New York

Garry Winogrand, New York, ca. 1963, gelatin silver print, 9 × 13 3/8".

Garry Winogrand, New York, ca. 1963, gelatin silver print, 9 × 13 3/8".

Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand, New York, ca. 1963, gelatin silver print, 9 × 13 3/8".

This incisive exhibition at Pace/MacGill—which opened simultaneously alongside the installation of a major traveling retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York—focuses on six of the Bronx-born photographer’s core subjects: Texas, Central Park, zoos, women, public relations, and the streets of New York. Together, the photographs exemplify Winogrand’s keen yet skeptical eye as he dealt with American culture at the height of its pre–Vietnam War prosperity and self-confidence.

On the basis of these thirty-six works, one could class Winogrand as an American Scene photographer, on the model of an American Scene painter, with the difference that his America is largely urban (and sometimes urbane), while the America of the painters was largely rural and mythically self-reliant. Winogrand’s American Scene is peculiarly obscene; he pulled aside the curtain to reveal something disagreeable, even strangely absurd. The photographer’s pictures of zoo animals, such as Park Avenue, New York, 1959, propose that the difference between zoo animals and human animals—represented here by a chimpanzee and a couple in an open convertible—is not so great. This is clearest in New York, ca. 1963, in which an elephant trunk reaches to touch an anonymous individual’s outstretched arm; the parity it expresses between the two species is startling. Winogrand was a student of human behavior, and he was fascinated by the animality of the human body. But he usually treated the female figure decorously. See, for instance, New York City, 1967: The pair of women have an integrity and goodness that Winogrand’s men don’t clearly have.

Winogrand moved beyond “close-up” New York into the wide-open spaces of Texas and Los Angeles, his camera eye widening to capture America’s seemingly limitless expansiveness and uncontainability, always on the lookout for signs of the materialistic American dream. He depicts iconic Texas scenes, such as a stock show, a rodeo, and a football game. Elsewhere, the American dream is epitomized by the bigger-the-better American automobile, its absurdly pretentious splendor signaling this country’s delusions of grandeur. Again and again in Winogrand’s work, we see the big machine trivializing the small person to suggest the absurdity of this relationship, the awkward, even bad, fit. See, for instance, New York,1968, which shows hulking vehicles outside Saint Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue being pummeled by a violent downpour. (The car in Copenhagen, Denmark, ca. 1967, by contrast, is almost comically small.)

Perhaps most telling are Winogrand’s public-relations photographs, images of press conferences and political rallies that reveal the photographer’s critical, sometimes even cynical, attitude. Apollo 11 Press Conference, Cape Kennedy, Florida, 1969, for instance, is framed to reveal not only a row of telegenic officials in front of microphones but also members of the press, who crouch on the floor with their recorders. Winogrand’s photographs are endlessly rich in narrative themes and subthemes, virtually all of them dealing with the unresolved dialectic of the socially objective and the all-too-human, the hubristic yet defective American society. The photograph is a way of exposing deception and self-deception, rather than a way of keeping up appearances—a way of disillusioning us rather than of reinforcing illusions.

Donald Kuspit