For Garry Winogrand, All Great Photography Had To Be Jewish
Garry Winogrand was the restless omnivore of photography, the artist who surveyed all of midcentury America and swallowed it whole. In the work he produced between the 50s and the 80s, he embraced everything without ever quite endorsing or prettifying it. He approached his subjects, instead, with a kind of hard-won gusto: a willingness to take things as they came, no matter how often they disappointed.
You can sense that gusto not just in the pictures he took but in their numbers. Winogrand was only 56 when he died, but he left behind over a million images (something like fifty a day, starting from the moment he was born). And what images! — hot and crowded, dizzyingly tilted, bent through wide-angle lenses as if he’s struggling to cram all of 1960s New York into a single frame, like Whitman struggling to cram all of 1860s New York into a single line. So much of what Winogrand photographed was painful and ugly that it’s easy to mistake his work for pessimistic. To prove as much, The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl in a review cites a passage from Winogrand’s application for a Guggenheim Grant: “Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty.” But he leaves out the last, crucial paragraph: “I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this investigation further and deeper. This is my project.” The tawdriness Winogrand captured on film can’t be denied, but neither can the hunger that kept him coming back for more. Small wonder that food was one of his favorite subjects.
Photographs of burgers, hot dogs, candy bars and ketchup bottles make up a considerable chunk of “Gary Winogrand: Color,” a glorious exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. These images, along with hundreds of others taken between the early 50s and the late 60s, are projected onto the walls in eight- or thirteen-second intervals. When food shows up, it is usually half-eaten and more than a little repulsive. Once in a while you can see Winogrand’s shadow circling the scene, like a vulture waiting to feast on trash.
“Feasting on trash” isn’t a bad way to describe Winogrand’s strategies as a color photographer. Indifferent to the conventional wisdom that color images were “vulgar,” he produced tens of thousands of them, often of the same ephemeral subjects he shot in black and white. By making these rare photographs the exhibition’s centerpiece, curators Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum make a case for Winogrand as colorist — make it so well, in fact, that when you return to the more recognizable, black-and-white work you may feel that a crucial piece is missing.
Some of Winogrand’s color photographs seem like variations on themes he’d already explored in black-and-white. Others are as inseparable from their colors as a hot slice of pepperoni pizza. Color gave Winogrand a way of thrusting his subjects into unlikely conversation with each other—at the show, your eyes dart back and forth between Cadillacs, cigarettes, airplanes, and billboards, all symbols of the new postwar consumerism and all bright red. In another image, taken in Manhattan in 1967, a young black woman in sunglasses stares straight at the camera, her coat the same red as the Cadillac.
There are big problems with organizing an exhibition this way, the most obvious being that whenever the projector flits away from a great image, you want to scream, “Go back!” By keeping the show in motion, however, Sawyer, Leonian, and Rosenbaum get at aspects of Winogrand’s work that other curators have ignored or downplayed. Unlike his near-contemporaries Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Winogrand wasn’t especially interested in using the camera to get inside his subjects’ heads. Nor did he really do elegant, golden-ratio compositions, like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Paul Strand. The artist he resembled most may well have been the writer William S. Burroughs, whose cut-up technique did for words what Winogrand did for images: made room for accidents, puns, surreal juxtapositions that no amount of planning could predict.
“Garry Winogrand: Color” thrives on these kinds of surprises. As the projectors bounce from image to image they uncover patterns and weird stories — photographs of Coney Island, played together, become an endless, homoerotic ballad starring a white-hatted, acrobatic sailor. Elsewhere, Old West theme parks and cartoon cowboys tell a mock-epic version of America’s history, complete with taglines in chocolaty brown fonts.
Taken together, these photographs feel at times like a single, massive shaggy dog story lacking a punch line. It’s confused, often nonsensical, and, it must be admitted, easy to laugh at fifty years after the fact. This, too, is reflected in the colors of Winogrand’s photographs: the eccentric greens and moldy yellows of late-50s society, which seem ridiculous to us now because they were always designed to go out of fashion.
And yet Winogrand himself never sneers at his subjects or their notions of beauty. He’s too immersed in his material; when his shadow isn’t lurking in the corner of the frame you still feel him reflected in the people’s gazes and body language. His visions of cluttered, mixed America are funny in places but elsewhere seem almost utopian—black, brown, and beige bodies curled around each other on the beach, little black kids and little white kids laughing together. And what exactly was Winogrand thinking when he shot (at the height of the Civil Rights Era, no less) a ripe watermelon and a boiled lobster, side by side? His photograph of these two deep red foods—one as strongly associated with the Deep South as the other is with New England—has to be one of the sweetest, goofiest pleas for racial/regional harmony in postwar art. What holds American culture together, in this picture and in so many of Winogrand’s others, is color.
The idea of holding American culture together — which implies, first, that something called American culture already exists and, second, that it is worth preserving — was vital to Winogrand’s generation of artists in a way that it probably hasn’t been for any before or since. Born in the Bronx to Eastern European Jewish immigrants in 1928, Winogrand spent a year in the Air Force, studied at Columbia on the GI Bill, and discovered photography just as the USA was coming to terms with its status as the most powerful country the world had ever seen. For ambitious young photographers, writers, artists, musicians, and philosophers, the temptation to follow suit — to craft new aesthetic idioms for the new America — seems to have been almost irresistible, in part because their country was paying them handsomely to do so, in Guggenheims, Rockefellers, Luces, and Fullbrights. A grant from the Guggenheim Foundation allowed Winogrand’s friend Robert Frank to travel the country taking the photographs that would later make up “The Americans” (1959); Winogrand himself would receive three Guggenheims over the course of his career, and by the mid 60s even gay, Commie Allen Ginsberg had one.
At the time, the works these grants subsidized were attacked for their un-American-ness. But in hindsight, it’s clear enough that the big, status quo-aligned foundations (to say nothing of the CIA, which spent millions fostering AbEx art and neocon thought) got their money’s worth. Ginsberg’s poetry and Frank’s photography took their fair share of shots at the banality of modern society, but this was a kind of gambit. What comes across more strongly in much of the “radical” art to emerge from the U.S. in the 50s and 60s is its renewed commitment to the idea of America — the cautious hope that the country, no matter how fragmented and alienated, is still worth fighting for. Ginsberg begins “A Supermarket in California” by wrinkling his nose at consumerist excess, but within a few stanzas he’s arm-in-arm with Walt Whitman, rhapsodizing about the America that once was and, perhaps, could be again:
Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage? Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?
It’s hard to study postwar American culture without being struck by the disproportionate number of Jewish artists, writers, musicians, and thinkers who embraced some form of this new, cautious patriotism: Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Irving Kristol — most of the New York Intellectuals, really — Saul Bellow (and, on the other hand, that many of the most notable figures of the era who rejected it were black). Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March,” which won the National Book Award in 1953, begins with a succinct, stubborn expression of this sentiment, “I am an American,” and ends with another, slightly more qualified version: “I may well be a flop at this line of endeavor. Columbus too thought he was a flop, probably, when they sent him back in chains. Which didn’t prove there was no America.”
It was the same pragmatic deduction made by millions of American Jews in the years following World War Two, the philosophy of people whose country had bullied them for centuries but then fought, at least in part, to protect their families in Germany and Poland. America was far from perfect, but it was better than the alternatives.
Interpreting Winogrand’s photography in terms of his Jewish roots might seem unnecessary if he himself hadn’t encouraged this interpretation so enthusiastically. Great photographers, he was fond of saying not unseriously, had to be Jewish — had to be strangers in their own countries, capable of defamiliarizing their surroundings so that they could reassemble them in novel ways. At times he went to absurd lengths to justify his theory, arguing that his hero Eugène Atget was too talented a photographer not to have been Jewish.
You needn’t agree with Winogrand to admit he had a point. The list of great Jewish photographers is almost as vast as he implies (just the S’s: Stieglitz, Strand, Siskind, Saloman, Schatzberg, Seymour, Shulman, Sternberger, Stoller, Sherman, Shore …). The skills he developed growing up in a part of the Bronx filled with working-class Jewish immigrants were precisely the ones that made him good with a camera. He moved confidently and worked briskly. He took an active interest in the gritty things WASP America winced at. He saw America as a place where nobody fully belonged but everyone was welcome, and welcome to be photographed.
You can sense, in Winogrand’s work of the 50s and 60s, something like the calculus so many Jewish artists and intellectuals of the era made—the decision to be deeply skeptical of modern America but accept it nonetheless. No less brashly then Bellow, he asserts his citizenship: America as his camera sees it is mediocre and lonely and unjust, but still, fundamentally, a place worth belonging to. If Winogrand’s life’s work had a title, it might be (to amend the name of one of Irving Kristol’s most famous books) “Two Cheers for America.”
As Winogrand’s generation of Jewish artists and thinkers entered middle age, the inevitable happened. The radical underdogs became not just assimilated but bona fide pillars of the establishment, laden with tenure and Pulitzers and Nobels. With this new power came new perspectives that, until very recently, had been virtually off-limits for Jews. This is a delicate way of saying that Winogrand et al. were capable of the same complacent chauvinism that earlier generations of Jews had been forced to put up with. In a 1988 interview, Bellow belittled African literature as carelessly as Henry James had once sniffed at the English spoken in Jewish slums. The neocons who had reluctantly accepted America’s foreign policy as the best alternative to Stalinism lived long enough to applaud the worst excesses of the War on Terror.
Winogrand died in 1984, too early to witness either embarrassment. His own career never fully recovered from “Women Are Beautiful,” the 1975 collection that was almost universally panned for sexism (it didn’t help that Winogrand, thrice married, could be insufferable around women). Viewed today, the book’s images seem at once much worse and much better than critics were willing to admit at the time. There’s plenty of Winogrand’s usual kineticism, but this time around, his work seems to confirm more often than it explores — the jokes are too pat, our gazes are too directed, there’s nothing like the usual thrill of stumbling off into the unknown. (The most successful photographs in “Women Are Beautiful” — such as “Identically Dressed,” in which Winogrand’s camera ogles women being ogled by a gaggle of old men, some of whom seem to be ogling Winogrand’s camera — risk more, and reap greater rewards.) None of Winogrand’s photographs from the mid-70s appear in the Brooklyn Museum, which is probably for the best; they’re complicated and frustrating enough to require their own show.
With the fading of Winogrand’s reputation came the ascendancy of new kinds of photography — conceptual, ironic, skeptical of the wild inclusiveness he’d devoted his career to. In many ways, Winogrand — the cocky, gregarious artist who went where he pleased, shooting what he liked — symbolized everything the new generation of American photographers wanted to escape. In place of Winogrand’s gusto, they urged cautious introspection. Before you went out and photographed women, you had to get to the roots of gender. Before you went out and photographed homeless people, you had to interrogate the politics of representation.
It was a powerful way of rethinking the rules of photography, and it swept through countless galleries and art history courses and MFA programs. And yet, based on the evidence the curators have assembled at the Brooklyn Museum, it was incomplete. At his best, Winogrand roamed the streets while interrogating race, gender, and representation itself—showed, in fact, that one of the best ways of excelling at one was to do the other. “Women Are Beautiful” exposed Winogrand’s blind spots and horndog biases, but his work from the 50s and 60s showed that street photography could be a powerful weapon for combating bias. By swallowing America whole, he opened up his art to the coincidental and the marginal in ways that few postmodern, conceptual photographs could rival.
The most controversial photograph Winogrand ever took, and probably the most famous, appeared in his 1969 collection, “The Animals.” It shows a black man and a white woman, both of them handsome and impeccably dressed, strolling through a park. They’re each carrying a baby monkey dressed, for some reason, in human clothing. The joke, some might conclude, is that these two animals are the unholy spawn of an interracial couple. Neither the man nor the woman seems aware of this joke, which makes it even nastier.
All the photographs in “The Animals” were black and white. But the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition includes a color slide of the same man and woman holding their monkeys, taken a few seconds before or (probably) after. It’s the single most powerful example of how Winogrand used color to improve upon his own work. In the black-and-white version, the man and the woman look off into the distance, oblivious to the sight gag right under the noses. In color, they’re aware of their photographer and, implicitly, aware of how they look as they stare back at the camera with — pride, shame, sheepishness?
As usual in Winogrand’s work, it’s hard to say. But it’s this indeterminacy that gives the image its odd piquancy. Writing on the black-and-white version in 2004, Hilton Als argued, “In projecting what we will into this image — about miscegenation, our horror of difference, the forbidden nature of black men with white women — we see the beast that lies in us all.” The color version adds other layers of meaning to the Rorschach test: the couple’s gazes have become accusatory, implicating us more directly. There are new layers of comedy, too: in color, we see that one of the monkeys is wearing little shoes — cute, but hilariously impractical, since it’s presumably being carried all over town. The only real purpose of the monkey’s outfit is to be noticed, admired — the culture of conspicuous consumption has reached even the animal kingdom.
Simply put, few American photographers since Winogrand’s death have risked disgrace in order to plumb the same depths of race, class, materialism, and citizenship he reaches in this image. What goes for his work at the Brooklyn Museum could be said for much of the greatest work done by Jewish Americans at midcentury, before success made them complacent. Like Bellow’s “Augie March,” like Bernstein’s “West Side Story,” like Ginsberg’s “Kaddish and Other Poems,” Winogrand in color is all-American without being jingoistic and democratic without being naïve.
Before Winogrand’s camera, not all things are equal, and not all things are created equal. But at least — as he was fond of saying — all things are photographable. By the 1970s, many people thought he was a flop at this line of endeavor. He may have thought himself a flop, too, when they panned his photo books and called him a chauvinist pig. Which didn’t prove there was no America.