I Took A Picture At The Garry Winogrand Exhibition To See What The Garry Winogrand Exhibition Looked Like As A Photograph

Garry Winogrand

The Garry Winogrand exhibition at the National Gallery of Art is a stunner, the best photography exhibition in D.C. since the Andre Kertesz show in 2005.  It’s a very well-thought through combination of Winogrand’s iconic images, some of the pictures he took in his final years that he never even had the patience or interest to review, punctuated by a filmed interview from 1977 that so perfectly captures the man and his approach that it’s worth the price of admission.  (Okay, so admission’s free, better to say, worth the effort to get to the National Gallery of Art.)

They couldn’t have been more unalike as people, but the exhibition makes one realize that in many ways, Winogrand was our Henri Cartier-Bresson.  HCB was an aristocratic French communist, as reserved and formal in his Surrealism-influenced compositions as the Bronx-born, deliberately informal Winogrand was outwardly, and in every way, sloppy.  But Winogrand’s images of America in the ’50s-’70s are every bit as iconic as HCB’s images of Europe, Mexico, and Asia between the ’30s and the ’60s.

See Winogrand’s photograph of the man flipping in the air in the streets of New York.  Then look at HCB’s man leaping across the puddle.

In Winogrand’s image, the man’s foot mirrors the bird’s wing on the billboard; in HCB’s image, the man’s movements mimic the dancer on the poster.  Did Winogrand mimic HCB?  We doubt it — much of what we know about Winogrand, from reading and from the show, would suggest he was too into the moment to have a formalist’s composition in mind as he squeezed the shutter.  And yet is the image the equal of HCB’s?  Maybe not, given that Winogrand was drawn to theatrical and staged events, and HCB seems to have captured his “Behind the Gare St. Lazare” from pure happenstance.  But it’s a great picture.

Winogrand’s dictum — “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs” — is as important an influence on succeeding generations of photographers as Cartier-Bresson’s notion of The Decisive Moment.

The show gives a wonderful sense of Winogrand’s larger-than-life personality, his sheer voraciousness as a photographer in his prime, the intelligence that bristled when he took pictures, even as he denied there was a real intelligence at work.  His was a very ’60s philosophical attitude, eschewing meaning from the photographs other than a meta consideration of the photographs as more than the events they depicted. “How do you make a picture that is more interesting than what actually happened?” he asked, sincerely, which is the photographer’s equivalent of Philip Roth asking how it was possible for fiction to keep up with the absurdity of the world, circa 1968.  When the events in life were so over the top, only a true artist could exceed them.

Winogrand’s ability to fit everything into the frame was both his strength and weakness. So much of what he captured with his machine-gun overshooting of everything he observed was perfect, and so much was excess, in need of cropping, that you begin to realize that out of the hundreds of thousands of pictures he took, these mere hundreds in the exhibit represent a frustrating ratio.  In Winogrand: Fragments From The Real World, MOMA photo chief and Winogrand champion John Szarkowski writes with ill-hidden frustration about Winogrand’s indiscipline, the pictures compulsively taken in his final years that he barely even bothered to have developed.  The responsibility for someone else to have to sort through them all was too much even for the man who, through his including of Winogrand in photography’s pantheon, helped make the case for him as more than a street photographer.  And yet the greatness of this show, and the excellent monograph that accompanies it, is how well the two aspects of Winogrand’s art — the incredible energy of events squeezed in the frame, even as later in life he seemed less inclined to push for absurdism and meaning — are reconciled into a whole.  Not coherence, perhaps.  But the life’s work of a troubled and brilliant artist.

The show at the National Gallery has all the great pictures we remember, and it reminds us of how things looked in the NYC of our youth, of how LA looked when we first saw it in the early ’80s.  That his appetite for life seemed finally to run out of energy, even as he compulsively snapped away, takes nothing away from Winogrand’s importance.  It’s a great show.

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