Through April 17
at Cheekwood Museum of Art
In 1964, photographer Garry Winogrand went off on a cross-country trip funded by a Guggenheim grant and took lots of pictures along the way. That's exactly what you would expect from a photographer, but fundamentally not so different from everyone else on the road. Throughout its relatively brief history, photography and tourism have fed each other. Samuel Bourne's pictures of Victorian era India forged the way for millions of amateurs to snap away on cheap, easy-to-use cameras. The medium's instantaneous capture of images, made more pronounced with each technology change, ideally serves people in pursuit of new sights.
The results from Winogrand's trip on display at Cheekwood are a fraction of the 20,000 images he created. While Winogrand is known for work in black-and-white, this selection includes a number of color images as well. The pictures cluster into categories: urban street scenes, tourist destinations like Tahoe or Yellowstone, cars, airplanes and airports, public events. Almost all of the images come from public places and only a handful from inside a home or domestic space. Whatever the setting, people figure prominently in each frame.
Winogrand took his trip under a pall. The Kennedy assassination had shaken the country the previous autumn, not long after the world had barely averted annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The photographer wrote in his Guggenheim application, "I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn't matter, we have not loved life." He followed with, "I cannot accept my conclusions," but it's not clear that he could cure his world-weariness through obsessive picture-taking.
When he looked at the country from the road, he saw a near reflection of himself: restless people, constantly in motion looking for entertainment. Many of the shots concern travel. Two men stand on a roadside in Wyoming, no building in sight, presumably waiting for the long-distance bus. Lots of the shots catch people in their cars. You see views of the airport in practically every city he visited, a reminder of a time when air travel was more than a means to get from point A to Bit was an event.
A strong sense of nostalgia overwhelms you in this show. By collecting images from a single year now four decades past, you cannot avoid recognition that they capture a world gone. A photograph of a street scene in Cincinnati shows the streetcar wires overhead. How long ago did those wires come down? Even at the time, were the streetcars even running? The second a photo is taken, nostalgia kicks in. The moment it captured has passed. People who sit for portraits (or get caught in public by someone like Winogrand) age continuously. It doesn't take long for the changes to be noticeable.
The sense of nostalgia is so much stronger in photography than most other arts because of its dependence on singular events in the physical world. A painting creates an image of something that never did exist, even if it tries to represent a person, event or scene. Most photographs are the result of light bouncing off a specific setting in the physical world. Susan Sontag described them as a death mask, a tracing taken directly from some other entity.
Not only do photographs freeze experiences that have passed, they even destroy experience. In Sontag's words, photographs are "not so much an instrument of memory as an invention of it or a replacement." When you have a photograph of a dead relative, that's how you picture them. Your memories are weak compared to an actual photograph. Tourism likewise involves a kind of substitute and compensatory experience. You go someplace to look at things, gain a cursory familiarity with itand, in American tradition, take an obligatory snapshot or video.
Even death becomes converted into a kind of entertainment. A boy and his mother walk through the manicured gardens of Forest Lawn Cemetery in L.A.; the boy wears Mickey Mouse ears. A couple of pictures show visitors at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Ground Zero of its day. In one, a man holding an instant camera shows a postcard of the Texas School Book Depository to a couple. The woman holds a camera herself and points back out of the frame, possibly to the Book Depository itself. It looks like they are trying to place themselves in relation to the postcard's photo. In another shot of the plaza, a man takes home-movie footage of a shrine to JFK, focusing on a photo of Kennedy in the shrine. He experiences this space in a multiply mediated way through a picture of a picture. Add one more now for us.
In the world of these photos, everything is spectacle. Some are obvious, like a Tahoe show, the Texas State Fair or Aquarena Springs, a water show in San Marcos, Texas. The tourist nation Winogrand joined treated nature as a show also. A picture of the California coastline catches a small clutch of people standing in a fenced observation area, taking in the same scene and doubtlessly shooting their own photos.
The notion of spectacle extends to the most mundane aspects of life. Urban street scenes become dramatic scenes. Commerce delivers a show. In an L.A. store, a bunch of boys, some bare-chested, sit on the floor around a floor-model TV and their fathers stand behind, watching them. You take the kids to the store to entertain them. A woman in matching white dress, gloves, purse and high heels walks sternly down a Houston street past a plate-glass display window containing a mannequin in a white dress. In a "put together" way, she has turned herself into the model and become what she would consume.
Winogrand depicts society permeated by spectacle, in which representations of ideal values (beauty, grace, truth, sophistication) replace real experience. Everyone in these pictures assumes the role of spectators watching an entertainment, or they're posing for others. To say that spectacle has taken over modern society is to criticize society. The social theorist Guy Debord wrote that the spectacle is a "pseudo-world apart, an object of mere contemplation," breeding isolation and disabling individuals as actors in society. In Debord's view, it represented a convergence of economic and political domination. Whether Winogrand had a political sense of his own work, it was inspired by a dis-ease with contemporary life and with the way media of all sorts depicted it. He wanted to push aside "illusions and fantasies," but it may not have been so easy when everything he found seemed to indicate people behaving either as or for spectators.
Winogrand's photographs feel casually composed, and on some level they are. This is a man who took so many pictures he could only print a fraction of them. Of 20,000 frames produced for the 1964 grant, only 1,000 were printed. At his death, Winogrand left something like 300,000 images unprinted. His technique could not have been further from that of Ansel Adams, who waited patiently for just the right light to click the shutter.
He may have taken photographs profligately, but Winogrand must have had very fast eyes. Each shot is purposefully composed and thick with information, focused always on the peopletheir gestures, expressions, clothes. One photo of the New York World's Fair finds eight people sitting on a long bench. At one end, a white woman speaks in conversation to a black man. Next to them, three young women sit together. The one on the left speaks or whispers into the center woman's ear, covering her mouth with her hand, while one on the right side of the trio leans her head wearily onto her friend's chest. Next, two women sit up high on the bench and turn to look behind them. One holds her hand up to the back of her head and clutches at her hair, a model's pose. The other drops her sunglasses off her nose to get a better look. Finally, an old man sits and reads a paper. The range of experience captured is remarkable: age, race, gender, personalities of many sorts.
For Winogrand's part, a distinct personality emerges from this body of work: prolix, morose, sly, but not over-clever. He was supremely aware of the people around him and of his medium's characteristics. He used photography's inherent qualities to argue, as effectively as any text, that contemporary human experience has become dominated by spectacle.
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