We spend a lot of money on big, new, fancy cameras in order to capture perfection: a golden sunset over clear Caribbean waters, a young budding poppy hidden among a field of wildflowers, or the exhilarated smile after a last minute basket. We become set on capturing beauty and joy in its most perfect form.
Yet, photographer Garry Winogrand, who lived between 1928 and 1984, took a different approach to his photos. Life in New York during the 60s and 70s was an amalgamation of emotions. At times the city was filled to the brim with hope and exhilaration, while at other times, was fraught with anxiety and instability. For Winogrand, a city and a country that, on the surface, was full of possibilities was actually on the verge of spinning out of control at any moment. Rather than capture a picturesque moment of New York life, Winogrand sought to portray the underlying tension and turbulence that pervaded American society.
Black and white framed photos line the second room of the Garry Winogrand exhibition, located on the first floor of the National Gallery of Art. The photo of a black man swallowed by a large, checkered overcoat jumps out from the white wall lined with frames. His furrowed brows, sunken cheeks, and curved frown highlight his weariness. His eyes suggest hesitancy. This beggar meekly reaches out his right hand, open palm turned upwards. His half bent elbow shows his reluctance while simultaneously reveals his need for help. A stiff, white arm juts out of the left side of the frame. The stark contrast between the whiteness of the arm and blackness of the beggar instills meaning to this ordinary event. Winogrand purposely angles the frame a little to the left and leaves the white man’s identity unknown. While the black man reaches forward, the arm hastily makes a donation and already appears to be leaving the scene. The small, hollow void between the two hands reflects the barriers and lack of interaction between these two races. Despite the offering, the black man remains hopeless and forgotten. Through the use of angle and space, Winogrand turns this daily event into a powerful representation of the inequality undermining racial relations in New York.
The exhibit is split into three time periods which highlight Winogrand’s different focuses. The first section present photographs Winogrand took in New York between 1950 and 1971. The second displays images taken outside of New York during this same time period. The third final room exhibits prints made in Texas and Los Angeles from 1971 until Winogrand’s death. When entering the second portion of the exhibit, the broad smile and laughter of a beautiful brown haired woman caught my eye. At first glance, the photo is overfilled with this woman’s exuberant joy. Her tilted head, open mouth revealing white shiny teeth, and crinkled eyelids reflect her genuine happiness. However, this simple moment of joy becomes surprisingly unsettling when you take a closer look at her surroundings. Behind the woman is a headless mannequin and she is holding a half-eaten ice cream cone. Despite her perfect appearance, the missing mannequin head and ice cream top take away from the wholeness of her happiness. No longer is her laughter genuine. Rather, she seems to be trying to remedy an incomplete moment. Winogrand’s focus on these ordinary yet imperfect objects adds a new, disconcerting emotional dimension to the photo.
While it is easy to view photography as a means to make an ordinary moment special and beautiful, photography can be a powerful tool for highlighting the often hidden emotional aspects of everyday life. For Winogrand, he sought to represent the ordinary not as commonplace or perfect, but rather as a symbol of the struggles and uncertainties underlying American life.
Photo: National Gallery of Art