"Winogrand 1964," Sept. 13-Dec. 1, 2002, at the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York, N. Y. 10036
In 1964, New York photographer Garry Winogrand traveled across the country in a Ford Fairlane to discover "who we are." The Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's assassination and the looming threat of war in Vietnam had persuaded him to pursue art full-time. As he remarked: "You have to realize you're nothing before you can be free." During his four-month journey, Winogrand took nearly 20,000 photographs (although he passed through 14 states, he spent half of his time in Texas and California). When he returned to New York, he printed 1,000 of the images. Some of these resulting works are widely known, but the majority have never been exhibited.
"Winogrand 1964," now on view at the International Center of Photography, presents over 150 pictures selected by Trudy Wilner Stack, a curator at the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon (which holds Winogrand's archives).
Winogrand, whose trip was sponsored by a Guggenheim grant, said in his application: " I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn't matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines [our press]. They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn't matter, we have not loved life. . . I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper. This is my project."
In this ambitious frame of mind, he strove to further expand on the documentary-style photography of Robert Frank and Walker Evans. As he drove his car slowly West, he kept two cameras around his neck, one loaded black and white film, the other with color.
The installation presents the photos spanning two floors with very little textual interference. This gives the viewer a lot of freedom, but a greater attempt to differentiate the material might have balanced the somewhat daunting amount of work. And since Winogrand died in 1984 at the age of 56, one doesn't know whether the prevailing mood of melancholy is more attributable to the curator or to the artist.
Winogrand had an extraordinary eye for balance and composition. The diagonal wall of booths in a Fort Worth diner pulls the viewer effortlessly past a pair of customers to the waitress pouring coffee in the background. Other striking images include commuters illuminated by the church-like light of Grand Central Station, and an image of a child running past a New York parade, complete with a float devoted to Kennedy.
This formal grace encourages the discovery of a larger narrative, as if Winogrand's organizing intelligence could command life to make sense of itself. This searching quality he elicits gives the work a quiet, underhanded power. Old familiar pastimes are recorded: fishing, cruising through the city in a covertible, taking the kids to the beach.
And miraculously Winogrand captured the inception of a new one -- the commercial exploitation of tragedy. Included in the show is the now famous image entitled Dealey Plaza, Dallas. In the work, a cigar-chewing street seller hocks pictures of the book depository to a group of tourists. A car that might be following the president's route passes in the background. Somehow, the photograph manages to offer a cynical stab while remaining sympathetic.
Overall, the work reflects an ambivalence toward everyday life that's both dreamy and inscrutable. Extreme emotions are absent (there are some friendly exchanges and one kiss). But the general attitude is a muted blend of anticipation and uncertainty. Parades, rodeos and fairs barely distract a public lost in thought. Knowing the recent events of the period, one gets the impression that people's leisurely pastimes were suddenly no longer satisfying. As tourists meander through the uniform expanses of airports and deserts, the sense of life's inconclusiveness is almost painful. In Winogrand's photographs, everyone is on the move, but no one seems to be in a hurry to arrive anywhere. Strangely missing are images of people immersed in work that matters to them.
One pairing of photographs is striking. Texas Prison Rodeo, Huntsville features two prison guards standing by a fence looking beyond the picture's edge. U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs offers a woman and child watching a group of cadets in drill formation. There's something disquieting about these images: the artist secretly catching observers watching an event from a distance. His detachment comes through, as the onlookers' attention is more dutiful than responsive. The photographs depict the uneasy passivity of a public relegated to the sidelines.
For whatever reason, Winogrand played with keeping the viewer at a certain distance. For one thing, it's surprising how many times he photographs people with their backs turned (often images of tourists surveying the horizon). And then sometimes he allows his shadow to intrude upon the scene (a trademark of his colleague, Lee Friedlander), or takes pictures from his slowly moving car. These framing devices prevent the viewer from being swept up and demand a more self-conscious scrutiny. Then again, the envelope effect is sometimes dramatic and beautiful.
Plus there's also plenty evidence of dry wit. His satirical humor is aimed at consumer pleasures: a billboard in the shape of a car that appears to be rolling over the heads of passing motorists; a weary boy seated before a caricaturist at a fairground; and an advertising sculpture of an astronaut riding a rocket that feels comically unsuccessful.
And his compassion and enthusiasm are well documented in an image of a harmonious group of women sitting on a park bench who strike up conversations with men nearby and in a shot of three boys getting autographs from a baseball player. (If you look closely, you'll see one boy's glasses are being brushed off his head by the star as he strides past.)
Still another image entitled California captures Winogrand's wary outlook. In a department store, a girl stares furtively from behind a panel displaying demi-tasse spoons, advertising a far-flung world of gentility humorously ill-equipped to calm real-world anxieties. Nonetheless, the girl stays rooted behind it as though it were a barricade.