The New York street scene shows a knot of people seemingly going about their business. But are they? On the left, we can spy what seems to be the prone figure of a man, his shoes and bottom pant legs visible. Upon closer inspection, a young boy seems to be staring in the man’s direction, someone else perhaps bending down. Has the man fallen? Was he mugged? Are people helping or trying not to get involved?
The photograph is quintessential Garry Winogrand, capturing a singular moment and then leaving it up to the viewer to fill in the blanks. In the 1950s, Winogrand worked for popular magazines Life, Look, Sports Illustrated, Collier’s, and Pageant. Yet he seemed to tire of producing photos that answered the five W’s – who, what, when, where, and why. An avid street photographer who particularly enjoyed photographing beautiful women, Winogrand’s work spans several decades and chronicles, not only his own metamorphose, but also the evolution of American life.
Divided into three sections filling seven galleries, this retrospective at the National Gallery of Art includes nearly 200 photographs, many developed after Winogrand’s death in 1984 at age 56. He left behind more than 6,500 rolls of film (almost 250,000 images) that he had never seen, as well as proof sheets from his earlier years that he had marked but never printed. (Many of these proof sheets are on display.) There’s also a video, Winogrand being interviewed by students at Rice University in the 1970s, where he fields questions but gives answers that are ambiguous, just like his photos.
Winogrand, who was born and raised in the Bronx, was known primarily as a New York City street photographer and the city from the 1950s to the 1970s is well represented in the exhibit. (So much so that several museum goers were heard to ask, “Where’s Washington?”) After 1971, Winogrand moved out of New York and traveled around the U.S. documenting the nation’s flight out west. While his early photos teem with people, his later ones convey loneliness and desolation.
Very few of Winogrand’s photos are straightforward, even when they seem to be. One shows a woman laughing, head thrown back, a half eaten ice cream cone in her hand. But look behind her and in a store window there’s a headless mannequin. Suddenly, this innocent photo seems almost sinister.
Another photo shows a couple dancing at the El Morocco. The woman is laughing hysterically, but there’s something unsettling about her expression.We can only wonder what happens next.
No photo created more controversy than one Winogrand shot in 1967 in the Central Park Zoo showing a well dressed couple (she’s white, he’s African American), holding two fully clothed chimpanzees. They appear to be a family. Was the photo meant to comment on miscegenation? It turns out the man was an animal handler at the zoo, but even that fact doesn’t stop the debate.
American Photographer Garry Winogrand Retrospective
National Gallery of Art, Washington
6th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW
Through June 8, 2014