Saturday, August 23, 2014

Met Museum: Photography and Concealment

While recently visiting the Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Met Museum, I also came across an offbeat exhibit entitled Now You See It: Photography and Concealment in an adjoining gallery.  It was a small show by the museum's standards and consisted of only about twenty works held loosely together by a rather vague concept.  Though there were no masterworks included among the pieces shown, they were still fun to look at quickly before moving on.  They varied wildly in quality and style, and their relationship to the exhibit's theme was not always readily apparent.

A few black & white photographs took a quite literal approach to the idea of concealment by showing the "hidden" side of their subjects.  Among these was the show's avatar, Jimmy "One Eye" Collins After Arraignment (1946) by Bill Wasilevich, that displays its subject with overcoat drawn up over one eye in an attempt to hide his face from tabloid news photographers.  A similar news photo by Weegee from the same period shows two suspects in the back of a police wagon using their hats to cover their faces.  These obvious attempts to mask one's features can also be readily seen in two 1942 street photos by Helen Levitt that depict children playing games on the sidewalk as well as in Pierre-Louis Pierson's famous portrait of the Countess da CastiglioneScherzo di Follia (1861-1867), Ralph Eugene Meatyard's Occasion for Diriment (1962) and Paul Outerbridge's 1936 study of a masked female nude.

So far so good.  The manner in which photographers' works depict concealment becomes much more problematic in other pieces on display.  It is in fact doubtful that some of these photographers were even conscious when taking their shots that they were working along the lines of such a theme.  It was probably not uppermost in the minds of Lee Frielander in Shadow, New York City (1966) or Robert Frank in Covered Car (1955).  Two photos of nudes taken by Diane Arbus in the 1960s would in fact seem the very antithesis of a concealed identity no matter the pithy quote attributed to her in the museum's exhibit notes.  And then there are works - such as Vito Acconci's Seedbed (1972), Chris Burden's I Became a Secret Hippy (1971) and Lutz Bacher's Jackie & Me (1989) - that are downright bizarre.

There are several little known works on display that are worth seeing and appreciating for themselves without any reference to a deeper meaning.  I particularly enjoyed viewing, for example, John Cohen's Red Grooms' "The Burning Building" (1960), Juliette Alexandre-Bisson's Birth of Ectoplasm (1919-1920) and Jack Pierson's The Lonely Life (1992).  My favorite was Miguel Rio Branco's Touch of Evil (1994) that resembled a veiled surrealist portrait but was actually a capture of the "seamy underside of a tapestry."

The exhibit continues through September 1, 2014.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Met Museum: Garry Winogrand

If there was ever a photography exhibit that made me want to pick up my Nikon F3, load it with black & white film and head out onto the street to start shooting, it's the current Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Met Museum.  This is a huge show containing scores of prints and stretching through several galleries; it succeeds very well in making the case for Winogrand as a major American photographer and provides him at least some of the recognition he deserves.

Arguably, there are few artistic disciplines more challenging than street photography.  The photographer must, in the space of only a few seconds, recognize the possibilities of the situation before him (what Cartier-Bresson referred to as the "decisive moment"), frame and compose the scene in the viewfinder, make whatever technical adjustments are needed (primarily aperture and shutter speed) and only then press the shutter release.  Winogrand admittedly increased the odds of success by taking an inordinately large number of exposures - his archive consists of over 100,000 negatives and 30,500 transparencies - but nevertheless achieved a great many more superb images than can be accounted for by chance alone.

If Winogrand's work is reminiscent of that of any other photographer it is not, however, Cartier-Bresson but rather Robert Frank.  This can be seen most clearly in such a photo as the 1950 image, simply entitled New York, that shows a sailor walking alone in the fog on an otherwise deserted highway.  Here is revealed all the sense of loneliness and alienation that Frank himself was later to capture so well in The Americans.  It was a new vision of the country, one that showed a population coming unmoored from traditional values in the mid-twentieth century USA.  The growth of the suburbs and cross-country travel by car made for a rootless generation that no longer felt ties to any particular place or family structure.  Like Frank, Winogrand was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to travel across the country while documenting this phenomenon.  In many ways, these photos, along with those taken by Frank, provide a visual parallel to the "beat" society described by Jack Kerouac in On the Road.  For the most part, they are images of lost souls who no longer feel a connection to the larger society to which they once belonged and who are confused by the unsought independence so suddenly thrust upon them.  As the museum's online notes to the exhibit state:
"He [Winogrand] photographed business moguls, everyday women on the street, famous actors and athletes, hippies, politicians, soldiers, animals in zoos, rodeos, car culture, airports, and antiwar demonstrators and the construction workers who beat them bloody in view of the unmoved police.  Daily life in postwar America—rich with new possibility and yet equally anxious, threatening to spin out of control—seemed to unfold for him in a continuous stream."
No wonder then that so many of those who appear in Winogrand's images appear grotesque and remind the viewer of those odd characters depicted in the work of Diane Arbus.  In many instances it is the normalcy of their surroundings that endow these individuals with a sense of the bizarre.  Even when photographed in the midst of a crowd, they carry about with them a sense of solitary despair that sets them apart.

If there is a problem with the current exhibit, it is the lack of technical detail provided.  No mention is made of the cameras Winogrand used or the film he shot (I would guess Tri-X).  Nor does the exhibit address the problems created when a photographer does not print his own work.  At his death, Winogrand left behind him, according to Wikipedia, "2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 rolls of developed but not proofed exposures, and contact sheets made from about 3,000 rolls."  One wonders who ultimately decided which of these images were finally to be printed and displayed.  Also unmentioned is whether these photos were printed full frame or cropped.  These are not simply technical questions; the answers are essential to understanding the degree to which the integrity of Winogrand's original vision has been preserved.  

The exhibit continues through September 21, 2014.