The Opera
 
The Fashionable People, [title first used for "The Critic" in LIFE Magazine], published December 6, 1943
Weegee often changed captions when an image was used in a new publication, in a technique that can only be termed "recaptioning."
The Critic, November 22, 1943, first published in LIFE, December 6, 1943
In the Lobby at the Metropolitan Opera, Opening Night, , November 22, 1943
"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 advertised as a Diamond Jubilee to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company. In a recent interview, Louie Liotta, a photographer who acted as Weegee's assistant, recalled that Weegee has been planning this photograph for a while. Liotta, at Weegee's request, picked up one of the regular women customers at Sammy's on the Bowery at about 6:30 p.m. With a sufficient amount of cheap wine for the woman, they proceeded to the opera house. When they arrived, the limousines owned by the members of high society were just beginning to discharge their passengers. Weegee asked Liotta to hold the now intoxicated woman near the curb as he stood about twenty feet away from the front doors of the opera house. With a signal worked out in advance, Weegee gave the sign to Liotta, who releasd the woman, hoping all the while that she could keep her balance long enough for Weegee to expose several plates. The moment had finally arrived: Mrs. George Washington Kavenaugh and Lady Decies were spotted getting out of a limousine. Both women were generous benefactors to numerous cultural institutions in New York and Philadelphia, and Weegee knew that they were known to every newspaper in New York. Liotta recalled the moment he released the disheveled woman: "It was like an explosion. I thought I went blind from the three or four flash exposures which Weegee made within a very few seconds." For his part, Weegee told the story that he "discovered" the woman viewing the opera patrons after the negative had been developed, never revealing the prank, saying it was as much a surprise to him as anyone.

The photograph that LIFE printed, which is the version most often reproduced, is only one third of the original negative. On the opposite page from the women arriving at the opera was another photograph by Weegee taken during the performance of the opera 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, Naked City.

 

Photographic images 1994, International Center of Photography, New York, Bequest of Wilma Wilcox.
Text 1997 International Center of Photography, from Weegee's World by Miles Barth, A Bulfinch Press Book, Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.