(Now through October 20th at Deborah Bell, 511 W 25th St, Room 703, New York City; phone: 1-212-691-3883.)
In our consumer age of ironic distance where the viewer suspects both the reality of the photograph and the intentions of the photographer, Garry Winogrand is a breath of fresh air. Armed with a wide-angle lens and the highly mobile Leica rangefinder camera, Winogrand's signature focus on gesture provides us with the authentically unguarded, psychological dimension of people 'caught' inside his frame. But to the observant viewer, a seductive game of inter-connectedness between and among the people who find themselves inside Winogrand's frame is wedded with a post-modernist's fascination with how the camera is ideally suited to merge photographic truth with the photographic lie.
Take for example "Norman Mailer's 50th Birthday, New York" from 1973 (a 16 x 20-inch black and white print, which became part of his 74-image inquiry, "Public Relations", p.71, Museum of Modern Art, of 1977), which can be found in the west alcove of the Deborah Bell gallery. In this image the highly mimetic ability of the camera documents the simple truth of human experience (Mailer caught in deep conversation with a very motivated female member of his audience) caught in the context of one of the infatuations of post-modern thinking--the exploration of our increasing dependence on the media surrounding an important public event.
Due to the democratizing burst of light from his flash, a microphone and light fixture attached to the table top of the podium receive the same attention as Mailer and the object of his intense attention. An anonymous balding man is crushed by the crowd and is straining to hear what the woman who holds Mailer's attention is saying in the nutty carnival of the media event. As a consequence, the right side of this man's head holds equal weight in terms of composition as the 'main event' in the picture. Between those two important compositional elements is the motivated female audience member's hand held spread apart and doubled because of its reflection on the podium's polished surface in a four-finger salute that is roughly analogous to her "flipping the bird" at the writer. Judging by Mailer's complete concentration on the woman's focused and expressive gestures we have no doubt that their exchange is one of respectful import. The scene's composition, however, and the exact point along the time line that Winogrand chose to release the shutter suggests something much more light-hearted.
Another man, just off to the writer's right forearm (only his intense gaze and the top of his head are available) glares at the woman addressing Mailer. Is he the writer's publicist, security or another audience member impatiently waiting his turn to address Mailer? The foreshortening created by the lens, the flash and the position of the camera makes it seem as if Mailer is sniffing the top of the staring man's head. The aforementioned balding man in the picture whose face we cannot see also functions as an indicator of the time frame--the wide patchwork collar protruding over the lapel of his sport coat and the longish cut of what's left of his hair nails it as an early 1970s exposure.
When we see animals on film, we understand that they do not occupy the same space as humans. Although animals can be trained, we understand that there is less consent on their part when performing for the camera. Violence, or the potential for violence, has become the very emblem of the 'real' in film. In "New York", circa 1962, from the series off 44 images published originally in paperback by the New York Museum of Modern Art ("The Animals", p.13, 1969) and located on Bell's east wall, Winogrand uses what many of us inherently know about animal behavior to draw conclusions about the intensions of a young man who is talking to an attractive young girl at the zoo.
A white wolf is seen slowly creeping up to the couple who are leaning against a railing with their backs to the cage oblivious to the presence of the predator. The wide angle lens of Winogrand's camera captures perfectly the unmistakably stalking gestures of the wolf as he creeps up on the couple. The intense stare of the boy, whose face is split in two by a shadow cast from an off-camera tree, matches perfectly with the hidden right eye of the wolf cut off by the bars of the cage. The facial and body language of man and beast are unmistakable--both are stalking the girl. But how much of our leap to judgment about the intentions of this boy is set up by Winogrand's clever placement of the camera where the inter-connectiveness between people and their environments created this psychological assumption?
Winogrand's own search for truth in the 41 photographs on display in Bell's beautiful Chelsea gallery space would seem to be fundamentally linked to the artist's search for the aesthetic pleasure brought about by his fascination with uncovering beauty and transcendence that accompanies the unanticipated distortions and juxtapositions that occur with using a wide angle lens and placing himself in the heat of an unfolding publicly mediated event. In a way, Winogrand's images are successful because he merges photography's inherent ability to 'record reality' with the notion that what we 'see' is based on culturally negotiated conditions. Photography, as seen through the able eyes of this giant of the 20th century is an instrument that is best seen as schizophrenic--addressing the contested question of photography's truthfulness. Gallery owner Deborah Bell has given us a rare opportunity to explore a vital link between the modern and the postmodern. The heart of this show has implications far beyond photography.
(Editor's note: while we do not usually do gallery show reviews, we did feel that this was a particular significant show. We will consider reviewing other such shows when location and space permits.)
Brian Appel is a contributing writer for both iphotocentral.com and artcritical.com, focusing on photography and contemporary art. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from the University of Manitoba's School of Art and a Masters of Arts (Photography and Film Studies) from the University of Iowa. He has been intrigued by the concept of photographer as witness since walking into the first posthumous New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Diane Arbus in 1972. He has written several articles for the E-Photo Newsletter and the I Photo Central website on contemporary art photography.