The Color of the Streets

John Haber
in New York City

Joel Meyerowitz, Raghubir Singh, and Lauren Greenfield

Even after Instagram, street photography may seem made for black and white. It looks back to an older New York and Paris. It evokes, too, the dirt beneath one's feet in eternal shades of gray. Not for Joel Meyerowitz and Raghubir Singh.

Today color may seem the norm for everything selfies to fashion—and equally far from the demands of art. For Lauren Greenfield, it exemplifies status and surfaces among elite consumers. Not that she is exempt from their lust herself. Yet some of the earliest champions of color photography emerged from the streets. Color led Meyerowitz out of the city and Singh across India, but with deep roots in the street. The Met Breuer introduces the latter as "Modernism on the Ganges." The photographer knew better. Joel Meyerowitz's Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 1977 (Howard Greenberg gallery, 1977/2017)

Modernism had long preceded him to India, and its advent seemed fated to remain incomplete. The mammoth steel frame of a cantilever bridge looks down on a wedding party by the river in much the same spirit as Shiva the destroyer looks down on an electric fan. Lenin looks down on the diminutive Communist party leader in much the same spirit as Kali, the malevolent mother goddess, looks down on a barber shop where a man, naked from the waist up, flexes his muscles. An equestrian monument looks down on storefronts and filmgoers in much the same spirit as the Bollywood posters behind it and the wires that hold the statue up—or threaten to tear it down. Yet the spirit is not altogether willing, and the flesh is not altogether weak. First, though, Meyerowitz in America.

Between colors

Joel Meyerowitz might seem an unlikely champion of color. He emerged from commercial photography only to set it aside, like Diane Arbus. He had discovered alternatives in the blacks and whites of Robert Frank and Eugène Atget. He made his name in the 1960s with street photography, much like Arbus or Garry Winogrand—with people not for what they wear, but for the strangeness of who they are and what they do. A man in black and a woman in white kiss because opposites attract, because it is New Year's Eve, and because the marquee above does say Kiss Me, Stupid. Another couple points at cross-purposes, as if in search of ways to deny the model whale behind them in, of course, shades of gray. Meyerowitz obtained exclusive access to Ground Zero after September 11, when mere appearances must have seemed beside the point when not ground to dust.

He prefers twilight to the steamy afternoons of William Eggleston, who did so much to make color respectable. For Meyerowitz, not even a rosebush looks plain red. It stands between a faded porch and withered ground, much as a 2013 publication (actually photos from the 1970s reprinted as recently as 2017) translates a French expression for dusk as "Between the Dog and the Wolf." When he turns to still-life, he ditches the designer colors close to abstraction of Jan Groover. For him, the photographic object is an old watering can on a faded ledge against a pale yellow wall. He calls the resulting series "Morandi, Cézanne, and Me"—and who could have more exacting and understated colors than Giorgio Morandi?

Yet he was a champion of color, like Stephen Shore, even before his first book, in 1979. A show reserves an alcove for black and white and a small room for color. And then it assembles the two recent series out front. They suggest that color for Meyerowitz has less to do with surfaces than with objects and light. (He called that very first book, at age forty, Cape Light and another Tuscany: Inside the Light.) It also has to do with what Sigmund Freud called the uncanny.

Meyerowitz turned onto color in a big way, even before he turned to landscape and still-life. Try to decide which looks funnier or more unnerving in that small room—women in matching prints or in clashing one-color dresses. Maybe it freed him from the search for the creepiest personality or the creepiest incident. Maybe it freed him, too, from the search for the perfect moment. With twilight, it places him between moments, much as he called past series Bay/Sky and At the Water's Edge. With Morandi and Paul Cézanne, it also places him between an earlier realism and Modernism.

Outdoors, his compositions come almost ready-made. While people are few, two girls pose on a wall without undue encouragement. Someone with an eye for real-estate values erected that rosebush or built a gate opening onto the ocean at Fort Lauderdale. Meyerowitz has only to place them in the center of the frame. Saint Louis placed its Gateway Arch nearly up against its cathedral. Provincetown ensured that a building looks suspiciously like the Bates Motel in Psycho, and nature ensured that the sun and moon could share a darkening sky.

They also share an unnatural light. Contrasting neon colors cover the sides of a house, and actual neon lights reflect in car windows at a food shack as rippling curves. Colors grow more nuanced in still-life, including a glorious array of scratches on the ledge. Both Morandi and Cézanne used color to construct space, and so does he. They also left the construction forever incomplete, much as Meyerowitz photographs more enigmatic objects in dark corners. A sign on a fence at sunset resembles the glaring white of an LED, because people are finally catching onto the enigma.

Modernity and revelry

Raghubir Singh thrives on juxtapositions, because they put modernity in perspective. They describe how art enters into life and past into present. Here he can rely for his presences on statues and the poster at a campaign rally. They also pack in that much more of a caste- and class-ridden culture. He traveled the length of the Ganges starting in the late 1960s to see it all. And he liked the panorama so much that he took to the Great Trunk Road in the 1990s for more.

He likes juxtapositions, too, so that no one has the last word. The colonial era weighs down on the present, but Singh views its institutions through green mosquito netting. Modernity promises to lift the weight of the past, but commuters have to settle for a run-down excuse for a bus, while peacocks carry on in the foreground much as they have for a long time. Past and present struggle for primacy within lives as well. The wedding party follows the rules for the occasion, but they serve as an excuse for rejoicing. The barber and his customer kneel face to face as if poised for a fight.

Singh keeps returning to rituals, and it is hard to know where the rules end and the display begins. Young men sparkling in the spray from a fountain are taking part in a rite of immersion. A diver enjoys the flood waters that have all but submerged ancient architecture. Singh sticks to color, too, for its own display. Raghubir Singh's Pavement Mirror Shop, Howrah, West Bengal (Cynthia Hazen Polsky collection, 1991)He avoids broad fields of clashing colors as in Eggleston and Meyerowitz, in favor of pulse and variety. He admired glowing prints by Anish Kapoor as well as old manuscripts, but he prefers motion and spectacle.

Modernism did indeed precede him, and he found a model in Henri Cartier-Bresson. He also found a friend in William Gedney, and he may have seen a parallel between India's uncertain modernity and Gedney's rural America. Not coincidentally, both Gedney and Cartier-Bresson also worked in India (and a midtown gallery brings together Gedney's and Singh's work there for the occasion), while Singh also lived in Paris, London, and New York. He did a stint in the north of England as well—to teach, but also to photograph, of course, Indian immigrants. Still, he has little talent for the French photographer's decisive moment or the American's vivid portraits in a crowd. These are revelers first and second, slum dwellers or workers a distant third, and individuals hardly at all.

Singh saw India not as individuals, but as jostling for space. It can leave him as conventional and picturesque as most photojournalism, and he worked for the New York Times Magazine, Life, and National Geographic. (The last supplied him with Kodachrome and those nice bright colors.) The curator, Mia Fineman, integrates work by others, also including Helen Levitt and Atget. She even excerpts films by another friend, Satyajit Ray. Singh looks clumsy by comparison, but in search of a nation's indecisive moment.

He was still trying to see it all at his death in 1999, at age fifty-six—often from the windows of a car. The Ambassador looks like a real clunker, but India and Hindustan motors were proud of it. The device also recalls "America by Car" for Lee Friedlander, whom he admired as well. He associated windows and mirrors with Modernism, for both the formal constraints and the fragmentation. By the end, his gestures and juxtapositions were loosening. At least one photograph could pass for photocollage, but its colors, frames, and images belong to an actual mirror store—and they mirror a bustling but often stagnant nation.

They have more money

The rich are different from you and me. Yes, they have more money—and a show at the International Center of Photography. Not that Lauren Greenfield means it as a compliment. For twenty-five years, she has been pursuing the wealthy, in order to take their pretensions down a notch. With two hundred photographs, plus no end of interviews with the accused, she lets them damn themselves and the consumer culture that, in her view, sustains them. Yet she ends up falling for the glitter all the same, as "Generation Wealth."

She ends up, that is, like F. Scott Fitzgerald in that famous exchange with which I began. If it ever took place, which I doubt, Fitzgerald was merely stating the opening of his most damning and memorable short story, "The Rich Boy" from 1926. With his reply, Ernest Hemingway may have had the last word, but he surely missed his rival's clear-eyed portrait. He may well have been jealous—of that and of an entire paragraph that spins out as relentlessly as a human life. Still, he must have taken pride in setting aside an American myth to describe lives scarred by war and seeking a greater peace. He would not have wasted time on shopping.

Greenfield does, because she sees it as the key to class divisions from California to China. She sees not the truly deserving who power the economy on behalf of everyone—to take seriously, for a moment, Republican ideology. Rather, she sees people born into privilege, basking in it, and anxious to sustain it, with an anxiety that demands the biggest house, the biggest wedding, the biggest bar mitzvah, and now the biggest solo exhibition. She pretty much reprises Thorstein Veblen and The Theory of the Leisure Class. Published in 1899, it may explain even now a country that fell for a wealthy fool in the guise of a populist. They could hardly hold his money, his vulgarity, or his several bankruptcies against him, since they aspire to ever so much more.

Not that ICP falls for the rich and powerful either. Since its move downtown barely a year ago, it has had shows of the surveillance state, political activism, and photojournalism on behalf of the angry and displaced. It has also been trying to keep up with the times, by incorporating new media. Greenfield does much the same, with documentary film as well as the pairing of photographs and text. She had a dedicated critic, like yours truly, jotting down quotes from the wealthy as fast as I could. Wow, are they juicy, and so is the pageant in her photographs.

At least it seems so for all of a minute. The next morning those quotes sounded repetitive and predictable, and so are the photos. One could slam them for cheaply condescending to her subjects, although no doubt they deserve it. One could slam her, too, for reducing their sins to lifestyle choices, as if they could atone by a vegan diet and fashionably clean closets. Her real problem, though, is that she falls for them completely—and mirrors their clichés in her work. As a certain president might say, this is hu-u-uge.

Her pairing of image and text comes right out of magazine spreads, much like that of Teju Cole, and she has worked for style magazines often enough along the way. So does the imagery—crisp and colorful, but bland and barely composed. Where Cole is after something profound and spiritual, Greenfield is after something profound and critical, but they are superficial all the same. As it happens, ICP will discard its investment in the Bowery for a move still further into the Lower East Side, where construction aims to include culture along with fancy apartments. It might consider its present quarters, mostly downstairs, a bargain basement by comparison. Luckily for ICP, the rich have more money.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Joel Meyerowitz ran at Howard Greenberg through October 21, 2017, Raghubir Singh and William Gedney at Greenberg through December 9. Singh ran at The Met Breuer through January 2, 2018, Lauren Greenfield at International Center of Photography through January 7.

 

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