The first time I saw the Garry Winogrand: Color exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I thought that I heard music playing. There was nothing in my notes to corroborate this false memory. Yet, when I stepped into the darkened gallery the second time, I did honestly expect to hear something plaintive and kind, languorous and poignant. Though that music only exists in my head — something perhaps like Rachel’s Music for Egon Schiele — the show lingers in my consciousness like a song that’s found my frequency. I suppose this response is helped along by the arrangement of color slides in the gallery. They wink in and out of existence. The images are paired in small visual novellas. One is displayed along a horizontal axis and the other along a vertical one. The horizontal images tend to last around seven seconds and the vertical ones almost twice as long. Over time this makes for distinctly different juxtapositions as the various images cycle through.
Each novella has a distinct motif: there were men in a cityscape, people at the beach (with a sotto voce theme of homoeroticism); air travel; activities at the fair; and women in an urban environment. It’s easy for one to get seduced by the beauty of the images. The memorable ones for me include a boy seemingly asleep on the surf, his face dusted with sand as if the sandman had struck while no one was looking; a group of high-stepping Black girls in white and purple band uniforms; the shot of an old fashioned phone booth with its wings of green glass through which a view of the city is refracted as if plunged undersea; a bevy of yellow cabs coming together at intersecting angles; a variation of Winogrand’s infamous shot of a racially mixed couple each carrying a small chimpanzee; and a shot of the photographer himself smiling with his whole being.
What one might miss in all this fascinating visual bounty is that the work is also sociological. There is a way in which we can tell something about the values and concerns, the habits and beliefs of the people shown in these slides. It is a kind of visual ethnography. As I spend time with the work I come to realize that the men jauntily walking downtown in their tailored suits and the women with their well-designed coats, jackets and skirts, made more glamorous with a buoyant string of pearls or colored beads all signify their belonging to a certain class by their wearing of these uniforms. There are a raft of cultural markers that indicate that I am looking at a particular people caught in a particular historical moment. It’s not my moment, but looking at them I can tell how in the urban areas of the United States we used to deal with public physical intimacy — an indication of how we generally thought about propriety. This is clear in the way some couples shyly hold hands. There are signals for how we treated those we designated as disabled (dark glasses and white cane to indicate blindness), how we generally viewed femininity (quite rigidly coded), what abundance looked like (a pile of succulently glazed doughnuts), and how similar home food was to street food before the hegemony of corporatized fast food took hold (a lunch counter sign advertises spaghetti for a few cents).
Winogrand’s street photography is almost always visually compelling, a combination of a keen sensibility for composition along with a sense of the decisive moment. But this show is more than that, more even than about the vibrancy of color that contrasts with his better known black and white work. The exhibition provides a way for us to take the measure of ourselves: how we’ve regressed; how we’ve grown; how our values and beliefs have changed, and like a faded tune that was once played often on the radio, how we used to sing along.
Garry Winogrand: Color continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn) through December 8. It was curated by Drew Sawyer, a curator of photography at the Brooklyn Museum, with Michael Almereyda and Susan Kismaric.
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