at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through September 27
at City, through September 29
American art tends to celebrate movement over stasis, the spontaneous over the preconceived. The soaring verses of Walt Whitman, the wildly energetic scores of Charles Ives, the expansive lines of Jackson Pollock, the unpredictable rhythms of Stan Brakhage’s films–all evidence a culture freeing itself from the traditions of European art, fueled by the energy that also undergirded American expansion. These artists’ photographic counterpart is Garry Winogrand.
Born in the Bronx in 1928, Winogrand fell in love with photography in 1948 when he was introduced to the darkroom while studying painting at Columbia University; within two weeks he’d abandoned painting and was buying surplus film in bulk. Later, his first wife, whom he married in 1952, would say, “Being married to Garry was like being married to a lens,” and at his death in 1984 he left about one million negatives and color slides. Though he supported himself throughout the 1950s with commercial jobs, first as a photojournalist and later as an advertising photographer, his own work was influenced by Walker Evans and Robert Frank, and in 1955 and 1959 he took two cross-country photographic trips.
Winogrand once said that he became a serious photographer only around 1960–though his early supporter, Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski, wrote in a 1988 catalog essay that his work was distinctive “from the beginning.” The 1962 Cuban missile crisis had a profound effect on Winogrand, as Szarkowski notes. Walking New York’s streets “in despair out of fear for the life of his family and himself and his city…it came to him that he was nothing–powerless, insignificant, helpless.” Winogrand added that that knowledge liberated him. A year later, applying for a Guggenheim fellow-ship to take another cross-country
photographic trip, he wrote that the photographs he’d done “up to now…make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter….I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper.” He got the fellowship, and in four months in 1964 took some 20,000 images. Some of them, many never before seen, are now on view in a traveling exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Included in this portrait of a ceaselessly moving nation are 147 prints, 28 of them color ones made posthumously.
While Winogrand’s range is reasonably synoptic, what he excludes is significant. There are no conventional portraits–instead he records people’s activities. Only a few show the subjects at rest–and in one of those, Los Angeles (many have identical titles), the reason is that the people in the store pictured are watching TV. Even here, one little girl looks restlessly in another direction. But most often Winogrand’s figures are doing something, often traveling–in cars, in airports, on surfboards. The family pictured in White Sands National Monument have set up a little campsite, but they focus not on one another but on something over a sandy hill, in the same direction that their car faces. Their barbecue, picnic table, and sunscreen all sit on shifting sand. A boy perched atop a slide in San Francisco has his back to the photographer, so our focus is the same as the kid’s–on the forward movement he’s about to make.
Szarkowski says that Winogrand gave several quite different, even contradictory explanations for one of his trademark devices, the tilted camera. In Houston the tilt suggests that pedestrians in a crosswalk are traveling downhill–the camera seemingly facilitates their movement. The slight tilt of Lake Tahoe, which shows a marquee announcing the Ed Sullivan Show and a crowd of pedestrians, destabilizes the composition, suggesting that Winogrand shot on the run–as he often did. But it isn’t only through tilting that Winogrand creates imbalances. In Dallas he places the heads and shoulders of three pedestrians with their backs to us at the bottom of the frame, against a cityscape that includes a skyscraper at left, suggesting a critique of the scale of modern cities.
There’s a very real social dimension to this work. The absence of the conventional portrait can be seen as a rejection of the individual as a source of viewing pleasure. Curvaceous women do appear in more than one image, but they’re often in the background, in a way strengthening the point: Winogrand isn’t immune to this kind of looking, but his focus is elsewhere. An untitled color picture shows a crowd in a field, mostly kids, looking up and off to the right: the subject isn’t the crowd or the unseen object or event–it’s the attention the subjects are paying to something outside themselves. A year before his death Winogrand said he made photographs to “get totally out of myself,” and it’s not surprising he’d be attracted by people doing the same.
Winogrand also tweaks the kind of architecture that presents itself as “eternal.” Sometimes he tilts the image–and the structure. But in Houston, shot outside a monumental modernist glass lobby, the moving cars in the foreground–including the symbol of freedom, a convertible–provide the contrast. In El Paso he captures a symmetrical arrangement of three women behind a restaurant counter but undercuts the kind of advertising photo his image suggests by making the composition off center: the woman on the right is cut off at the shoulder. The exhibit’s most evocative and mysterious image is also oddly framed. In State Fair of Texas, Dallas a boy observes a woman singing, the figures at either side of the frame and partly cut off by its edges. Between them is a night sky and some out-of-focus billboards. The subject here is not either figure but the boy’s thoughts, suggested by the line of his gaze at the woman, as he’s taken out of himself by her or her singing.
Winogrand’s interest in actions and thoughts rather than objects may be one reason he was never very successful as a commercial photographer. His best images are oblique, mixing the sidelong glance with an intense sense of people’s inner lives, offering an alternative to our culture’s bourgeois possessiveness.
There’s a telling portrait in the exhibit at City of 49 Carlos Flores photographs of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, taken between 1969 and 2001. Julianson (circa 1975) is a close-up of a gap-toothed man, face tipped to display his open mouth for the camera, his expression a hard-to-define mix of emotions. Flores may not have Winogrand’s form-giving vision, but his work helps reveal what’s omitted by such artists–surely not all of Winogrand’s subjects were as restless as he made them seem. Flores, who was born in 1949 in Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago when he was ten, lets his subjects determine his compositions; his only formal training was a single Art Institute course, where he says he primarily learned technical skills.
In Picnic (1971) he shoots from slightly above the crowd surrounding conga players, framing the group tightly and thus capturing its edgy intensity. An untitled 1973 image has an offhand framing that imitates the sprawl of Puerto Rican and Mexican students planning a demonstration, underlining the fact that not everyone looks engaged, and a few seem downright bored. In Division Street Near California (2001) a sculpted version of the Puerto Rican flag spanning the street is silhouetted against the sky, emphasizing its symbolic claim to that strip.
Flores has observed the gentrification of more than one Puerto Rican neighborhood, and the purposeful framing of a few photos comments on the real estate business. An untitled image from 1975 showing what the label calls “children playing in a demolition site” is dominated by rubble in the foreground; the children are distant, their faces barely visible. An untitled photo frames a sign for La Ceiba restaurant with a For Sale or Lease notice in front of it; the label tells us the restaurant is no longer at that location.
Flores’s focus is on places as they relate to people, specifically his culture. An untitled 1975 photo makes his humanistic approach clear, capturing the solidity and centeredness of a rotund man sitting in a hammock in front of a clearing, flanked by two children. Though their arrangement is symmetrical, they’re not framed in the middle of the composition, so we see that the ropes holding up the hammock seem to descend naturally from a gently sloping tree. The whole scene feels at rest–because its primary subject is.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Carlos Flores, Garry Winogrand.