Went with beloved and child to the Metropolitan the other day, the art museeem, as my uncle used to say, un-dipthonging as usual, and, walking around the modern/contemporary arts areas in particular, I couldn’t help but notice that every inch of the fucking place has been named after some total asshole. I mean known dirtbags. Monsters from the deep. To the point where it actually interferes with what is already too heavily mediated an experience.
That said, I suggest you — if there really is a you out there — run to the new Drenched-in-the-Blood-of-the-Poor Plutocrat Wing and see the photographs — I will need two trips, it’s too rich for me to handle in one — of Garry Winogrand. He is better by a mile, both technically and in terms of photographic vision — than Robert Frank whom everyone was gaga over with the Met’s last big photo show. You get the sense with The American’s, Frank’s early work– his later photographs are much different, more interesting, and were not included in that show — that Frank looked at a scene, a moment, and some part of him calculated a factor of iconic-ness or coolness, that he was measuring the moment as signifier even as he shot it. Winogrand on the other hand just looked. Winogrand has been helped here to some degree: the printing is far superior to what I saw at the Frank exhibition and the selection, not being limited to an expansive retrospective of one work, is much more varied and powerful.
The first big photo show — I mean big — that I can remember seeing was on Winogrand, at MoMA in 1988. Winogrand had died four years before, at 56, leaving over 6,000 rolls of film either unprocessed or processed but not yet reviewed or edited in any way. (I currently have about 125-150 rolls of unprocessed film lying about my desk, my cabinet, here and there: the neglected collection would cost me like $1000 to have processed by an outside lab; it is personally overwhelming to look at and even more so to think about dealing with. Over 6000 rolls is beyond my imagining.) There was much hullabaloo about the show and its artistic ethic, for lack of a better term, because those 6000 rolls had been processed and edited and pictures selected from them and printed by a team led by John Szarkowski who was then head of photography at MoMA. Most of the show was older work, already extant, but a few prints of the newer material were part of the show and you’d have thunk a Senator had plagiarized a paper for the military college, so much stink was there about how a photograph not edited and printed or overseen by the photographer was not really his work etc etc.
Interesting that 25 + years later the whole notion of authenticity and ownership has been largely deconstructed, undermined, diluted, battered, however you want to see it; and as such no one really peeped about this “problem” when this far more extensive Winogrand show opened. The size of the selection from the posthumous rolls of film is much larger here. The show features essentially three forms of prints: from Winogrand’s lifetime, or reprinted after having been printed in his lifetime; prints made in 1988 by the MoMA team; and new prints made for this show (these last are stunning — as you move through you begin to be able to detect which are these and which are not).
And it is amazing work. With Winogrand, the whole notion as so forcefully purveyed by Ansel Adams and a hundred thousand photography instructors since, that one must look at a scene and envision the photograph ahead of time, and then frame and expose it according to that vision in order to achieve that vision from the scene — is out the window. Winogrand remarked: The world isn’t tidy, it’s a mess. I don’t try to make it neat. Most — or many — of his pictures are crooked. That’s just to start. Yet they are somehow unerringly framed (presumably the erring ones, if they exist, haven’t seen the light of day, but still…). It has been written that Winogrand, far earlier than most other street photographers and journalists, liked using the 28mm lens, which is wide. It catches more: but it forces you to be much closer to the people/things you’re photographing if they’re to have any kind of prominence or dominance in the shot. And look at his street shots: he must have been remarkably close: even envisioning the shot as taken with a 50mm lens (I don’t think he used longer than that) he must have been closer to strangers than I ever dare to get when I’m pointing a camera at them.
His work is mostly but not entirely urban, mostly but not entirely of people. You get the feeling looking at his pictures of an eye behind the camera as open as it could be, and a mind behind the eye as beautiful as it could be. Beautiful in the Zen sense (the distinct moment of the leaf falling onto the surface of the stream, accidental, haphazard, but perfect) yet it’s a Zen that’s been transplanted to a personality unmistakably from the Bronx. You can feel his wit and you can feel his love (particularly of women, which made New York the perfect city for him, and let him publish a book called Women Are Beautiful, as indeed is true). You can feel both his courseness (in, say, the amusement you feel and that he felt at the large belly of a cop or the group of women, bookended by a man at each end, sitting on the bench at the ’64 World’s Fair, a photo which graces, perfectly, the cover of Hilton Als’ White Girls ) and his electric intelligence (see the photos from the 1960 Democratic Convention– they define for me even now what the word ‘politics’ really means in this country).
To go back to that word: there is love here. Someone should write about the relationship of art and love. Someone almost certainly has, and perhaps I’ll come upon this writing one day. Meanwhile in Winogrand’s show, in these photographs, you can feel it, and it makes you love him and his pictures. But I’ll stop now. Just go and see.