Mean Streets

John Haber
in New York City

Garry Winogrand, Mark Cohen, and Barbara Crane

New York for Garry Winogrand had its moments of solitude and quiet—a sailor crossing an overpass at night, a man and a woman at a window long after the store had closed, a distant ferry in the mist. They came early, though, for no other photographer was so swept up in the theater and the terror of the 1960s.

They are Winogrand at his saddest, for nothing to him was harder to bear than being alone. The soldier carries his bag toward destinations unknown, guided only by the aura of streetlights spreading into the blackness overhead. The man and woman at a window are almost certainly not a couple, and their silhouettes are more lifeless than the shop's mannequins in the glare of artificial light. Not one person is visible on the ferry to Manhattan, and it has a long way to go. They are only the start of a retrospective as well, for a man who declared himself a lifelong student of photography and of America. Elsewhere Mark Cohen and Barbara Crane offer alternative definitions of street photography. Garry Winogrand's Central Park Zoo, New York (Randi and Bob Fisher collection, 1967)

Lost in a crowd

They are not truly alone either, for the only solitude here is the loneliness of a crowd. Cars will speed past the sailor any moment now, and the city holds its millions. Winogrand and Diane Arbus share the comedy and anxiety of a freak show, but the best of Diane Arbus place between one or two people and the camera. Born in 1928 in the Bronx, he preferred the public spaces of Manhattan and Coney Island—starting in the 1950s with the tawdry spectacle of Minksy's Burlesque and El Morocco. When a friend photographed the two together, Arbus was talking on the phone. Winogrand gets his energy from others, and he is looking for more.

How, he must have wondered, could a freak show not take place in public, and how could a public spectacle not become a freak show? During frosh/soph rush at Columbia, a black ball descends on upraised hands like a visitor from outer space. In perhaps his most famous image, a grumpy driver and his passenger share their car with a chimp—and all three turn their back on Park Avenue traffic to face the camera. In a fair runner-up, a young black man and an equally handsome blond woman nestle monkeys in their arms at the zoo, just daring you to call it miscegenation. In another favorite, a wide-angle lens turns a bench at the 1964 World's Fair into a panorama of women in motion. So what if it records three separate conversations, and a man at the far end does his best to hide in his newspaper from them all?

Winogrand had a habit of interrupting people. That young black man with a monkey was an expert handler, the blond was unrelated, and a shot of the work in progress shows them smiling with the photographer. More often, his interruption is what isolates the subject. Again and again, someone looks up from a busy street, in defiance or suspicion. At the Kennedy Space Center, just one person ignores the Apollo 11 moon launch, to turn her camera on you. Walker Evans, Winogrand said, "more than anyone gets out of the way," and he meant that as the ultimate compliment. And so does he, except for the distraction of his constant clicking.

He was contrasting Evans with Eugène Atget, who like Duane Michal in the 1960s would not have burdened a clothing store with passers-by. Unlike them, Winogrand had no interest in "the perfect moment." He left twenty-six thousand rolls of film, more than a quarter first viewed only after his death from cancer in 1984. "I photograph," he said, "to find out what something will look like photographed," but he did not always find out. The curator, Leo Rubinfien, selects quite a few photos never before printed (including some of the least compelling), mostly relying on marked proof sheets. The retrospective, Winogrand's first since 1988 at MoMA, holds one hundred seventy-five prints.

Of the show's themes, first comes "Down from the Bronx," with New York from 1950 to 1971. Then comes "A Student of America," from those same years. That for him meant not the compendium of a nation as for Robert Frank or America by car as for Lee Friedlander, but sites of spectacle and isolation in California, Texas, and the Southwest. Finally, "Boom and Bust" takes him to his death, after he had largely abandoned commercial photography for teaching. One might better describe his arc as from quiet optimism to, first, a nation torn apart and then a loss of confidence in picking up the pieces. The last and least successful photographs run to small groups dancing and preening for the camera—or, in Los Angeles, for the Day of the Dead.

The three themes break confusingly across four rooms, but they will have to do for a confused life. Maybe Winogrand accords that moment of respect to a sailor because he had served in the Air Force. Maybe he focused ever after on confrontation because he made it a habit himself. He worked for mainstream publications like Life and Sports Illustrated, but even his 1963 Guggenheim Fellowship application tweaks the reader: "our aspirations have become cheap and petty." He keeps returning anyway to the same places and the same obsessions. He never stops combining the comedy and the anxiety—or the isolation and the spectacle.

Terror as theater

Winogrand makes them inseparable. The comedy is real, because he never could let go of his aspirations. It enters just when the fears have become too much to bear. A mother out with her stroller seems to be taking her son to the trash, while a bride steps out of her limousine to puke. A girl at a springs in Texas might have leapt or fallen in, for she swims fully clothed, but trailed by a pig. A little boy wears Mickey Mouse ears to Forest Lawn Cemetery, marching behind his mother as if at a birthday party or in a parade.

In turn, terror enters just when one wants to count on human comfort or communication. An airport waiting room resembles a holding pen, a football player huddles in the rain, and a man in a phone booth holds his arm to the glass as if trapped. People disembarking from a small plane could be leaving the scene of a disaster. A couple in a subway could be huddling out of love or despair. When a man holds up his "Welcome to California, Jane," a woman several feet away seems to acknowledge him and the children clinging to his leg, but as a questioning or a confrontation. A still tinier swimmer, seen from far above, might be a floating corpse.

Then there is the isolation amid the spectacle. At the Air Force Academy, one could be spying on a military conspiracy. The biggest spectacle of all, though, is political. It can be a cheap spectacle, like a man selling souvenir photos at the site of the Kennedy assassination, or a gruesome one, like a bloodied eye in a protest at Madison Square Garden. It need not, though, be altogether an insult. Without the spectacle, could Winogrand have had the same commitment to politics?

And he did have a commitment, for this political spectacle has its good guys and its bad guys—like the black zookeeper and hard hats ready to roll. At a Nixon rally, light reflects off a supporter's glasses in a geeky blindness. Still, virtue does not make easy heroes, not when the real energy comes from people together. Can you so much as spot Jack or Bobbie Kennedy in their portraits at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Vegas? Virtue also cannot eradicate anxiety. The balloons at another peace demonstration could be swarming overhead like crows.

As with the Kennedys, something is always just out of sight. It could be a threat, but also a source of life. It could be both at once, as when a child takes his first steps out of the garage, beneath looming clouds and toward an overturned tricycle in the sun. His story, like the sailor's, remain unfinished. They are also decidedly lacking in finish. It shows in not just the casual snapping away, but also the surfaces.

For Winogrand, who disdained crisp perfection, the blur of lights and the grain of a print are a secret weapon. One sees them in reflections off cigarette smoke or the shadows of a man sporting his cowboy hat on Dealey Plaza. They create heightened contrasts, for a greater spectacle. They can be an easy excuse for drama, but they can still startle. Lack of finish also extends to the packed compositions and frequent tilt of the picture plane, which the photographer did nothing to crop away. He saw them as one more part of the comedy and the terror.

Working class Surrealism

Working class Pennsylvania was the place to be, and the children knew it. At least they pretended they did for Mark Cohen. A boy holds a cat confidently in one hand, its tail on his bare shoulder and its wide eyes very much in your face. Another bounces a ball too big and too good to be true, and girls hang happily upside down. Cohen lingers over bare legs, spread confidently below shorts, swimsuits, or skirts. He is not projecting his lust onto the underage, any more than Scott Alario with his daughter's longings, but watching as they discover a less-innocent world.

Mark Cohen's Defiant Girl up on Fence (Danziger Gallery, 1973)For all their pleasures, the inhabitants are tangled up in decrepit housing, unpaved streets, and their own desires. The tangles extend from twisted cables in an empty yard or strands of a wire fence left for trash to a jump rope halfway between a girl's legs. They are implicit in the unspoken record of a scrap of paper on mangy earth. They include the gorgeous strands of a young woman's hair, but also the narrative tangle of her face buried in her hands and a man's arm reaching out to touch her. Has she recoiled from the threat of violence or failed to register his support? Does either of them know?

Cohen had a solo show at MoMA in 1973, and he worked increasingly in color, at a time when art photography was not altogether accepting. The change took him more toward group shots, in search of tensions within entire families. Still, his color compositions are flat compared to the wildness of black and white. That bare-chested boy has the smile and sunlit hair of an androgynous god, with the black cat a Madonna's demonic child. Photos like this one update René Magritte and film noir for blue collar America and a decade of turmoil. From the look of things, they did not have far to go.

In 1976, Barbara Crane set out to take another city's portrait, one building at a time. True, she could not invite downtown Chicago into her studio, although Zoe Leonard comes as close as one can to bringing the Upper East Side into the 2014 Whitney Biennial, with the museum architecture itself as her camera obscura. Crane could, though, take the care and equipment of studio photography outside, where for three years she took more than five hundred 5 by 7 negatives. Where once a Leica had brought to street photography the pulse of a city, she took the reverse route, accepting accident but not anecdote. Shadows, edges, and planes have a place, but little more. This is not about a preservationist's detail, but the rhythms of disorder.

Crane allows just one contact print to a gelatin silver sheet, its broad edges blackened in the process. The camera's film holder adds an additional slim border, which she did nothing to efface. Then she makes her selections, first to ninety, then to forty for a book, and now for the first New York solo exhibition of Chicago Loop. A city then was in transition between Modernism and its aftermath, much like art. One can see the grid of windows and of formalism, the textures of stone and glass, the diversity and decay. Landmarks are hard to come by, but one knows where one is all the same.

Born in 1928, Crane studied with Aaron Siskind at Chicago's Institute of Design, founded as the "new Bauhaus." Like the Bauhaus, she can appreciate design and architecture as a vocabulary for living subject to repetition and to change. And like Siskind, she approaches abstraction, with objects at rest and people close to a frenzy. She has photographed a single stick, a single mushroom, a single child, and hands and waists cut off as in a dance. For the Loop, a façade can line up parallel to the picture plane, but even corners in close-up define a shallow depth. With her head under the black cloth of a large-format camera, one can imagine her reminding a building to face the camera and to smile.

BACK to John's arts home page

jhaber@haberarts.com

Garry Winogrand ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21, 2014, Mark Cohen at Danziger through June 20, and Barbara Crane at Higher Pictures through June 21. Portions of the review of Winogrand first appeared in New York Photo Review.

 

Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME