In Garry Winogrand’s photos, an America of perpetual motion and bottomless hunger

It’s not clear why a woman is swimming with a pig in Texas, or what overturned the tricycle in the desolate suburb of Albuquerque, or whether the dwarfish man in New York who looks menacingly at the woman in the dark hat is angry, or hungry for an assignation. The photographs of Garry Winogrand, on view in a comprehensive retrospective of his career at the National Gallery of Art, give only enough information to establish which pieces are on the chess board, but we don’t know who is playing, if anyone is winning, or whether there’s a game on at all. It’s possible, like the pattern waves make on the beach, that this is all random, undirected and meaningless. 

Winogrand, who died in 1984, belonged to a generation of postwar American photographers who sought and achieved artistic independence from the dominant photographic powers of the day, the picture magazines such as Life, Colliers and Redbook. Magazine work offered photographers sustenance, even middle class comfort; but it put the photographer in service to an idealized vision of American life, making happy images of prosperous, white, family-friendly America. Winogrand’s work broke decisively with what exhibition guest curator Leo Rubinfiencalls “magazine humanism,” the sincere, mostly flattering view of humanity that was particularly appealing immediately after Auschwitz and Hiroshima, when people sought reassurance, consolation and hope for the species.

Although in the early years of his career, in the 1950s, he took magazine assignments, and later did work in advertising, Winogrand was a voracious independent photographer, forsaking the psychological intimacy of the long-lens close-up for wide-frame images that caught up in their capacious net myriad inexplicable details. His work often seems on the verge of spiraling out of control, sometimes aesthetically from the emptiness of the space, the tilt of the camera or the superabundance of visual data, and sometimes because of the content, which hints at anarchic dramas, the possibility of violence, even confrontations between the subject and photographer that are never made clear. The essential Winogrand photograph says: There is more going on here than I’m going to tell you.

He worked in New York, snapping elegant women on the street and the freakish human detritus of the city. But he also ventured further afield, photographing all over the country, with a particular and prescient appetite for the new suburban lifestyle that was uprooting people and replanting in them strange, alien landscapes of stark modernity. He made photographs of wiry cowboys seemingly too frail to punch cows, of famous politicians lost in the clutter of the media circus, lonely people turned away from each other, looking off into unknown voids of isolation and atomization. The show includes 192 images, so many and so disparate that the sum total is dizzying.

Any single Winogrand image is intriguing and confusing. Often his photos appear to be slightly rough-edged attempts to mimic the glamour and slick sheen of commercial photography, especially the photographs Winogrand made in the 1950s and ’60s. Some of the early work on display actually appeared in magazines, and much of it is focused on well-dressed, even elegant people and the consumer delights that define them: Cars, cigarettes, cocktail glasses. They are seen out shopping on the streets of Manhattan, or celebrating an evening at the opera, or relaxing on the beach. But even in these early images of a supposedly innocent, pre-1968 America, there is something wrong. A woman at the El Morocco in New York in 1955 is laughing at her dance partner, but she laughs with a ferocity that is terrifying, as if she might bite his ear off in a fit of bacchanal joy.

Another powerful image from 1961 shows only the legs of a man and woman walking on the streets of New York. He wears dark pants; she is in high heels. But the woman — one assumes it’s a woman — casts a shadow that also reveals her handbag and the hand that holds a cigarette. While the shadow gives us more information, it doesn’t quite complete the image. Whoever these people are, whether they are strolling together, talking, laughing, arguing, can’t be known, and in the end they both seem somehow spectral.

The vagueness of Winogrand’s work makes him a hard artist to comprehend. His work becomes a little more clear in contrast to other photographers, but in a way it is as shadowy as the woman on that New York street. There is no lyric poetry in Winogrand’s ambiguity in the way that defined the haunting vignettes of Henri Cartier-Bresson. There is no particular “view” of America, or Americans, no indictment or vindication. He doesn’t polish a thesis about his country, as the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank did when he published his deeply influential book “The Americans” in 1958.

And while Winogrand photographed the sad and the ugly, it was in a very different way than his predecessor Weegee, who sought out the freakish with relish and was always happy to amplify the spectacle. Winogrand’s dispossessed and broken specimens are merely sad, and his relation to them utterly dispassionate. He neither exploits nor humanizes them, although he is always keenly aware of the visual power of their trauma — which may be a secondhand kind of exploitation.

One classic, controversial and particularly well-known Winogrand image, from 1967, shows a handsome African American man in a trim-fitting coat and tie, walking with a white woman in a fashionable head scarf and turtleneck. They each carry a monkey, and the photograph was made at the Central Park Zoo. The man was an animal handler, but that fact can’t be derived from the image. Rather, we assume that this is a family, with a dark, even racist joke about miscegenation: Monkeys are the fruit of what would have been seen at the time as a controversial interracial affair. And yet the image wants us to go further than that, to keep looking. The couple is attractive and dignified, and the monkeys cling to them in an affectionate, needy way. Winogrand was certainly aware of the explosive potential in this grouping, but nothing about the photograph exploits it. Whoever these people are, whatever their relationship, it is impossible to condescend to them.

Winogrand was famously cagey about his art, his technique, his agenda. The exhibition includes a film of him interacting with an audience, scrupulously avoiding any answer to their questions. In this film and other public statements, he claimed not to have anything to do with what he photographs, that he sought “not to exist,” focusing on making the image and not communicating any particular content of the event or insight into the person. He gives a classically American anti-intellectual performance, ironic and brusque, full of energy but revealing nothing.

By the end, you sense mainly appetite, and loss. The volume of images and their restlessness suggests the perpetual motion and bottomless hunger of American society; the refusal to grant access to the dramas makes us all passersby, intrigued but never satisfied. We see the world through Winogrand’s photographs rather like we see it through the windows of a bus, wistfully, longingly, sadly, but always moving on to something else.

Later in his career, Winogrand was far more interested in taking photographs than in printing or editing them. He left thousands of rolls of film undeveloped and even more that never made it to contact sheets. This exhibition includes many photographs printed after his death and never seen before. That is controversial, given the lack of Winogrand’s input or oversight. But he wasn’t an aesthetic control freak, and if he did indeed wish to be invisible in relation to his images, these new images only carry that desire to a logical conclusion.

And there is something about Winogrand’s work that wants extension. The sum total is a phantasmagoria of American society, a dream-like disconnected tour, without beginning or end. Like the people in his cars, streaming through his streets, passing through his airports, brawling in his parks, dancing in his clubs, there seems to be only one possibility: Forward motion, endless motion, motion unto death.

Garry Winogrand

The retrospective of his photographs is on view at the National Gallery of Art, between Third and Ninth streets along Constitution Avenue NW, through June 8. For more information visit, www.nga.gov.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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