The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Lost in the Crowd
Garry Winogrand
Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "New York" 1950

Garry Winogrand's New York had its moments of solitude and quiet—a sailor crossing an overpass at night, a man and a woman at a window long after the store had closed, a distant ferry in the mist. This is Garry Winogrand at his saddest, for nothing to him was harder to bear than being alone. The soldier carries his bag toward destinations unknown, guided only by the aura of streetlights spreading into the blackness overhead. The man and woman at a window are almost certainly not a couple, and their silhouettes are more lifeless than the shop's mannequins in the glare of artificial light. Not one person is visible on the ferry to Manhattan, and it has a long way to go. They are not truly alone either, for no one is alone here apart from the loneliness of a crowd. Cars will speed past the sailor any moment now, and the city holds its millions. They came early, though, for no other photographer was so swept up in the theater and the terror of the 1960s.

Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "El Morocco, New York" 1955

He left twenty-six thousand rolls of film, more than a quarter first viewed only after his death from cancer in 1984. "I photograph," he said, "to find out what something will look like photographed," but he did not always find out. The curator, Leo Rubinfien, selects quite a few photos never before printed, mostly relying on marked proof sheets. The retrospective, Winogrand's first since 1988 at MoMA, holds one hundred seventy-five prints.

From quiet optimism to a nation torn apart and finally a loss of confidence in picking up the pieces might best describe the show's arc. First comes "Down from the Bronx," with New York from 1950 to 1971. Then comes "A Student of America," from those same years. That for him meant not the compendium of a nation as for Robert Frank or America by car as for Lee Friedlander, but sites of spectacle and isolation in California, Texas, and the Southwest. Finally, "Boom and Bust" takes him to his death, after he had largely abandoned commercial photography for teaching. The last and least successful photographs run to small groups dancing and preening for the camera—or, in Los Angeles, for the Day of the Dead.

Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "Albuquerque" 1957

Born in 1928 in the Bronx, Winogrand preferred the public spaces of Manhattan and Coney Island—starting in the 1950s with the tawdry spectacle of Minksy's Burlesque and El Morocco. Winogrand and Diane Arbus share the comedy and anxiety of a freak show, but hers takes place between one or two people and the camera. Winogrand gets his energy from others, and he is looking for more.

How, he must have wondered, could a freak show not take place in public, and how could a public spectacle not become a freak show? During frosh/soph rush at Columbia, a black ball descends on upraised hands like a visitor from outer space. In perhaps his most famous image, a grumpy driver and his passenger share their car with a chimp—and all three turn their back on Park Avenue traffic to face the camera. A young black man and an equally handsome blond woman nestle monkeys in their arms at the zoo, just daring you to call it miscegenation. In another favorite, a wide-angle lens turns a bench at the 1964 World's Fair into a panorama of women in motion. So what if it records three separate conversations, and a man at the far end does his best to hide in his newspaper from them all?

Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "Central Park Zoo, New York " 1967

Winogrand had a habit of interrupting people. That young black man with a monkey was an expert handler, the blond was unrelated, and a shot of the work in progress shows them smiling with the photographer. More often, his interruption is what isolates the subject. Again and again, someone looks up from a busy street, in defiance or suspicion. At the Kennedy Space Center, just one person ignores the Apollo 11 moon launch, to turn her camera on you.

Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "Los Angeles"

Returning to the same places and the same obsessions, he never stops combining the comedy and the anxiety—or the isolation and the spectacle, making them inseparable. The comedy is real, because he never could let go of his aspirations. It enters just when the fears have become too much to bear. A mother out with her stroller seems to be taking her son to the trash, while a bride steps out of her limousine to puke. A little boy wears Mickey Mouse ears to Forest Lawn Cemetery, marching behind his mother as if at a birthday party or in a parade.

In turn, terror enters just when one wants to count on human comfort or communication. An airport waiting room resembles a holding pen, a football player huddles in the rain, and a man in a phone booth holds his arm to the glass as if trapped. People disembarking from a small plane could be leaving the scene of a disaster. At the Air Force Academy, one could be spying on a military conspiracy. The biggest spectacle of all, though, is political. Without the spectacle, could Winogrand have had the same commitment to politics?

Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "New York" 1962

And he did have a commitment, for this political spectacle has its good guys and its bad guys. At a Nixon rally, light reflects off a supporter's glasses in a geeky blindness. Can you so much as spot Jack or Bobbie Kennedy in their portraits at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Vegas? Virtue also cannot eradicate anxiety. The balloons at another peace demonstration could be swarming overhead like crows. Still, virtue does not make easy heroes, not when the real energy comes from people together. Their stories remain unfinished. They are also decidedly lacking in finish. It shows in not just the casual snapping away, but also the surfaces.

For Winogrand, who disdained crisp perfection, the blur of lights and the grain of a print are a secret weapon. One sees them in reflections off cigarette smoke or the shadows of a man sporting his cowboy hat on Dealey Plaza. They create heightened contrasts, for a greater spectacle. Lack of finish also extends to the packed compositions and frequent tilt of the picture plane, which the photographer did nothing to crop away. He saw them as part of the comedy and the terror. Walker Evans, Winogrand said, "more than anyone gets out of the way," and he meant that as the ultimate compliment. And so does he. Except for his constant clicking.

Garry Winogrand

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