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ART REVIEW : Winogrand’s Camera Prowls the Streets

Times Staff Writer

A man I know says he recently made a major change in his life--he has stopped thinking of women as goddesses. Thrice-married photographer Garry Winogrand, on the other hand, never gave up his worshipful vision of the female sex.

Watching visions of pulchritude walk down New York City streets in the ‘60s--swathed in taut fabrics, caught up in private worlds, appraised by male passers-by--he fell in love over and over. But the photographs he took of these women--included in a vast and glorious retrospective of his work, at the Museum of Contemporary Art through Aug. 20--were more than valentines. They were part of a vision that embraced the complexity and randomness of urban life and refused to pare it down to easy-to-grasp essentials.

Discovering photography at age 20 after a stint in the Army and a half-hearted attempt to study painting at Columbia University, Winogrand took to it with a raw, unschooled vengeance. Three years later, in 1951, he became a photo agency free-lancer.

The photographs from that early period are notable for their energy and attention to stray detail. A man somersaults on a parade float; a woman laughs ferociously while dancing at the nightclub, El Morocco; a worried-looking child in a wading pool is grasped by a woman whose body is lopped off at the hip.

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It was during the early ‘60s that Winogrand hit on a way of getting close to strangers in public places. Standing at a distance that normally would permit only a head shot, he used a wide-angle lens to survey the entire body. Doing this meant moving the camera slightly downward. To compensate for the resulting skewed view of the surrounding architecture, Winogrand tilted the frame. The emphatic interior angles he created were charged with the energy of the street.

But he didn’t think of this practice as a “technique.” Uninterested in rules and standards, he worked the way he did because he was always experimenting with ways of getting at the casual--even seemingly meaningless--conjunctions of events in places people congregate. As time went on, his notion of what made a meaty photograph became ever more diffuse and distant from traditional notions of composition.

He could catch a symbolic chance moment, like a cab-hailing pregnant woman whose belly exactly synchronizes with the position of her small son, so the unborn child seems to have legs and arms of its own. But he could also demonstrate that a photographer needn’t draw a conclusion about what he sees in order to create a memorable picture.

“American Legion Convention, Dallas, Texas” is a disorganized slice-of-life on a street corner. One elderly veteran has his arms crossed over his chest and looks up at the sky. Another stands looking out into space, his hands in his pockets. Other people wait to cross the street. A man slouches against the building. And an apparently legless man lies on the pavement, his forearms extended like paws.

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The photograph was taken in 1964, but it comes across as neither a patriotic nor an anti-Vietnam War statement. (Winogrand abandoned his interest in politics during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis because, he said, of the feeling it gave him of his own powerlessness.) The power of the image comes from the vacuum that has formed around the legless man. But you can read into it whatever you wish, or nothing at all.

A series of photographs Winogrand took at zoos puts the animals and the visitors on an equal footing--as observers, as oddities. A couple in checked shirts observes a pair of elephants; next to the couple two people stand shrouded by a big cardboard box. A family peers through the bars separating them from a sea otter; at the bottom of the picture frame, the otter looks as though it is seeking relief from such concerted scrutiny.

Airports--where people are flung together in big cold spaces by virtue of wanting to get to the same destination--were prime Winogrand territory. So were the oddball posturings at ‘60s parties. And so were media events, scanned for the odd detail, like the pathetic pair of potted plants and cluster of reporters’ cassette recorders surrounding Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson at a 1973 press conference.

By the ‘70s, Winogrand had given up journalism to do his own work. New York remained his main turf, but he ventured to other places--Los Angeles, the Ft. Worth Fat Stock Show--in search of texture and incident.

The final group of prints dates from Winogrand’s last years (he died in 1984), when illness, the shambles of his personal life, and a seeming inability to edit or even contemplate what he was shooting had taken the upper hand.

He left more than 2,500 rolls of exposed film, plus an additional 6,500 rolls that were developed but not arranged on proof sheets. Preliminary contact sheets, made from 3,000 more rolls, had hardly been edited. From this numbing evidence of activity, 25 prints have been made posthumously. There is at once a harshness and a deep mystery about them. In one image, shot in Los Angeles about 1980, a young priest stands by a mailbox with a hunted expression on his face as he holds a tiny object between his long, bony fingers.

Organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the exhibit is accompanied by a separate group of Winogrand’s prints from MOCA’s own collection. The big, juicy catalogue contains an exquisite essay by curator John Szarkowski. Few are the artists whose work has been analyzed with the brilliance and compassion he summons to the page.


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