As we know from countless photos and films, a good deal of the first half of the 20th century took place in black-and-white. We are surprised when we see color pictures of, say, soldiers celebrating the end of World War II or Greta Garbo; it’s as if these scenes, these people have been untethered from their proper historical context to present a fresh notion of how the past occurred. Black-and-white photos — dependent as they are on the contrast between shadow and light — signal seriousness even when they depict flagpole sitters or Fred Astaire.
Although color became increasing available by the 1950s, photographers like Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, and Bruce Davidson worked mostly in black-and-white, no doubt influenced by the prevailing “fine art” aesthetic expressed by Frank (“Black and white are the colors of photography”) and Walker Evans, who deemed color images “vulgar.”
But color did emerge as the dominant style in commercial venues, and Garry Winogrand, who shot for such publications as Collier’s and Sports Illustrated, took a liking to Kodachrome. Attracted to its high resolution and lifelike hues, he began carrying two cameras to immediately follow his black-and-white shot with a color version. Because color film was expensive and difficult to develop, he typically presented this work with a projector, in the manner of family slide shows.
The Brooklyn Museum displays the 425 images assembled for Garry Winogrand: Color in much the same “carousel” manner. In a darkened room, eight projectors rotate through a few dozen thematically or stylistically related photos, lingering on each one for several seconds.
This allows viewers to get some sense of the prolific Winogrand’s working method (these were chosen from 45,000 images). The fleeting appearance mimics the photographer’s seemingly indiscriminate, point-and-shoot style. For instance, as a lively parade of Coney Island beachgoers flickers past, we seem to stroll with Winogrand through the crowd, turning this way and that.
But the rapidity proves a barrier to fully enjoying these lush and potentially entrancing photos. Winogrand had a knack for discovering intimate dramas — an untitled image from Coney Island captures two tan, tattooed young men, one affectionately leaning his head against the other’s shoulder. Deeper engagement with these social connections is cut short until the image cycles back minutes later. It takes few viewings to discern the homemade tattoo that suggests affiliation with some neighborhood group (“32 St boys”) or the echoing curves of shoulders, elbows, knees, and chins.
In this case, a black-and-white version would deprive the image of the richly tanned skin and its associations with seaside pleasures, diminishing the air of languorous sensuality. Color plays a similar role in an untitled image from Cape Cod in 1966. This study in shapes — cylindrical mustard and ketchup dispensers arrayed like sentries around bowls of relish and onions — is enlivened by the saturated, almost electrified reds and yellows Kodachrome produces. The gleaming relish exudes pungency; so vivid are the two foremost bottles they seem to be begging for a squeeze. It’s a festive summer day, the sunlight palpable on each object. This insistent realism and sense of the moment owes almost entirely to the lucent quality of the color slide.
But this formalist treatment of inanimate objects isn’t Winogrand’s typical mode. More frequently, he was drawn to people — their interactions, postures, and movements. His New York street photos capture the theatrical quality of pedestrian life: his subjects often appear to dramatize an element of plot or characterization in a play.
In an untitled image from 1965, the photographer peers directly into the oncoming foot traffic. The two women in the immediate foreground are engaged in conversation; a Black woman speaks as her White companion listens pensively, eyes downcast. Both are likely office workers; they are well-coiffed, stylishly dressed, and sporting conspicuous necklaces.
The turn of the speaker’s head, her canny, assessing glance, suggests she’s imparting some confidence — perhaps a piece of news about an office scandal or a romantic liaison. The listener, in the blue dress, holds her cigarette outside of their conversational space, as if acknowledging the importance of what’s being said. Around them are men in dark suits and white shirts, the unvarying uniform of the day.
Even if Winogrand hadn’t shot this scene in color, thus registering one woman’s sparks and splashes of red (lipstick, handbag, and jewelry) or the near palpable nap of her friend’s mauve coat, we would be struck by their emergence from the clutch of gray-clad men, like protagonists stepping out of a crowd of extras. But the vivid hues further announce and animate their forward-moving presence and bring the women into familiar visual terrain — their fashion may be outdated but the impulse toward colorful, expressive adornment is not.
Winogrand’s black-and-white photographs, despite their dynamic narratives, can sometimes carry a whiff of bygone days. Especially as the ’50s and ’60s recede in memory, we find ourselves enjoying period details — vintage buses, the ubiquity of men’s hats, the formality of street attire in general.
If a scrim of nostalgia threatens to obscure the photographer’s compositional acuity and preternatural alertness to his subjects’ self-possession, these Kodachrome slides dispel it handily. They deliver a contemporary jolt to long-familiar tableaux and allow us to see what Winogrand himself was actually seeing: A city, a world, as alive as the one you walked out into today.
Garry Winogrand: Color continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Park, Brooklyn) until December 8. The exhibition is curated by Drew Sawyer, Phillip Leonian and Edith Rosenbaum Leonian Curator of Photography, Brooklyn Museum, with Michael Almereyda and Susan Kismaric.