Remembering Naked Hollywood through the eyes of a master photographer

Weegee’s L.A. “distortions” reflected his grotesque vision of Tinsel Town

Rian Dundon
Timeline

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Zsa Zsa Gabor (distortion), 1950. (Photo by Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

For a lot of successful artists, moving beyond the work that made you famous is a challenge. There is always tension between the public’s penchant for familiarity and the artist’s intrinsic mandate to challenge perceptions. Think Dylan going electric, or Cartier-Bresson putting down the camera to start drawing again. Artists want to surprise themselves as much as their audience, not repeat their greatest hits. For Weegee, the inimitable immigrant photojournalist made famous for his raw, tender, flash-lit pictures of New York in the 1930s and ’40s, recognizability was a mixed blessing. Those images — published the world over, exhibited at MoMa — became the subject of the photographer’s hugely popular first book, Naked City, which after multiple editions was adapted into a 1948 Hollywood film of the same title. By the time he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the movies in 1947, Weegee — a man known at least as much for his gruff-and-cuddly New Yorker image as for his art — was something of a cult hero.

In L.A., Weegee sold himself as a technical consultant. But besides a few acting gigs, and a few stills he shot for Doctor Strangelove, nothing really panned out. With plenty of time on his hands, the photographer lurked at film premiers and parties, observing the fame economy and experimenting with making new kinds of photographs to reflect the rapaciousness of a place, an ethos, that was deeply connected to the kind of spectacle he’d been chasing for years. Only here it was all surface, no substance. If New York was life and death, Los Angeles was a depthless parody.

Film fans outside a movie premiere on Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles, early 1950s. (Weegee/International Centre of Photography/Getty Images)

Weegee’s “distortions” are, formally at least, the quintessence of artistic departure. Made using mirrors, gimmick lenses, textured glass, or meticulous darkroom manipulations, many of them feel like pictures shot through carnival glass — a sardonic thumb in the eye of a city and a culture he cared little for. A New Yorker through and through, he called Los Angeles “Newark… with palm trees.”

Some of these distortions, along with other, more Weegee-esque images from the red carpets, dressing rooms, and autograph lines of L.A., were published as Naked Hollywood in 1953. But where Naked City was a sincere, if unsparing, love affair with NYC, the latter book is a sneering response to Los Angeles and the celebrity sheen that — at least to the visitor — defines it. Weegee’s Hollywood photos can be seen as the logical next step in his kaleidoscopic vision of a society consumed with itself. The vacant personas of celebrities standing in for the fires, murder scenes, and perp walks of his earlier oeuvre.

Weegee committed to his new methods as stridently as he had the Manhattan crime beat 20 years earlier, but they were never met with much interest. Naked Hollywood was a commercial flop, and even Weegee’s long-time magazine and newspaper editors back in New York, where he returned in 1952 after only four years in California, were reluctant to publish his new “creative” photography, unable to see it as the decisive continuation of his previous work that it truly is.

Marilyn Monroe with her face distorted by Weegee’s plastic lens, circa 1960. (Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Comedian Jerry Lewis with his friends in Hollywood, circa 1950. | Jayne Mansfield during an evening out in Hollywood, circa 1951. (Weegee(Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Distorted view of three women as they eat a meal at a Hollywood party, Los Angeles, circa 1950. (Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Bette Davis Distortion. (Weegee (Arthur Fellig)/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Mirror image of the back of actor Tony Curtis, standing below a lighted movie marquee, entering a Hollywood premiere with photographers, California, 1950s. (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Autograph hunters at a Hollywood premier, circa 1951. (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Distorted image of actress Grace Kelly at a Hollywood awards ceremony, mid 1950s. (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
(left) Leslie Caron Distortion, 1950. | (right) Elizabeth Taylor posing with her Oscar at the Academy Awards in Santa Monica, California, April 17, 1961. Taylor won Best Actress for her performance in the film Butterfield 8. (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Fans at a Hollywood premiere, circa 1951. (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
(left) A cameraman looks through the lens of a KTTV television camera, Los Angeles, circa 1955. | Scene from Lawrence of Arabia (distortion), circa 1962. (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)
Jackie Kennedy (distortion), December 2, 1962. (Weegee/International Center of Photography/Getty Images)

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Rian Dundon
Timeline

Photographer + writer. Former Timeline picture editor.