“The Critic” is probably Weegee’s most famous image, and certainly his most widely published. The opening night of the Metropolitan Opera in 1943 was the Diamond Jubilee occasion to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company. Although Weegee claimed that he “discovered” the shabby woman viewing the opera patrons on the right only after the negative had been developed, the truth was that he staged this photo.
Weegee has been planning this photograph for a while. Weegee’s assistant picked up an intoxicated woman from a bar. As Mrs. George Washington Kavenaugh and Lady Decies — generous benefactors to numerous cultural institutions in New York and Philadelphia — arrived, the assistant released the drunk woman into the vicinity. Weegee claimed he took this picture in a wartime black-out but his incredulous editor refused to use it. Weegee cropped the image and took it to LIFE magazine printed with the caption, “The plain people waited in line for hours to get standing room, listened intently and, as always, showed better musical manners than the people sitting in boxes.” This contrast of images, the rich with the jewels, and the well-mannered “plain people” was exactly what Weegee was striving for in all of his photography. The incongruence of life, between the rich and poor, the victims and the rescued, the murdered and the living – his photographs had the ability to make us all eyewitnesses and voyeurs. The first time the photo appeared with the actual title, “The Critic,” was in Weegee’s own book, The Naked City. The photo became so famous that the book was brought by Hollywood for a movie of the same name.
The photograph was quickly discovered by the Nazis and alleged used as propaganda; underneath the image were the words, “GIs, is this what you’re fighting for?”
(In case you were wondering, the opening opera that night was Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The horse in the fourth act nearly ran away with the tenor as he bravely sang on).