It’s tempting to call this Garry Winogrand’s moment. In March, a huge retrospective of his work (more than 300 photographs) opens at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, then travels to Washington, D.C., New York, Paris, and Madrid. Closer to home, there are “Winogrand’s Women Are Beautiful,” which runs at the Worcester Art Museum through Nov. 10, and “Eye on the Street: Trends in 1960s and 1970s Photography,” at the Smith College Museum of Art. A third of the Smith show comes from Winogrand’s “Women Are Beautiful” series; it runs through Oct. 6.
The problem with that statement is its narrowness: Winogrand’s moment extends so far back, at least to 1988, when New York’s Museum of Modern Art organized its own retrospective of the photographer’s work. He had died just four years before, and the exhibition implied something that soon came to be commonly accepted: that no post-1960 American photographer had a more important body of work.
Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” published in 1958, was a landmark, a collision between the improvisatory and mythic, That is, it put improvisation at the service of myth-making. Soon enough, Frank turned to filmmaking and photographic hybrids. The idea of Winogrand giving up photography for anything, even sleeping and breathing, is unthinkable. Although an enormous admirer of “The Americans,” he was as interested in myth-making as a jackhammer is. The only thing mythic about Winogrand’s career was its output and what that output indicated about him: an appetite for taking photographs that beggars belief.
Winogrand famously said, “I photograph to find out what something looks like photographed.” Well, there are a lot of somethings in the world. It’s estimated that Winogrand, only 56 when he died, exposed a million frames. (Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose working career lasted twice as long as Winogrand’s, exposed “only” 500,000.) Of that million, it’s estimated that he left a third either undeveloped or unproofed. He was like a pilot so in love with flight that landing was an afterthought.
What the sky is for pilots, the street was for Winogrand. He was the ultimate street photographer — avid, animated, spontaneous — as he patrolled the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street and points beyond. Winogrand roamed far and wide. There are photographs in “Women Are Beautiful” from Chicago, London, Boston, Las Vegas, Copenhagen, Beverly Hills, Calif., and Texas. But New York dominates the series.
There’s a photograph in the Worcester show not by Winogrand. It was taken by one of his students, Frank Armstrong, who now teaches at Clark University, in Worcester. In it, we see Winogrand on an Austin, Texas, sidewalk, sizing up the scene. It’s like catching a glimpse of Nijinsky warming up at the barre or Jackson Pollock mixing paint.
“Women Are Beautiful” was published as a book, in 1975, then printed as a portfolio six years later. Worcester owns all 85 photographs in the series. Because of space limitations, only 68 are on display. The show is handsomely hung, and squeezing in the remaining 17 would no doubt have made a hash of proportions and spacing. It would have been worth it, though, to get to see the whole set.
None of the photographs is posed. These are chance encounters. The photographs are untitled, the subjects unnamed. There’s a sense of emotional anonymity, too. Even when a woman stares at Winogrand’s camera, the angle between camera and subject remains interpersonally oblique.
The photographs were taken between 1957 and 1974. Most date from the late ’60s and early ’70s. A sort of matter-of-fact awe suffuses them. Winogrand offers appreciation rather than prurience. Note that the title isn’t “Women Are Erotic.” The show includes one pair of bare breasts, another of bare buttocks, a fair amount of cleavage and bralessness, and the occasional bathing suit (though a lot fewer miniskirts than you might expect). Such sights are much more exception than rule.
“Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her,” Winogrand once said. “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.” Is that first sentence predatory creepiness, professional good sense, or some combination thereof? These years saw the heyday of both the sexual revolution and the feminist movement. (One of the photographs shows a 1972 women’s rights march.) Winogrand might just as easily — and accurately — have called his book “Women Are Strong” or “Women on the Move,” but he didn’t. The title he did choose has made these photographs seem to some dubious, at best.
Are these images anti-feminist? Pro-feminist? Pre-feminist? Proto-feminist? As so often, John Szarkowski may have put it best. A great champion of Winogrand, the longtime MoMA curator organized the 1988 retrospective and included him with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander in the landmark 1967 MoMA show “New Documents.” “Winogrand’s view of women,” Szarkowski wrote, “was perhaps outrageous, or was perhaps saved from outrageousness by its simplicity and openness, and by its reckless enthusiasm.”
It’s an even more reckless enthusiasm of Winogrand’s, for photographs, that’s most notable here. A pulsation thrums through “Women Are Beautiful,” but it’s far more ocular than glandular. A man who made a million exposures needs an organizing principle if he’s going to offer any selection of his work, and here that principle is women. They are more means to an end than an end themselves. As striking — as beautiful — as many of the women are, what most stands out is the consistent vigor and compositional strength of these pictures. Winogrand liked to set his shutter speed at 1/1000th of a second, which makes all the more remarkable his capacity to organize his images visually. It’s there in the way the women in a Boston restaurant seen through a picture window are framed within a frame or how the striding front leg of a young woman crossing the street bisects the picture plane just so.
At Smith, 10 selections from “Women Are Beautiful” share “Eye on the Street” with 10 selections from Danny Lyon’s series “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” from 1966 and ’67 on the tearing down of old buildings to make way for the World Trade Center; and five selections each from two of Joel Meyerowitz’s 1970s series, on the Empire State Building and St. Louis.
Lyon documents an evacuated city. The only people present (besides himself, in a self-portrait) are demolition workers. “I came to see the buildings as fossils of time past,” Lyon says. He loves those fossils as much as Winogrand loves his women, but with a gravity alien to Winogrand’s hurtling eagerness.
Unlike Winogrand’s and Lyon’s photographs, Meyerowitz’s are in color. His St. Louis is largely evacuated, too, but the color has a softening effect — and it enhances the wittiness of his Empire State Building images. They show the famous skyscraper peeking from behind other buildings or barely visible in a corner. It’s an architectural “Where’s Waldo.’’ Imagine Winogrand presenting his beautiful women as just a finger or wisp of hair, that’s what Meyerowitz is doing with the Empire State — except that, of course, you can’t imagine that with Winogrand.
EYE ON THE STREET: Trends in 1960s and 1970s Photography
Smith College Museum of Art, Elm Street at Bedford Terrace, Northampton,
through Oct. 6,
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.