The Garry Winogrand exhibit, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until September 21st, displays the post-war era in America through the lens of an excited yet anxious “street” photographer. In his photographs, Winogrand captures both his own anxious energy and the energy of the time.
The economic boom in America after WWII resulted in a time of great expansion. In the 1950s and 60s, Americans were suddenly wealthy, transportation was widespread, and communication flowed easily. A deluge of youths overwhelmed the cities and brought new ideas, new spirit, but also new problems. Once quieted, subjugated groups such as African Americans and women found their voice, demanded their equality, and claimed their freedom.
Nuclear weaponry put an ominous cloud over the post-war sunshine. Americans were exultant victors but had not forgotten the horrors of the war or the desperation of the Depression. There was immense tension at this time between the old and the new, the fearful and the fearless, the prosperity and the corruption. Winogrand’s photographs capture these contrasts. They invite different meanings and raise countless questions. Exhibition visitors poked their noses into the photographs, cocked their heads to the side, and furrowed their brows as they asked, “Who are those people? What are they thinking? What happened here?”
The exhibition is set up in a way that highlights the ambiguous, poetic, and intense truth of Winogrand’s photographs. The photos are displayed one after the other and fill up countless rooms that are barren except for a few quotations from Winogrand on the walls. Initially, I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of photographs. There were too many to be able to inspect each one. The viewer could really only glance if she hoped to see them all. However, this reflects the unapologetically prodigious world that Winogrand captured. In the exhibit, one feels like Winogrand tried to capture as much as he possibly could. Just as the viewer struggles to take in all of his photographs, Winogrand struggled to see and capture the bustling, overflowing world of New York City. One can imagine him excitedly pacing the streets, clicking his camera with an eager finger. Winogrand didn’t want to leave anything out. This is a relief for the modern viewer who is used to seeing photoshopped, edited photos. These pictures may be aesthetically pleasing but they invent “Instagram lives” for people that have no connection to reality.
The majority of his photographs feature people on the streets of New York City, mostly women. The women in Winogrand’s photographs are swirling, active characters that the viewer yearns to learn more about. They bear both rows of teeth as they laugh haughtily and they frown in determination as they march down the sidewalk. The woman in his famous photograph, El Morocco, New York has an almost animalistic quality. She is not merely laughing. She is roaring. She clutches her hand around her dance partner’s shoulder like a claw and she looks ferociously at him. Her emotion seems to overwhelm her body and she laughs in disregard to how she looks. This rowdy woman is far from the 1950s housewife ideal of the time. This woman is not passive, dainty, or motherly. Winogrand celebrates a new kind of woman that came with the new era.
The other women in his photographs project the same kind of carefree freedom. They aren’t posing, they aren’t looking at the camera, and they aren’t looking at themselves. Winogrand captured the spirit of these women, not simply their appearance. The typical motive behind photographing women today is the exact opposite. The paparazzi photograph genetically fortunate famous women and these images end up in magazines that laud “bikini bodies” or laugh at these bodies in sweatpants the next day. Ad campaigns use the female form as an aesthetically pleasing backdrop for a perfume bottle. No one actually wonders, “Maybe she’s born with it” when confronted with a Maybelline ad because the blank stare of a heavily photoshopped woman does not provoke any questioning.
The viewer wants to learn about the women in Winogrand’s photographs. We want to know what they’re laughing at and where they’re rushing. Winogrand’s depictions of real women who deviated from the ideal, perceived woman must have been incredibly helpful for the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s. Women at this time challenged traditional, restrictive roles that women were perceived to hold in the family and in the workforce. Winogrand proved that a different type of woman existed and thrived in great numbers. Today, women still struggle with reforming tradition and Winogrand’s photographs are still relevant to that cause.
Many of his works also feature animals in the same photograph as people. He does not photograph dogs and cats, however. He pictures wild, exotic animals. In one photograph, a monkey accompanies a couple in the backseat of a convertible. The car is in the front and middle of the composition, with tall buildings crowding the sides and background. The monkey screams from his perch in the convertible and the people stare blankly. The monkey leans forward toward the viewer, as if he is about to leap out of the car. One gets an uneasy, anxious feeling like something is about to explode. The quality of the tumultuous cityscape mimics the savagery of the monkey. Winogrand comments on the comparable feral nature of animals and humans. Perhaps Winogrand was just as anxious about the booming city life as the monkey was.
Even the photographs that don’t feature wild animals have a barbarous quality. They are raw and untamed. Where Winogrand lacks in formality and control he makes up for in the authenticity of his work. Leo Rubinfien, a protégé of Winogrand’s who gave a lecture in conjunction with the exhibit, said he most admired Winogrand’s “insistent truthfulness”. Rubinfien said, “I think that living as I did and as we do in a world of half truths, very often a world of lies, the insistent truthfulness of most of what he seemed to me then to have to say seemed priceless”.
It is noble to attempt to depict reality as it truly is when there are so many ways one could perfect it. Winogrand challenges the viewer to confront an unpleasant snapshot of reality and he forces us to deal with it.
In one photograph, Winogrand depicts a pool of blood near the center of the composition. A man lays fallen on the ground in the left corner of the photograph; the viewer can only see his legs. The wide back of a police officer dominates the front and center of the composition and the only face we can clearly see is a child who looks on with confusion at the scene. This scene is not pleasant for the viewer. It is not easy to look at nor does it answer any of our questions. It is a frustrating image, but one must commend Winogrand for challenging the viewer. He dares us to look, to wonder, to think.
The darkness of some of Winogrand’s images comes from his disappointment with the world in the 1960s that was so hopeful in the 1950s. After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962,Winogrand became disillusioned with the world that he photographed. He said, “Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, columnists, some books. I look at some magazines. 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.”
The photographer was also terribly anxious at this time. According to Rubinfein, Winogrand wandered the streets of Manhattan nervously for days. He famously said, “I function out of terror”. This raises more questions about the meaning of his photographs. Are the exuberant, laughing people a celebration of freedom or a comment on superficiality? Is the raw, authentic quality of his pictures a love of life or an attempt to display its bad side out of hatred? Winogrand captured history in a way that leaves room for interpretation. History is often vague and the Winogrand exhibition captures that mystery in a way that history books do not. He contributed to the memory of the United States and the Met’s memory of Winogrand is worth a visit.