what, but I’m all ready with my camera, just in case.

MCBRIDE: I know in Naked City, that picture of a man just sitting on the curb. You took that and then suddenly he gets up to walk across the street and an automobile knocks him down and he’s killed right there before your eyes, and your camera records the whole thing.

Weegee (1899-1968), [Frank Birskowsky on Bowery sidewalk, New York], December 25, 1942 (2183)

Weegee (1899-1968), [Priest giving last rites to Frank Birskowsky on sidewalk of the Bowery, New York], December 25, 1942 (2182)

WEEGEE: Yeah, it was a very sad thing, I mean, sometimes . . . I cry, I mean, but I can’t help it. I figure it’s my job to record these things, the same like the cops, firemen, and ambulance driver arrive on a scene, I’m there too. Incidentally, if I arrive at the fire after the fire engines do, I feel disgraced and hurt.

MCBRIDE: Remember the time you were in Chinatown and you insisted on taking the picture of a hydrant and everyone thought you were a little crazy?

WEEGEE: Oh yeah, let me tell you about that. It was two o’clock in the morning. I had nothing to do, so I went down to Chinatown, right in the heart of Chinatown. I aimed my camera and the two cops looked at me and they hollered over from across the street, “Why waste the film on us?” Well you won’t believe this when I tell you: the whole street blew up because the gas main caught fire.

MCBRIDE: And you don’t know what led you to go there?

WEEGEE: No, I just had nothing to do. It was just a nice morning. It had been too quiet I mean, or something.

Weegee (1899-1968), “Weegee Knew Something Was Brewing… and It Was!”, July 5, 1944 (1986.52)

Weegee (1899-1968), Naked City, 1945, pp. 206-207

MCBRIDE: Did you ever hear of anything so fascinating? And wait ’til I tell you — I understand that in this book, there’s a picture of a park bench that you yourself have slept on.

WEEGEE: That’s right. I used to sleep in Bryant Park not so many years ago. That was in the summertime of course, at 6 o’clock in the morning a cop would come around and hit the sole of your shoe with his club. I’d get up and go looking for a job. I always loved photography but I couldn’t get no work. That was during the days of the Depression and so forth and I started hanging around police headquarters at the teletype desk and took pictures. I had no business there, because you’re supposed to have a press card, but I did it two years on my nerve, then after I got a little bit known the editors of the different newspapers that I sold my pictures to helped me get a press card.

Weegee (1899-1968), [Insecurity, Bryant Park, New York], September 4, 1944 (15596.1993)

MCBRIDE: I understand the police tailors make zipper pockets so your pockets won’t be picked.

WEEGEE: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Listen, you can see it right here — this is no gag. I’ve got zippers in every pocket, also in a couple of secret pockets because around police head quarters first thing you know, your cigars are gone, my driver’s license may be gone, I take no chances.

MCBRIDE: I should think when you are taking pictures, you’re oblivious. You don’t really know what else is going on.

WEEGEE: Oh, absolutely not. I just look through the wire-finder in my camera and as a matter of fact, when I really see the picture is when I’ve develope the film. Then I really see what I’ve have done. I really seem to be in a trance when I am taking the picture because there is so much drama taking place or will take place. I mean, you just can’t hide it — go around wearing rose-colored glasses. In other words we have beauty and we have ugliness. Everybody likes beauty, but there’s an ugliness. When people look at these pictures of people sleeping on the fire escapes, and kids and little girls holding cats, they just won’t believe a thing like that has happened.

Weegee (1899-1968), [Tenement sleeping during heat spell, Lower East Side, New York], May 22, 1941 (14463.1993)

MCBRIDE: You are going to love Naked City, published, by the way, by Duell Sloan and Pearce under their Essential Books title.

WEEGEE: That’s right.

MCBRIDE: And it’s worth every nickel you’ll ever pay for it because some of the pictures are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. I have never seen photography like some of this. It’s beautiful, it’s sad, its funny.

Weegee (1899-1968), [Mockup of Naked City], 1945 (20048.1993)

WEEGEE: Don’t forget it’s human.

MCBRIDE: Human, that’s the word.

WEEGEE: It’s the people of New York exactly as I and others have seen it.

Source of audio and transcript: “This documentary comes from Sound Portraits Productions, a mission-driven independent production company that was created by Dave Isay in 1994. Sound Portraits was the predecessor to StoryCorps and was dedicated to telling stories that brought neglected American voices to a national audience.”

Naked City was recently republished by Damiani and ICP and is available in libraries and book stores everywhere.

Unidentified Photographer, [Weegee autographing “Naked City” at Willoughby’s, New York], 1945 (20056.1993)

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