Garry Winogrand: Color contains a monster four hundred and fifty photographs. They play, though as a digital slideshow in sixteen tall channels on facing walls. As the very heart of the exhibition, they become a single immersive installation.
A couple crosses the street in sunlight, and an older woman huddles past in the rain. A dog rests for dear life on the hot sidewalk and a man on his elbow. Another dog must settle for passage in the trunk of a car. They have all passed through motels, airports, crowded streets, and the seasons of the year, where the only solitude is the loneliness of the crowd. Pastry glistens on a tawdry luncheonette counter, and New York itself shines even in wet, slushy snow. Winogrand traveled widely, but here he gives the illusion of one treacherous but vibrant and colorful city.
But color? No one can claim the mantle of street photography in New York more than Winogrand, in a tradition that refuses color. He appeared in 1967 along with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander as “New Documents”—and as new directions in just that tradition. A particularly famous photo, of an African American male and a blond woman, each holding a chimpanzee from the Central Park zoo, challenges America in black and white. Yet he left behind forty-five hundred shots in color that never saw their way into print. Some of them projected as an old-fashioned slideshow at MOMA in just that landmark exhibition.
No one will have seen the rest like this, not even him. That may not be surprising, given the thousands more rolls in black and white that never made it past contact sheets, if even that far. Like Robert Frank, whom he admired, Winogrand got to his startling compositions and his Americans only by snapping away. Still, color for him presented an added challenge, since color printing at the time cost so much. Hence the slide carousal and the forgotten history. The show comes as a sharp correction to the Met’s Winogrand retrospective in 2014—and it comes just when show after show after show stakes new claims to early color photography as fine art.
Even in black and white, he caught the color of an off-color city. Arbus leaves you wondering whether even her monsters might be the dark side of you. Born in the Bronx, Winogrand casts his freak show with New Yorkers at their most ornery, casual, and everyday. Where Friedlander shot America by Car, he may capture the view out a windshield, but he is never just driving by. The same strangeness appears in color from the contrast between darkness and highlights. He sticks to public spaces, but also the confinement of narrow streets, motel parking lots, and luggage racks.
Winogrand makes comedy and anxiety inseparable. The comedy is real, because he never could let go of his aspirations. It enters in black and white 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 girl at a springs in Texas might have leapt or fallen in, for she swims fully clothed, but trailed by a pig. 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. A couple in a subway could be huddling out of love or despair. When a man holds up his “Welcome to California, Jane,” a woman several feet away seems to acknowledge him and the children clinging to his leg, but as a questioning or a confrontation. A still tinier swimmer, seen from far above, might be a floating corpse.
But would he recognize them in color? The digital slideshow is exhilarating, but its sheer brightness washes out the contrasts and confinements in the slide carousal of his own making. It is a curatorial triumph in another way as well—and a more troubling one. Drew Sawyer with Michael Almereyda and Susan Kismaric made the selection, as Winogrand never lived to do. (The museum also includes some samples from his work in commercial photography in the 1950s.) How many photographers could withstand that excess of attention, and could it in fact bring out the limits of his work in color?
He might not have recognized many of them, but you will recognize at least a few, for Winogrand worked simultaneously in both color and black and white. He brought two cameras to the very same scene, and color required longer exposures. No hiding his practice under his coat, like Walker Evans in the subways, making the subject and the photographer alike newly self-aware. A final room displays twenty-five prints from Brooklyn’s permanent collection, with corresponding color images in the wall labels. In color, the blond has lost her chimp while blending further into the crowd. The auto windshield has lost its streaks of light, the buzz of conversation on a bench loses its diversity and motion, and the Kennedy Space Center gives way to just another monument—with no one to turn her camera away from the moon launch and toward you.
Winogrand also tried his hand at filming scenes in color, and their unfolding in real time cuts off the strangeness that much more. And his strangeness kept perplexing viewers for a long time to come. At his death in 1984, the critic for The New York Times hailed him as the essential photographer of his time, but the times had moved on. He never fell from favor for most viewers, but the “Pictures generation” was then more conceptual and political, while critics like Susan Sontag scorned photography that seemed to her to treat its subjects as unwitting victims. And yet Winogrand, like Arbus, created the bridge between the documentary photography before them and those after, for whom nothing, not even photography, was simply true to life. In that digital slideshow, he also created the New York of my nightmares and my dreams.
John Haber is New York City Art Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Mr. Haber is also a writer, textbook editor, and in 1994 he founded HaberArts.com as an online resource in art and art education. It now covers the work of thousands of artists from the Renaissance to the present.