New York

Garry Winogrand and Roger Mertin

Light Gallery

Garry Winogrand is a girl-watcher with a camera. He is the skilled practitioner of a variant on the “decisive moment” style of photography, deliberately inflecting that style with more amateurish qualities than a Cartier Bresson or even a Lee Friedlander would tolerate. Winogrand’s style—as his show and new book Women Are Beautiful demonstrate—works best when individual images are linked as variants on a theme. Winogrand’s stated theme here is “making beautiful” all the women he observes on New York streets, in the MOMA sculpture garden, at the races or on the beach.

Winogrand’s work is a record of thought and observation: despite its apparent casualness, one feels that he has been very rigorous in editing from all the film he must have exposed. The quick movement of Winogrand’s eye is recorded by the peripheral positioning of the figures within the image. An instant later, the women might have escaped his quick and furtive camera.

As in some of Lee Friedlander’s work, there is a kind of sexual appropriation taking place in these pictures. He seizes upon a subtle set of qualities—the marginal differences in life-style that catch a connoisseur’s eye. Winogrand is not just interested in the unbra-ed breasts that attract his attention in many of the photographs, but the striking angle that emerges in the turning of a generally plain face. Sometimes he catches his subjects in poses of particular openness, as in the image of a girl seen distantly, leaning back on her elbows, legs spread, at an outdoor concert. He can manage to keep all traces of a leer out of the picture of a woman on a bike whose skirt has ridden up. The girl seen across an empty bus is not particularly beautiful—her thighs are fat, her skirt is too short—but the stealth of Winogrand’s glimpse somehow makes her peculiarly attractive. We sense Winogrand snapping the picture almost from under his coat, waiting until the girl had looked the other way before clicking the shutter—and appreciating his subject all the while.

Often the women themselves occupy only a small portion of the image, both because Winogrand is after the sense of their fleeting motion through the world and because he is interested in relating them firmly to other people, to the physical environment, and to the hasty framing of the photo itself.

Many photographers would avoid allowing or soliciting the subject’s awareness of their presence. Winogrand, however, flaunts the signs of his intrusions. The women frequently look at him in quiet, self-conscious bemusement, the glowing hint of pleasure at being appreciated. This, one suspects, is part of the process of “making beautiful” that Winogrand speaks of, and that his pictures carry out. The photos employ that process to subtle and humane ends; their success is in creating beauty by winnowing moments.

Tree trunks—the subjects of Roger Mertin’s photographs—stand against incidental backgrounds, display attached objects, or loom close to view.

The photo at the entrance of the show suggested Atget’s views of parks and trees. Other images suggested slightly more humane versions of Henry Wessel Jr.’s studies of bushes. But Mertin’s tree trunks have their own singularity and elegance. He plays masterfully with the flatness and fullness that the trees can alternately be made to suggest. He may either station the trunk point-blank to the eye or tilt it into deeper space. Certain flat surfaces—safety reflectors attached like navels, or printed signs—are there to contrast with cylindrical forms. The backgrounds, for all their casualness, are carefully studied to include either flat buildings and fences that play off against the foreground or objects, like shrubbery, which adjoin the trunk and connect it to the full depth of the image.

Tree trunks are static things, totems around which Mertin can organize the shifting variety of the world behind and around. Like many photographers now—and in contrast to Garry Winogrand, whose pictures were in the other end of the gallery—he is more interested in the inanimate set-piece picture, carefully composed, than in the “decisive moment,” crammed with people leaning as they walk or twisting up their mouths in tears or chuckles.

Only occasionally the trace of some person contributed to the photographic pattern. In one exceptional picture a girl’s blouse repeats the texture of the bark on a tree behind her. In another—the photo reproduced here—an elbow has just barely intruded on the edge of the image, acknowledging its snapshot character but doing little to disturb the serenity of its careful composition.

Still, a human presence does figure in the style of the photographer. Mertin included what would normally be considered flaws in the making of his pictures—flaws like that elbow. Some of the photos have been taken in weak light or by flash with hand-held camera. The outlines of the foreground are stuttery and hazy while in the background, lights—like the ordered lamps outside rooms of a motel—twist themselves into knots that trace the movements of the photographer. Such traces give an intentional mystery to some pictures—like the ghostly shot of a carved horse’s-head post—but also acknowledge the human contingency of the work the way a loose, expressionist brushstroke does.

Behind the tree trunks there is a full, deep world, like the road wrapping around the flat cinder-block building front in one picture taken near the Penland School in North Carolina. The road’s depth is deliberately attached to just a strip of grass in front of the house. But that deep world contains other flat objects—objects like pictures or signs—such as the shed in the background, whose opening also repeats the window puncturing the foreground wall. The complex interaction of flatness and depth is happily expressed in the tree’s own form. It is both unifier and divider of the image; its trunk branches in two about halfway up as the foliage at the top spreads to either side. This division resembles but is less radical than the bisection which occurs in some of Lee Friedlander’s pictures. Its doubling is typical of the way Mertin toys with his complexities; this image, like many in the show, is a rich and brilliant composition of ambiguities.

Phil Patton