Monday, December 8, 2014

Garry Winogrand @ Jeu de Paume

Garry Winogrand, Bromx Zoo, 1969
This vast exhibition of Garry Winogrand's photograph at the Jeu de Paume will change the place of his work in the French cultural imagination. This is one of those rare exhibitions where we get to see that photography has a history: Winogrand was working across the second half of the twentieth century when photography processes and practices were defined by the single lens reflex camera’s transformation of the world into the glory of silver gelatin prints. There is an age to these prints, not only in the world they depict, but their substance will not be seen today in digital or laserjet prints. Winogrand’s is the black and white world of single lens reflex photography’s vision of postwar America. And as we study these fine photographs, they demonstrate the medium stripped to its fundamental status of nuanced reflections of light. The composition, framing, the freezing of the moment, the vision itself, all look to be accomplished effortlessly through Winogrand’s viewfinder. But in his ability to capture the most fleeting moment in the perfect balance of light and dark, Winogrand is shown as a genius with a camera.
Garry Winogrand, New Haven, Connecticut, 1970
Throughout his foreshortened life, Winogrand was drawn to crowds, airports, freaks, parades, parties, boxing matches and anything that was filled with energy and movement of a lot of people. Winogrand was where people gathered and he watched them perform for his camera – Venice Beach, the Bronx Zoo, 5th Avenue, student demonstrations and Shea Stadium, as well as Cape Kennedy, Florida, 1969. All of them are places where the people of America don an outfit of sorts, they dressed to perform their version of the American dream. Everything and everyone is in mid-flight, dressed for the occasion, soldiers marines, cowboys, women in heels, in suits, with hair fashioned according to the times.
Garry Winogrand, Metropolitan Opera, New York, 1951
At one point in the exhibition, Winogrand is quoted by the wall text to claim that he photographs the mess of America. This is precisely what he does. Even if the images are clear and sometimes brutally honest, Winogrand always represents the chaos of American life. Chaos comes through contradiction: always, in the middle of the crowd, Winogrand finds motion in several different, often contradictory directions. What are a black man and a white woman, a couple, doing carrying chimpanzees along the street at the zoo?  The surrogate children of a mixed-race couple in 1969, the shadow of the photographer creeping into the frame, speak the permissibility and the discomfort of this family constellation. The clash and the contradictions of Winogrand’s photographs so often come from the look, or the not looking of one figure and its opposition to that of another. Looks are chaotic, in that they do not even form relays around the image, they simply move in all different directions. I want to say that this is the hallmark of Winogrand’s photography, all the way through his career: the chaos of looks to create disconnections and social isolation in the middle of a crowd.

Garry Winogrand, Street Beggar Reaching Out to Receive a Donation, 1968
As it is presented here, the final phase of Winogrand’s career is labelled by the exhibition as dark. It is true that there is an anger and a doom and gloom to images such as a group of Yale students in 1970 – especially when juxtaposed with a couple at the Metropolitan Opera, however staged their performance, in 1951. But if the look is directly confrontational, if the eyes are angry, this is not something new for Winogrand. The confrontation, surprise and suspicion everywhere defines the photographs in New York and across America from the earlier decades. It may be that the sadness and isolation does not take up as much space in the photograph, but it is always there. It is true that the earlier photographs express joy and energy, but the opposite is always lurking in the background. I don’t see anything joyous about an arm reaching out to a black man whose facial expression suggests he is being teased with money in Street Beggar Reaching Out to Receive a Donation, 1968. In this image I see a world in which black people are oppressed and social disorder reigns, even though it is 1968.
Garry Winogrand, New York, c. 1962

Winogrand’s photographs show the realization of the American dream. Everyone is an individual, everyone is expressing themselves as such. But always in the crowd they are isolated, either by their look, physically, or ultimately by the camera. There’s very little sense of connection between people that populate or the nation exposed in Winogrand’s photographs.

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