PRINT December 1977

The Man in the Crowd

AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, GARRY WINOGRAND owns the 1960s, in the special sense in which it is commonly said that Robert Frank owns the1950s, or Walker Evans the 1930s. These artists’ photographs are distinguished from equally accomplished work produced in the same periods by an extraordinary conjunction—the conjunction of a form that comes to mirror, and stand for, the dominant sensibility of a time with a content comprising the major symbols and events of that same time. While Edward Weston’s nudes belong clearly but allusively to their decades, it was Evans who made sharecroppers, impoverished shacks and crude, popular art central concerns of his own fine art. These are things we have taken, 40 years after, as quintessential symbols of the Great Depression.

Of course, Evans and Frank have themselves had a great deal to do with forming our conventional notions of what symbolizes their milieux. Thus with time we forget that they pictured their periods selectively, that they offered no more than fictional versions of the Depression years and the complacent ’50s: we take them as speaking truth. What was an opaque collage of objects—mundane objects that spoke out loud to these photographers of generous perceptivity—becomes a transparent glass through which we think we may return to history.

“Public Relations,” Winogrand’s current show at the Museum of Modern Art, comes at a time when the ’60s have begun to be reckoned with publicly. The last two years have seen an abundance of ’60s memoirs. That frantic, flamboyant decade, which no one any longer lives, is presently being negotiated into some form of myth by which we will retain it in the future. Yet the ’60s were recent enough, if one counts all the Nixon years as part of the era, to leave an image in memory that is still fresh. We now see Winogrand’s work at a stage where it is in the process of attaining transparency, where it is no longer esoteric or difficult (as many once thought it to be) but where it has not yet come to dominate the way we see its times.

“Public Relations” consists of pictures Winogrand made at various kinds of public events. It only partially represents an extensive and enormously varied oeuvre, although there is no formal discontinuity between the pictures in this show and others the photographer made at the same time. All are wide, 35mm camera frames, voluminously filled with ranges of details and small incidents. One might think that these details and incidents stand in no hierarchical relation to each other, so fascinating do they all seem to be. Winogrand has become famous for this style, which Tod Papageorge, guest curator of “Public Relations,” describes as “discursive.” Even once one has recognized which objects and events are preeminent in each picture, these photographs never cease elaborating. In those which were made by the light of a flash, tangential glances, marginal faces, extra lapels and spells of pleated drapery only fade out in the blackest corners of a scene.

This much has been said by Papageorge and other writers on the subject of Winogrand’s form: that it descends from tradition via the work of Robert Frank, who was the first small-camera photographer to turn a consistent esthetic from the wide-angle lens; that the virtuosity with which Winogrand balances galaxies of detail is tremendous; that this discursive form reflects and comments upon what is perhaps photography’s signal quality as a medium—its prodigious ability to describe cornucopious minutiae. Papageorge also implies a connection between the prolific manner of Winogrand’s frames and the equally prolific manner of his personal speech. We are left asking how this visual voracity extends from, fictionalizes, and actually characterizes the subject of Winogrand’s work—which, in sum, is no less than life in the United States during a crucial measure of its history. Abstractly put, this is the question of how Winogrand’s form itself makes up a large part of the content of his pictures.

I am speaking of a time in which people of all classes and kinds, many of whom had never before led public lives to any degree, adopted postures, made statements and donned symbols that were aimed entirely at public effect. Perhaps more than at any time in America’s past it was felt that to participate in society—not just in the specialties of governmental and cultural politics—it was necessary to make oneself publicly visible. And to be visible in the ’60s meant to behave, to costume oneself, to pontificate in ways that would be positively conspicuous, even ostentatious, in the subsequent decade.

Slang terms of the period, “outrageous,” “far-out,” and “out-of-sight,” referred directly to the extent to which a thing, a gesture, a style or a statement made public waves, and to how it did so. And one had the sense, whether truly or falsely, that everyone was talking, and flamboyantly too; only the general bombardment of speech made it seem, at times, that there was not very much difference between what different people said. Perhaps this is why Nixon’s appeal to the “great silent majority” provoked such fury, and why an angry poster of the time placed that infamous slogan beneath a photograph of Arlington National Cemetery. It seemed inconceivable that anyone could be keeping silent who had not been silenced.

Winogrand placed himself in the midst of this crowd, and his photographs mimicked its loquacity. Why, one might ask, did Winogrand not choose to operate as did some of his contemporaries, who picked out and displayed the most bizarre or touching details of the scene? Editing from the fluctuating world of fact as all photographers do, he selected what appears in each picture to be the whole vista—the whole flood of overlapping arguments.

One of many photographs Winogrand made at Norman Mailer’s 50th birthday party gives us the famous writer besieged at a dais. Mailer is surrounded by a chorus of eyes and hands—one of which belongs to a young woman who is gesturing at him with splayed fingers. While it would be false to say that this picture had no center of attention—everything does revolve around this woman’s urgent profile—nothing escapes our notice, not even the disembodied hand aiming an electronic flash toward the back of Mailer’s head. It is as if one had gotten drunk at this party: not “blind” drunk, but just drunk enough so that one could not keep pace with the dense conversation, finding himself repeatedly turning to the intriguing trivia that bedecked the surrounding crush. One returns intermittently to this picture’s dominant motif as one would hasten to recover the thread of conversation he had so innocently dropped.

We touch here on the symbiosis that exists between Winogrand’s form and the visage of the era to which it was being addressed. It was the phenomenon of a whole flood of arguments, rather than any one among them, that was most significant during the ’60s. Winogrand has said that public events of the period seemed to be organized for the benefit of the news media which covered them; in fact, gratification of their participants’ newfound talent for parading became at least as much of the motive. The movement against the war (can a mass effort that collapsed into an idiosyncratic motley still be called a movement?) found demonstrations as valuable for morale-building as for scaring the opposition. Spectators and spectacle became one of a piece.

Thus, to make pictures that emphasized, took seriously, and lent dignity to each individual posture that surfaced from the crowd, would have been to ignore the inherent irony of the times. The form one used would have to be able to simulate the general drum of speech and to leave room, at the same time, for the urgency of each individual gesture. Other artists of the period, especially Robert Rauschenberg, took note of this necessity. Winogrand managed to turn it to consummate use, in part because of his medium’s enormous appetite for fact.

There are no adjectives in photographs, only nouns. The items that populate a given photograph appear replete with all their descriptives; modifier and modified are fused. Where a writer might easily spend a paragraph reconstructing the feathery boa one Winogrand woman wore to the Met’s Centennial Ball, a photographic picture makes the boa and its connoted qualities inseparable. Meaning resides in every object and every quality, and the outcome—the general meaning—of that picture is almost untranslatable.

Doubly crammed with detail, Winogrand’s pictures are among the most extreme illustrations of this compaction that photography has produced. At the same time they take an ironic stance toward their own medium. Commonly photographers use larger cameras and finer films to extract more detail from their subjects. Winogrand shoves the detail in from around the edges. His pictures challenged other ’60s artists (in painting, collage and prose) to portray a social scene which was confused by the breadth of its own multiplicity. Photography also seems to have been suited to that scene for the illusion of immediacy that accompanies the camera’s illusory literalness. The ’60s gave scant time to recollect in tranquility; but photography did not require that one do so.

Let me phrase my point about the ’60s in terms of the Vietnam War. The war was, of course, the determining event in American consciousness at the time. Yet the war is paramount as fact only if one marks out history according to episodes of human conflict. True, new technology was used to pursue the war in Vietnam, but the war’s motives, as many contestants in the ’60s agreed, did not differ tremendously from American motives in Korea 15 years earlier. What was novel about Vietnam, and what may have been far-reaching in effect, was the stridency of the various reactions the war produced at home. Traces of this stridency are visible in the nipple-revealing boa Winogrand’s character wore to the Met, in the attention a phalanx of hardhats lavishes on an eight-year-old wearing flags and a sign reading “Little Miss Patriotism,” in the desperate eyes of a crazed man who rushes among the bystanders in Central Park, in the loony wallpaper of which one goggle-eyed dancer at the Met seems almost an extension, even in the American disregard for dress or decor that amounts almost to a kind of haughtiness on the part of Winogrand’s NASA technologists.

The decade’s stridency is evident above all in the degree to which Winogrand’s subjects seem so often to be performing for, and responding to, each other. This is so even in Winogrand’s book Women Are Beautiful (1975), where single characters dominate many frames: three times out of four these women act for the photographer himself, who weaves them into a continuous story of the dynamics of mutual lust and distrust. We may note the fact that the cowboys, provincials and small-time politicians of Winogrand’s precursor, Robert Frank, also perform. But the dominant sense Frank’s The Americans gives is that these people have been thoroughly deprived of an audience. Here lies a major difference between the two decades, at least as they have been rendered and handed to us in myth.

There is in Winogrand’s photographs a cycle of attitudes that neither conflict nor merge. His pictures have most often been recognized for their comedy and for their attention to the grotesque, but they also contain bitterness, a great delight in physical grace, and a degree of desperation. These various emotions coexist in many frames, maintaining the plural ways one has to see a time in which one was too much a part of the crowd to have any objectivity toward it. Thus the sneering, misshapen lips on one of Winogrand’s Met guests will paradoxically become graceful, as a comical and simply lustful incident will be tinged with despair in another picture from the same party. The feather-boaed woman has here found her way to the lap of a tuxedoed gent who is pulling the garment away to examine her breast, while she clutches him by the back of his neck and grins with fierce approval. The wantonness that this couple shares with a shiny young man dancing wildly a few feet away—and with Winogrand whose tilted frame is also wanton (not actually wanton, but calculatedly and precisely so)—carries the feeling, the fear, that time is running out. The viewer of this photograph is left free to determine whether it is simply that the night has grown late and the partly is expiring frantically, or whether this is the quality of a society that appeared to be coming apart at the seams—or both.

That Winogrand’s pictures are so much addressed to the visual shibboleths of the ’60s does not mean his work is devoid of more abstract reference. The hardheaded verisimilitude of all photographs does not prevent them from operating metaphorically. But metaphor is less a summit at which we have finally deciphered a photograph’s prolix language than a pressure that informs a camera image from underneath, affecting the way we read it at each turn. Consider Winogrand’s desperate, naked man in Central Park.

He moves amid a crowd of intrigued, amused, astonished and embarrassed people, with his arms upraised in a gesture half hortatory, half pleading. Indeed, it is with the benedictional pose of a priest that he closes in behind a young man and woman, his hands almost pressing their heads; his eyes are lost in the inward and distant stare of someone possessed. We cannot know what brand of lunacy goads this man, but he is stamped with the frustration of someone who bears an arcane and urgent message and yet cannot form the words with which to preach it. Naturally this man recalls, and may well have been, one type of his times—the drugged visionary. But we do not fail also to read him as a Coleridgian artist of flashing eyes and floating hair, whose private yet guiseless obsession compels him to grasp for articulation before an audience that is irked by his frenzy—that, absorbed in its own trials, couldn’t care less. Once one has admitted such resonances into his reading of Winogrand’s pictures, they are half-removed from history, into the territory of continuing myths. One has removed the ’60s as well, shaping them as they may well stand when their specifics have been forgotten, as a time of buoyancy and decadence, filled with prophecies.

For the time being, however, Winogrand’s photographs bring us back to their pungent specifics, and we wonder at the generosity of his vision in a time when so much of America was manufacturing propaganda. To have described hardhats, radicals, hustlers, the elites of art and science, exhibitionists, clowns, and those who themselves purported to describe, the ubiquitous reporters and cameramen—to have described all these evenhandedly, with the same mixture of comedy, cruelty and respect, might well have outraged the typically partisan citizen of the ’60s. That Winogrand’s photographs are respectful should go without saying: they evidence what may be the most mature form of respect—the permitting of one’s contemporaries to display their glories and follies free from one’s own interference.

This amounts to a form of liberalism that was scarce in the decade. Not “bleeding-heart” liberalism, of which there was plenty, and for which there was plenty of derision, but a ruthless liberalism, lenient and strict, that would at once give everyone an ear yet hold all to themselves. It is a view that would seem to be possible only from a safe position of great power. Of course it was not the view of those who were powerful in the ’60s: warmakers, didacts and rock-and-roll musicians. Perhaps its explanation lies in an earlier period, the ebullient time when America had survived the Depression triumphantly, when it was winning World War II and achieving world power, and when Winogrand was growing up.

It is worth speculating that Winogrand’s sensibility survives from that brief spell when—so popular art and film would tell us—the United States rightfully thought of itself as democratic, and the V-J Day sailor in Times Square—the man in the street—could be authentically heroic. The generation whose violent youth had been relieved by this euphoric passage went on to create and incite the 1960s, blowing our self-assurance all out of proportion, until our sense of noblesse oblige came to be expressed with napalm. It seems that Garry Winogrand became estranged, however, and brought that man in the street back as the fictional describing persona of his art: the artist himself as the man in the crowd. Those whom Winogrand held to themselves in his photographs of the ’60s must have been, above all, the parents of that period, the men and women of his own generation.

History, histoire, is not made while events are being enacted. It is made after the fact, in the telling and retelling. Gradually, of course, events that once occurred will blur and seem—as the Vietnam War and the movement against it already do seem—flip sides of the same coin. It should be clear that I do not use “history” to mean documentation, and that, in any case, a photograph does not straightforwardly document, but distorts, its moment of inception. The charm and satirical paradox of Winogrand’s telling is that it attends to fact selectively, yet holds its chosen facts down with a vengeance. His subjective eye may prove to be one of the best historians we have.