UNDERCOVER #2: WEEGEE
by Gianpaolo Arena


NAKED CITY “Naked City”, 1990, Elektra/Nonesuch.


© Weegee, Corpse with Revolver. CA, 1940

The daring sonic adventures of John Zorn, accompanied by excellent musicians like Frisell, Horvitz, Frith, Baron, Eye and his chameleonic musical transformism, create the conditions for one of the most amazing frescoes of contemporary music: the Naked City. In the background, the New York atmosphere, the energy, the speed, the neurosis. The noir, B-movies, Carl Stalling, the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, Ennio Morricone, Lounge Lizards, the grindcore, Samuel Fuller, the hard-boiled, Suzuki Sejun, Jack Smith, Mickey Spillane, Raymond Chandler are the aesthetic, visual and acoustic textures that take part of Zorn’s imaginary. Marquis de Sade, Jean Genet, Hermann Nitsch are references to his obsessions and to the dark and violent side of his existence.
The band’s name was inspired by a book published in 1945, Naked City, which became in 1948 the great namesake film noir by Jules Dassin. The author of the cover photo and the book is Arthur Felling, who was born in 1899, in Ukraine, and later moved to New York in 1910. In the following decades he established himself as a freelance photojournalist under the name Weegee.
Equipped with a 4x5 Speed Graphic with a flash bulb and a routine visitor of Manhattan police headquarter, he is often found at the crime scenes. Murder is my business became his manifesto: accidents, fights at night, murders and fires become his contexts of choice for representing the unclean and the sublime; the comedy and the human tragedy depicted in the crazy nights in the city’s underground; the drama’s emotional construction and the aesthetic representation of the disaster led him to the research of the Mexican Enrique Metinides. The slums at night and the infamous bars in Harlem, Chinatown, Bowery, The Bronx, Coney Island, Little Italy, are the stage where it’s captured the life and death of the naked city: gangsters, thugs, cops, dancing girls, whores, pimps.
The road and the car became his home; in his Chevrolet he installs the police radio system and in the trunk he finds place for his photographic equipment: a dark room ready to use, spare clothes, food, cigars. Weegee’s photographic technique is relatively simple: frontal, direct, no frills. A hard use of flash shot without permission on people’s face. The images printed in black and white on high contrast paper, are dramatic, cold and cruel, unambiguous and often brutal. Sometimes the subject’s face is transformed into a grotesque mask with a merciless grin. An inspiration for a generation of photographers including William Klein, Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand. The covers of Unsane, born more than half a century later, are sons of the same mother, New York.

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LINKS

Tzadik: John Zorn's label 
Weegee on International Center of Photography (ICP)


© All copyright remains with the photographer and property.

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Undercover is a special issue dedicated to photographers and musical covers.