What you see: The Critic, an image shot in 1943 by Arthur (sometimes given as Usher) Fellig, who was better known as Weegee. Christie’s estimates the ferrotyped gelatin silver print at $10,000 to $15,000.
Who was Weegee? He was a Ukranian-born photographer who excelled at capturing visions of life in Manhattan. His uncanny ability to pop up at crime scenes–sometimes even before the police got there–earned him the nickname “Weegee,” a phonetic spelling of Ouija, the name of the board used to summon spirits. Weegee had something better and more reliable than a Ouija board: he fitted his car with a police radio. He died in 1968 at the age of 75.
Time magazine chose The Critic as one of its 100 Most Influential Images of All Time. The Photography Book, published by Phaidon, placed it second on a list of photos that changed the world. The image is in the collections of The Whitney, The Getty, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. What makes it such an important photograph? “I think the reason people respond is there’s a lot going on in it,” says Rebecca Jones, a photographs cataloguer at Christie’s. “It’s very graphic, very confrontational. The women going to the opera look directly at the camera, and the viewer. We have the disheveled onlooker at the right. We have the onlookers at the left. And the types of people in the image are very New York–high society people, the people on the left hoping for standing room tickets, and the bitter character on the right, all together in the scene in fortuitous imagery.”
We now know that The Critic was not organic. Weegee had his assistant recruit the woman at the right from a local bar, and had him move her forward on his signal when the two socialites emerged from their limo to attend the Metropolitan Opera’s Diamond Jubilee celebration. Any photographers who followed his example in 2017 would be fired and shamed. Why was Weegee able to get away with it? “It was the start of tabloid journalism. He was the first to do it, so he kind of got away with it,” she says. “The ethics were not fully developed on the issue because it was so new.”
Weegee printed this image in the late 1950s or early 1960s, before there was a secondary market for photographs. Why would he have created more prints of The Critic after it was published in Life magazine around 1943? “In addition to being a successful photojournalist, Weegee was unique, because he was recognized by the fine arts community,” Jones says. “He was known to print works in addition to this one, possibly to sell, possibly for an exhibition, or possibly to give to people.”
When Life magazine ran The Critic, its editors cropped it to show just the three women. The version at Christie’s is the full version, which shows the middle class people at the left who are hoping to buy standing room tickets. Weegee released more prints of the cropped version than the full version during his life. Does that mean he preferred the cropped version? “It’s hard to say which he preferred. What’s more likely is since the three were in the original version used, it became the more iconic image,” she says, adding, “What also complicates his practice is he had no consistency to the way he marked his prints. The only way we knew this was from the late 1950s or early 1960s is it’s marked with an address we know he moved to in 1957.”
What else makes this Weegee image special? “It’s interesting to pull out from the cropped image to see what was going on in the photographer’s eye. We get the flavor of the particular moment,” Jones says. “And it’s a scene you could still see in New York today.”
How to bid: Weegee’s The Critic is lot 32 in Visionaries: Photographs from the Emily and Jerry Spiegel Collection, which takes place October 10 at Christie’s New York.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Christie’s.