Thursday, July 24, 2014

Carving the rubble

Garry Winogrand,
Showing at the Met,
June 27th - Sept. 21, 2014
There’s an old joke that sculpture is easy. To make a statue of something complicated —say a violin— just take a block of marble and remove everything that’s not a violin.* Simple, right?

I think the same premise could apply to Winogrand’s legacy. Finding his good photographs is easy. Just remove all the thousands of shots that fell short and Voila. A violin! 

Simple, right? No, not exactly. As with sculpture the crux is in the gleaning. That chore was tough enough in his lifetime, with his (sometimes grudging —culling was not his calling) input. Now that he’s dead it’s quite a challenge. But that hasn’t stopped people from trying. His massive oeuvre has been carved up in all sorts of ways. Maybe the result can garry a tune. Maybe not. One thing you can count on: there will be strings attached. 

The most recent effort is Leo Rubinfein's Winogrand exhibition and book. Rubinfein knew a blank hunk of marble when he saw one. "There exists in photography no other body of work comparable in size or quality that is so editorially unresolved," he wrote before sifting through it carefully frame by frame. I blogged briefly about the results last year when they premiered premiered at SFMoMA, with links to some of the hoopla generated at the time. Now the show has moved on to the Met and generated a fresh round of reactions, with reviews in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, Design Arts Daily, Vice, Hyperallergic, The Daily Beast, Vanity Fair, Feature Shoot, and probably other places too. It's spurred concurrent shows. Even Winogrand's old nemesis A.D. Coleman has been inspired to join the fray, though not exactly inspired to rethink his 1980s review.

Why all the attention? Most of Winogrand's best photos would bore the crap out of people if they were shown as singles without his name attached. Yet the press fawns. What gives? Why does Vanity Fair alla sudden care? 

Beyond the obvious cause and effect —many media outlets received a press release from the Met in June and knee-jerk reacted soon after, and because the photos are finally in New York!— one reason Winogrand entices is that his photos don't explain themselves very well. "Nothing is as mysterious as a fact clearly described," he described them, somewhat mysteriously. The only certainty is that his images visually record the subjects captured within the frame. What are they about beyond that? Who knows? The answer probably varies depending on who's asking. 

One trend in recent reviews —and I think the wrong one— is to cast Winogrand as social pundit. "Garry Winogrand," writes Justin Jones, "... captur[ed] the monumental era of rapid social change and economic prosperity post-World War II climate while documenting the traumatic assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the violent reactions to an impending Vietnam War." Jonathan Jones writes, "Perhaps more than any other photographer he documented the hopes as well as the hysteria of 1960s America." For Holland Cotter, "the Met show is engrossing, especially, I would guess, for anyone who had an experience of the world that Winogrand moved in, cared about and recorded with a fanatical vigor. And that world, early, and really always, was middle-class life in New York City." In other words he was like Gene Smith. But artsier, with tilted horizons. 

I think this is Rubinfein's view, and he's organized the show accordingly. From Down From the Bronx to A Student of America to Boom and Bust, the curatorial emphasis is on post-war history. And from a certain angle even Winogrand seems to support this view. One of his quotes, cherry picked into the Met's press page: "You could say that I am a student of photography, and I am; but really I'm a student of America." One can hardly blame the press for adopting Rubinfein's perspective. Not only are they seeing the show through his point of view, they're press. Being socially concerned is their job.

Then again Winogrand said a lot of things. It doesn't take much digging before his quotes begin to contradict one another. He also said "Photography is not about the thing photographed. It's about how that thing looks photographed." and "Photographs have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface." So you could cherry-pick those quotes and come to conclusion he didn't care much about society. 

If it's confusing I think a lot of the obfuscation was deliberate. Winogrand enjoyed ambiguity. He cast off zen aphorisms like dead skin, geared more at the mountainside cave than critical analysis. "Every photograph is a battle of form versus content," sounds more like Ram Dass than Henry Horenstein. By plan. Winogrand put the photos out there, sprinkled some quotes near them, and then it was up to the viewer. 

In my opinion Winogrand was concerned mostly with photographs for the sake of photographs. New York and the post-war boom may have appeared in his images but only as an artifact of circumstance, because it's where and when he lived. If he'd lived in 1930s Japan or 1980s Argentina his photos would've shown those worlds instead, but they wouldn't necessarily comment on those societies. They'd be more about the never-ending puzzle of squeezing the world into a four-sided frame. "I really try to divorce myself from any thought of possible use of this stuff," he said. "That's part of the disclipline. My only purpose when I'm working is to try to make interesting photographs, and what to do with them is another act - a consideration. Certainly when I'm working I want them to be as useless as possible." In other words, shoot first ask questions later. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm trying to squeeze him into a box of my making. But that's how I see his photos. 

Carl Gunhouse sympathizes with this view: "Not like other art types of the early to mid 60's Wingorand was looking to find a place for himself artistically and first and foremost the work is about him and his general emotional state which tends to be bleak and nihilistic. Now for the run of his good work mid 60's-early 70's making bleak and nihilistic work in America featuring the strangers as your actors, you can make a case for a general commentary on the state of things. But I would argue his importance was pushing art photography more directly into the personal expression instead of being a formalist endeavor or about a greater social themes."

So some viewers cast Winogrand as socially concerned. Some don't. Fine. Perhaps the major factor in how you view his work is if you've tried to do that sort of thing yourself. If you've walked around with a camera looking for photos that stand on their own you realize it's damn hard. To come up with as many as he did might seem impossible actually. On the other hand, if your main experience of photography comes to you in digested visual chunks through media outlets or displayed on a wall, you might think of photographs in a different way. They might tell you the daily news. And if you're a photo critic sitting at a desk most of the day, who knows what you'll make of them.

That might describe the difference between Paul Graham's reaction and A.D. Coleman's. Graham has been shooting photographs for many years, and his late colleague's skill excites him: "It's awe-inspiring to me, that ability to marshal the world and the flow of life into those few little, extraordinarily powerful moments. We all recognize the Amazonian river of life flowing post us continually, and we usually find a quiet little corner to contemplate in. Winogrand was someone who said, 'Give me the rapids,' and he swam across them many times."

Meanwhile, far from the Amazonian river of life, A.D. Coleman has a different reaction. Um, scratch that. Actually he has no reaction at all because he stubbornly refuses to see the nearby show, but proudly clings to his 26-year old dismissal: "Winogrand’s main usefulness to the medium will be seen to have been his willingness to go down this dead-end path and explore it to the bitter end — so that no one needs to pass that way again." 

Sorry, Mr. Coleman. We're passing Winogrand's way again, and probably not for the last time. That block of marble is pretty sure to be carved up again by someone in the future. I'm not sure what they'll find. Probably a lot of photos that look pretty boring, and maybe a few new nuggets. People will argue about which is which. Maybe we'll see Winogrand's photos on soft drink containers or rephotographed in street view or in yet another book or collaged into a snapchat feed. I suspect he'd be happy to see them used in all sorts of ways. He's probably sitting up there right now enjoying the spectacle of people still trying to understand him. And wishing he had a camera.

"For me," wrote Winogrand, "the true business of photography is to capture a bit of reality (whatever that is) on film...if, later, the reality means something to someone else, so much the better." Then again, he said a lot of shit.

*I'm remembering the example as a violin but it could have been some other object.  I can't find the joke online so for the sake of this post I'm sticking with my hazy memory and violin.


Joseph Bayot said...

This is an incredibly thoughtful, thorough, and well-written piece. Thanks as always, Blake.

I think Winogrand would be happy with your open-ended analysis. On second thought...he probably wouldn't care what anyone wrote about his work anyway. But if he DID, I think he would have enjoyed this post haha

Bueno Power! Photography..... said...

Good post. He really did just take pictures for the sake of taking pictures. He just had a unique way of taking them and shooting them.

Stan B. said...

You're right. He was not a "concerned photographer" in the classic sense at all, he merely photographed what was going on in NYC at the time- and there was a ton of shit going on then... and so much of it happening right on the street(s). His interest in "social movements" extended solely to what photo opportunities they would provide, otherwise he would more likely be seen around 57th and 5th, not Loisaida.

I would see him there on occasion, in the midst of the constant torrent of oncoming humanity that are the streets of Gotham. He reminded one of those nature videos of bears when the salmon finally come streaming in hot and heavy. They just stand in the middle of it all, and with so much to choose from, just jut their nose in the direction of what looks best, make their move- and repeat. Back then in the non paranoia days it really was more like fish in a barrel. And if they stopped biting, he could always cross streams and head towards 6th.

I bet those bears change their stories all the time too...

njwv said...

I always heard that tidbit as Michelangelo telling the Pope, "I just remove everything that doesn’t look like David."

Peter Baker said...

I recommend reading Tod Papageorge's essay in Public Relations. It may be the greatest text ever written about a single photographer and the nature of photography itself. Winogrand, like Friedlander and Arbus, broke away from the idea of the "concerned photographer," abandoning corny humanism to explore the medium as a new art form. They also were following the lead of Evans and Frank, who did not abide by the conventions of beauty of lets say Ansel Adams or Weston (the kind of photographers shown in museums before). Winogrand explored the vernacular and the unique qualities of his medium perhaps more so than any other artist photographer. I don't know what contradictions you mean by his quotes, but most great artists do contradict themselves. Of all the quotes though, "Sometimes I feel like the world is a place I bought a ticket too" is perhaps the key to understanding his work. He was reticent to discuss the social and political content of his work, but don't kid yourself into believing he wasn't fully aware of them (reminds me of Bob Dylan in how he eludes those who demand answers from him). And his 1964 Guggenheim proposal is a devastating artist statement about the crises of America and the anxiety he felt across the country at that time. His work is about energy, a frenzy of activity. It is not the ordered formal compositions of Cartier-Bresson, it is embracing chaos, breaking the rules of what is supposedly a "good picture." Somehow, the best pictures work. And, Winogrand's best pictures are rich with metaphor. It is not the poet's job to explain the metaphor to the reader. The work is enough. To "photograph to find out what something will look like photographed" is not merely a kind of apathy about what's happening in the world, but a realization that the nature of the medium is to transform the world into a new thing. The rest is up to us. In that case I find the work generous. Cold? Yes. He explored that idea more than any other photographer I can think of.

Blake Andrews said...

Tim Connor has a good review of a concurrent Winogrand show here: