BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Ars longa, vita brevis — you know, art is long, life is short — has things backwards. Reality is inexhaustible, capturing it isn’t. Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) spent his career trying to prove otherwise. He failed, of course. You can’t win when reality has three dimensions (four, if you count time), and photography has just two. Reality also doesn’t need a darkroom. Yet Winogrand may have gone further in capturing reality with a camera — certainly in quantity, and right up there in quality — than anyone else in the history of photography.
It’s been estimated that Winogrand made a million exposures, nearly 300,000 of them unedited. He shot pictures the way a machine gun shoots bullets. The sheer vehemence of Winogrand’s career is even more astonishing than the excellence of his work. Considering that he has largely come to be seen as the foremost photographer of his time, and undisputed king of street photographers, that’s saying a lot.
Winogrand’s time came at the tail end of the dominance of black and white in serious photography. It was known that Winogrand had used color, but neither of the two landmark retrospectives of his work — at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1988, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in 2013 — included color images. So “Garry Winogrand: Color” is at once revelation and reimagining. That Winogrand nervy energy — like a grenade going off, only with phenomenal compositional values — gets ratcheted up that much more, thanks to the warmer temperature and greater descriptive power of color. The result verges on visual overload, but that’s very Winogrand, too.
The show, which runs through Dec. 8 at the Brooklyn Museum, consists of some 450 slides, drawn from 45,000 color transparencies (once again with Winogrand, the numbers, the numbers) which he made during the ’50s and ’60s. All the characteristic Winogrand elements are to be found: energy, surprise, voraciousness, avidity, dauntlessness, wit, alertness, muscularity, gusto, slyness, insolence, stunned wonder (that especially). To experience all of that courtesy of 16 clacking slide projectors, the images projected really (really) large in a baronial gallery, is to experience a stunned wonder of one’s own.
A man holds a little girl, presumably his daughter, though we don’t know. Winogrand, too busy to ask questions, never seeks answers. She holds a balloon. The verticality of the composition emphasizes lift-off: Girl and balloon bear the same relationship to ascent. That’s an impressive effect, one that black-and-white might have emphasized. We’ll never know. What we do know is that color means we get to appreciate the chromatic interplay of her red-pink Mary Janes, orange-red coat, and the more red-than-orange coat of the woman next to her. Underscoring the range of reds is how she’s framed by the grayness of her father’s sport coat and the blueness of the coat of a girl on the other side of her.
Sometimes Winogrand uses color almost against itself. The dress whites of a pair of sailors dominate the foreground of a photograph from 1960. The slope of their adjacent shoulders mirrors the curve of the scooped neckline (also white) of the woman they’re standing behind. The delicate coloration of the street in the background (Winogrand’s capacity for delicacy is a whole subject unto itself) supports the whiteness like a chromatic plinth.
The show begins in an anterior space, with 40 slides that were supposed to be projected as part of the notorious “New Documents” show at MoMA, in 1967. That show consisted of work by Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, and Diane Arbus. (The notoriety came courtesy of Arbus; janitors had to clean off outraged museumgoers’s spit after the museum closed.) The projector malfunctioned, so the slide show was removed from the exhibition. But for the lack of MoMA tech support, how different our sense of Winogrand might have been.
The show ends with video from a 1983 PBS interview with Winogrand and 25 black-and-white photographs. In comparison with what’s preceded them, they feel almost sedate — a word generally not associated with Winogrand.
Within the main gallery, the slides are grouped by category. Some of them are self-contained, such as Coney Island. Some overlap, such as On the Road and Travel. As a means of classification, the final one, White Masculinity, is so porous — and ex post facto — it would no doubt have made Winogrand roll his eyes — or wince. Each category has two slides projected at a time. One is vertical, the other horizontal. Since there are many more horizontals, the pairs cycle at different rates. This makes keeping track of the images easier, though part of the pleasure of this wildly pleasurable show is losing track: surrendering to Winogrand’s sheer virtuoso fecundity. The slowly shifting images make the experience feel slightly cinematic, like an intimation of being on the street with him.
Winogrand would often carry two cameras: one loaded with black-and-white film, the other with color. Sometimes he’d shoot the same subject a few seconds apart with each. There are color versions, for example, of the famous image of an interracial couple holding a chimpanzee and of two women walking outside at Los Angeles International Airport. In both cases, the black-and-white one is better: more visually tense and pared-down.
Color started to become acceptable for serious photography in the ’70s. Among the most prominent practitioners were Stephen Shore, William Christenberry, Richard Misrach, Joel Sternfeld, Jan Groover, Joel Meyerowitz, and William Eggleston. The key figure was Eggleston. Several Winogrand images look wondrously Egglestonian. Great eyes view alike? You could say that, yes. A 1966 shot of a table full of condiments, taken on Cape Cod, is a case in point. Yet Eggleston and Winogrand radically differ in intent. “I am at war with the obvious,” Eggleston has famously said. You can imagine Winogrand countering with, “OK, define obvious.”
Where Eggleston imbues the banal with majesty. Winogrand refuses to recognize the relevance — maybe even the existence — of either category. Taking everything on its own terms, he takes nothing for granted. He lets us see, or forces us to see, the everyday in altogether new ways. Who knew that cotton candy could look so lethal or a Coke machine so imperious or cowboy hats so ridiculous? Well, that last one you already knew. The point is that Winogrand doesn’t impose the ridiculousness. It’s already there, inherent and definitional. Judgment, of any sort, is as alien to his sensibility as finickiness.
These images are a gold mine for social historians: the details, the juxtapositions, the in-amber preservation of that present (his) into this present (ours). Yet Winogrand was emphatic on the inherent abstractness of his photographs — of all photographs. The most famous of many statements to that effect is “I photograph to find out what something looks like photographed.”
This makes “Liz Johnson Artur: Dusha,” also at the Brooklyn Museum, intriguingly complementary to the Winogrand show. Her photographs and videos in the show (there’s a sound collage, too) are unthinkable outside of society. Society was as much of an afterthought for Winogrand as the shade of matte is for a photograph. With Johnson Artur, it is the photograph.
The child of a Ghanaian father and Russian mother, she was born in Bulgaria in 1964, grew up Eastern Europe and Germany, spent time in Brooklyn, and currently resides in London. Such an experience of society — or societies — makes the turbulence of a Winogrand street seem like a waxworks by comparison.
“Dusha” means “soul” in Russian. One of the videos consists of interviews with African-Russians. Fascinating in itself, it’s indicative of Johnson Artur’s fascination with the collision of cultures (culture A + culture B = society C?). Out of that collision comes a fundamental tension: a consistent vibrancy shot through with sorrow and often anger. As fundamental tensions go, that’s a compelling one.
GARRY WINOGRAND: COLOR
LIZ JOHNSON ARTUR: DUSHA
At Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y., through Dec. 8 and Aug. 18, respectively. 718-638-5000, www.brooklynmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.