Beauty in It All: 'Garry Winogrand' at the National Gallery

Garry Winogrand, Metropolitan Opera, New York, ca. 1951. Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Digital Photography, University of Arizona.
Garry Winogrand, Metropolitan Opera, New York, ca. 1951. Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Digital Photography, University of Arizona.

Drinking coffee on a gray morning this past winter, I watched through the window of the cafe as a construction crew tossed a stack of red bricks, one-by-one, from the ground up to a scaffold two stories above. The man at the bottom would toss the brick just so, and his partner, leaning over the railing of the scaffold, would pluck it from the air as it floated momentarily at the peak of its arc and place it gently down beside him. A third man stood guard, keeping pedestrians clear of the narrow strip of sidewalk.

I watched this small production carry out in an irrelevant daze, sipping my coffee and avoiding the moment when I would get up, walk a block to my office and sit at my desk for the next nine hours. It went on like this for ten or fifteen minutes: me bluffing time's inexorable momentum, and the men in hardhats and reflective neon safety vests making bricks leap from the ground and hover gently before plucking them like grapes from the dark sky.

Suddenly they stopped and turned their heads and I followed their gaze to a woman on the edge of the safety perimeter, standing with a small bristly dog at the end of a short leash, rustling her phone out of her pocket and squaring off to steady herself. She held the phone in front of her face, signaled to the crew with a thumbs up and what I can only call a ridiculous grin, and began clicking photographs with excitement as they resumed their small labor. After a moment, she said something, put her phone back into her pocket, readjusted her grip on the leash and tugged her dog away.

There are many ways to observe the world, but the view through a lens is an ever more common filter through which we look at even the smallest and most fleeting of details around us. That woman who photographed the construction team with her phone was so focused on getting the image that she will hardly remember what went on any better than someone who heard the story secondhand.

There are many people today who would consider this trend detrimental to something like social consciousness. But looking at the photographs of Garry Winogrand, it can be considered nothing less than genius.

At the National Gallery through June 8, the self-titled exhibit, "Garry Winogrand," the first retrospective of the renowned New York photographer in 25 years, features hundreds of photographs and proof sheets that reveal the compulsive, ceaseless physicality of sheer picture-taking profuseness that defined Winogrand as a person, a photographer and an artist.

Even by today's standards, Winogrand took more pictures than one would almost think was possible in a lifetime. When he died in 1984 at age 56 from bladder cancer, he left behind 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls that had been developed but not contact-printed, and 300 untouched, unedited contact sheets. That is more than a quarter of a million pictures he took that he never even saw.

He was described as a man with ravenous energy and interest in the world, known to literally hurtle through crowds as he photographed. This might explain why so many of his images are fixed in a now trademark tilt—things are usually crooked in a Winogrand photograph, frozen in a restless, startled motion.

He made no distinction between subjects, either. The way he photographed a crippled war veteran or a union rally on the streets of New York is the same way he photographed President Kennedy or Mickey Rooney. Nothing was sacred to him because everything was sacred, and nothing was vulgar because he could find beauty in it all. A ferocious wit, he once quipped, “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”

He was always taking photographs. His first wife said, “Being married to Garry was like being married to a lens.” As a result his work comes at you like pages of an American encyclopedia caught in a tornado: a pageant winner, the mayor, a sailor, the struggling middle-class family, angry protestors, a tramp, the endless skies of the Southwest, the New England snow blustering over crowded city sidewalks, the ferryboat, the Greyhound bus, the cattle auction, the drunken socialites, the women, a diner, an airport, the smokers, the gamblers, the nuns and priests, the confused children, and a stray pony for good measure.

He took so many photographs, all of them very good, some of them great, and some of them heart-stopping. But I am not sure Winogrand himself would have been interested in the distinction. To pick one photograph as a focus, or even a dozen, would be to single out an image that inadequately represents the power of the artist's cumulative lifework on display.

This exhibit makes you wish that Winogrand just existed with his camera in every lost moment that ever was because, somehow, he would have made it beautiful. So, the point of the construction worker story is that it is precisely as irrelevant and forgettable as anything, and Winogrand would have done exactly what I saw the woman do: he would have taken the picture, shelved it, and dealt with it some other time, knowing somewhere in his mind that he had recorded that moment. Was it an important photograph? Probably not. But could the photograph be important? Through the lens of Winogrand, it would be a certain possibility.

The content is simply the fabric of our society, which encapsulates everything, from the construction workers, to the overexcited woman with a dog and a phone camera, to the bored man drinking coffee across the street, to every passerby that broke up the scene in between.

And as the view through our own lenses becomes more and more common, it is increasingly clear that Garry Winogrand possessed a rare talent to pluck these moments from the ether, the same way the construction crew snatched the bricks out of the air before they would fall back down to earth and shatter into dust. Although Winogrand would surely scoff at the metaphor.

"Garry Winogrand" is at the National Gallery of Art through June 8. For more information, visit www.nga.gov

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