Haven’t we had enough of the invasive, random, apolitical, sexist vision of the street enshrined in Garry Winogrand’s work? Winogrand was an atavistic force, the first Google cam, shooting without looking, at anything that moved, not quite believing in anything he didn’t photograph. How can this work speak to today’s diffident, doubtful, and above all picture-reared generation? There is also the problem of Winogrand’s legacy (he died in 1984) existing in massively inchoate form – thousands of images undeveloped, unproofed, unedited; raw material waiting for curators to mold their own artist. And they have. John Szarkowski thought late Winogrand was evidence of a mind not in control of its experience. He printed only a comparative handful of pictures for the posthumous retrospective in 1988. Leo Rubinfien and curators at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art were vastly more generous, making a case for Winogrand as Walt Whitman with a camera in a 2013 exhibition. If that’s so, then we have misread Whitman, and he is really a poet of the comic grotesque.
And there is the additional problem of color, absent from the San Francisco show. Winogrand shot 45,000 color images, some for magazine assignments, in various iterations of Kodachrome, and he favored showing whatever he had developed in slide carousels, as he did at MoMA in 1967 for the New Documents show – until the slide projector apparently broke down. As you enter the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum (up through December 8) you see one clicking away with those very images. But the antiquarian format proves a bait-and-switch. If you have the idea that curator Drew Sawyer has organized another hagiographical display of holy relics, you are in for a shock. Instead, in the main hall, he presents 32 giant-sized slide projections that rotate through some 450 images from scans of slides, most of them never seen before. Viewers are immersed in a phantasmagoria of the quotidian.
Talk about in your face. It is possible to love a show and be deeply skeptical of the work in it. Such a response, in fact, is evidence of curatorial success. Sawyer has made Winogrand’s images into a spectacle just as Winogrand himself made the social world into one. The images wash over you in a nostalgic wave, like so much of the early work by William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Luigi Ghirri, and others. Winogrand often carried two cameras, and another room compares versions of iconic black-and-white images with their color counterparts. What do we learn about color from Winogrand? That’s not easy to answer. This is pure photography, largely unburdened by calculation. Unlike Harry Callahan, it isn’t about color as a means of formal organization, or, apropos Eggleston, emotional temperature. It’s not a “language,” with rules and regularities that communicate intention. Color here is simply a dazzling, chaotic fact, a neurological imperative that keeps us pegged to the world. It’s a fact, too, of the emerging visual culture of the 1960s. As Winogrand’s Kodachrome images came to show, everything has a color, and those colors, amplified by commercial film chemistry and now projected to stunned museum visitors as if they were caught in a family room slideshow on steroids, are arresting, distracting, and ultimately meaningless.