On view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through September 21
On a recent September afternoon, a visit to the Garry Winogrand’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York could have been the subject of one of his photographs: packed, brimming with an urban fauna of all ages and types, caged-as his photographs often are-in the confines of the Met’s labyrinthine galleries. Its success attests to the popularity of photography as a contemporary art form resonating with today’s museum-goers, and to a shift in our cultural tastes, much like the Alexander McQueen show did a few years ago, as though photography, video installations and fashion had definitively upstaged more traditional art forms such as painting and sculpture.
Garry Winogrand’s photographs feel youthful and bright, spontaneous and impromptu, with an element of (carefully arranged) surprise to them. The angle of most of them is off-kilter-a technique called tilted horizon. It is street photography- photojournalism at its best, in the vein of the fathers of photojournalism-namely French photographers Henry Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau. I especially liked the portrait of the starlet Elsa Martinelli smoking a cigarette at the famed El Morocco club in Manhattan: it updates the traditional art of portraiture thanks to the ironic distance of the close-up on her body leaning forward, while retaining a classical, even archetypal quality (the smoking and drinking Goddess). Or the bathers of Coney Island who look like sculptures seen from the back, in an uplifting, aspirational motion. They seem to be aiming for the sky.
I was wondering though if there wasn’t something fairly unoriginal about this so-called “spontaneity” which isn’t in fact one. Remember Doisneau’s famous “Baiser de l’Hotel-de-Ville” whose poster could once be found in so many students’ dorm room (including mine), the wildly romantic kiss of a couple which turned out to be staged.
Admittedly, it doesn’t in fact matter much if an image is truly spontaneous or not. Spontaneity is not by itself an intrinsic value of art. Rather, it is the opposite: it is artifact and composition, which make art. Winogrand himself believed by photographing and framing something one transformed it. This, of course, is an old aesthetic debate, dating back to the Romantics and Charles Baudelaire’s notion that true beauty is in fact all contrived. This show thrives on the following paradox: while elevating the natural, it is simultaneously advancing the cause of the artificial, and the artistic value of these photographs lies in their ability to strike the ideal balance between the fleeting and the eternal.
Although I enjoyed the show, I was also bit surprised by its popularity. Is anything that has been framed art? Does the very fact of framing elevate its subject? Proust once remarked that costumes and historical distance are often enough to exoticize an image and make it seem like art. This is how the pedestrian results in the sublime. It has been noted rightfully that these photographs-all taken in the 50s, 60s, and 70s-reflect our obsession with the Mad Men era: the clothes, the poses, the political context. But one should perhaps wonder why. Oddly enough, although they are so typical of an era, Winogrand’s images seem also cut from their context, extricated from the contingent, perhaps even essential, as though they spoke in and by themselves. In fact, the reason for the show’s success may just be a nostalgia for what they reflect: a longing for a specific time which seems out of time and where even political protest appears controlled, even innocent. As though this was the last refuge in the tormented history of the late 20th and early 21st-century where there was still a contentment, an uplifting energy, a happiness- dare I say. These photographs are our last Arcadia.