Naked City

Robert Olen Butler came squalling into this world the same year that Arthur Fellig—better known as Weegee—came screeching into its spotlights, with his first book of photos, Naked City. As Butler nursed and played, Weegee leered at strippers, midgets, and murderers with his Speed Graphic Camera. As Butler learned to walk and read in Saint Louis, Weegee was documenting the blood and heat of New York City by night. Weegee died of a brain tumor as Butler prepared to ship out for Vietnam, a country that would thereafter deeply pervade his writing, while New York was central to Weegee’s art. But despite the differences in age and place between these two men, their legacy is not all that different:

A ten-year-old girl, thin face and russet eyes, chews on black tar on a hot day.

A teenage couple dances, slumped half-dead in each other’s arms, eyes closed.

A body sprawls on the sidewalk outside a gilded hotel.

A naked voodoo girl sways on stage, under the eyes of dozens of men.

A masked man stands on the shoulders of another man, in the middle of a crowd of beachgoers.

A stripper, painted in gold, slugs back water backstage.

Which ones are from a Butler story? Which ones are from a Weegee photo? Both men work with searing images, masters of their respective mediums. So it seems awfully appropriate that Butler has chosen, in a sense, to partner up with Weegee for his latest set of stories. “There are eight million stories in the naked city,” and Butler has started plucking from the best of them.

—Caitlin McKenna

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