EssaysWeekend

Reverse Angles

by Thomas Micchelli on April 22, 2012

Garry Winogrand, Untitled photograph from the Democratic National Convention, July 1960

An untitled photograph by Garry Winogrand from the Democratic National Convention, July 1960 (all images via nytimes.com)

On Thursday, a cache of recently discovered photos taken by the great Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) at the 1960 Democratic National Convention was released by The New York Times.

The convention, which took place in July at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, was the scene of a bruising showdown between John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, who mounted a last-minute challenge to Kennedy for the presidential nomination. Once he secured the candidacy, Kennedy offered Johnson the number two spot — some say as a courtesy, and was surprised when he accepted.

The pair went on to narrowly defeat Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. in the general election. Of the four candidates, only Lodge would not take a turn as President of the United States. And each of those three presidencies would come undone.

The pictures (presented as a slide show on the Times’ website) are remarkable. Winogrand was renowned as a street photographer, and his images are tactile and immediate — sculptural tableaus created on the fly.

Garry Winogrand, Untitled photograph from the Democratic National Convention, July 1960

Garry Winogrand, Untitled photograph from the Democratic National Convention, July 1960 (click to enlarge)

They are also extraordinarily human: in these photos, the famous, the infamous and the unknown emerge from gritty, silver-washed pools of light and shadow looking equally unpolished, equally ungainly. Only Eleanor Roosevelt, glowing like a sunbeam, seems to rise above the pack.

The Times slide show is introduced by the one image that Winogrand actually published from those he took at the convention. It catches Kennedy from behind as he stands at a lectern, facing a battery of cameras and, according to the caption, “accepting the nomination and asking the party for ‘your help and your hand and your voice.’”

It is impossible to look at that photograph, showing the back of Kennedy’s head limned by a spotlight, and not think about the assassin’s bullet that would blast that piece of his skull apart.

Just as it’s equally impossible to catch a glimpse of his brother, Robert, half hidden in the lower right quadrant of another photo, and not think about the path that would lead him from campaign manager to Attorney General to U.S. Senator and back to Los Angeles as a presidential candidate, where he met his own death by gunfire in bloody ‘68.

We experience, with these images, the reverse angle of history — we look at the faces of the long-dead as well as over their shoulders, at what they cannot see.

What happened to the Kennedys, and why, will never be satisfactorily understood. Smoke and mirrors have long merged with fiction and poetry. If it seemed, at that moment in July, that change was in the air (and the surprising number of African Americans pictured among the delegates is evidence of that), it was change of an orderly, even celebratory, sort. Nothing like the chaos that was to follow.

Garry Winogrand, Untitled photograph from the Democratic National Convention, July 1960

Garry Winogrand, Untitled photograph from the Democratic National Convention, July 1960

In one astonishing image, however, just by angling the camera up to the left — further destabilizing its extreme foreground/background shifts with slanting placards that slice the composition in two — Winogrand transforms a conversational interlude on the convention floor into a shipwreck of pitched bodies, tangled shafts of light and, in hindsight, a decade of deaths foretold.

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