Winogrand's Hectic Details Linger In Mind

Garry Winogrand

Photographs from the portfolio "Women are better than men. Not only have they survived, they do prevail" Works From 1978-80.

At the Monte Clark Gallery until February 6

In Garry Winogrand's small black-and-white street photographs, every kind of public human interaction is displayed and parsed. Working with a Leica range-finder camera, and always at close quarters, Winogrand prowled the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and other large American cities, making images of people he did not know, restlessly scrutinizing them as they, in turn, scrutinized and judged each other.

Winogrand's purpose was never cheery, and his work will never win him any fans among the many devotees of lyrical humanist street photography. His images are darker and more pessimistic than those of, say, Henri Cartier-Bresson, even though both artists' pictures are governed by an almost identical set of rules: exposures shot quickly with a handheld camera; small black-and-white prints; compositions centred on the decisive moment--Cartier-Bresson's term--that magic split second when disconnected compositional elements cohere in the viewfinder.

Although Winogrand's work is often compared to Cartier-Bresson's or to André Kertész's, his photographs lack their easy European grace. Winogrand's blunt, apparently artless style is actually derived from his close study of two masters of American realist photography: Swiss-born Robert Frank, and Walker Evans.

The 15 Winogrand photographs on display at Monte Clark Gallery are some of the last works he completed before his death from cancer in the early 1980s, and they're a good introduction to his style. The first thing you notice is how their compositions are almost all skewed to the right or left. Winogrand explained this as the result of the lenses he preferred and his desire for his subjects to fill the frame, but it is equally true that his asymmetrical framing throws his subjects off balance, like people struggling to stay afoot on the deck of a sinking ship. Their physical gestures reveal psychological tics and quirks they'd just as soon suppress or don't realize they're displaying.

When you look closely at Winogrand's pictures, you also notice tiny details whose presence anchors and grounds his compositions. In the best of these images, a black couple, mother and daughter, greet a white mother and daughter on a restaurant's open-air patio. The black daughter is clearly uncomfortable with the scene; her face has frozen into a mask, and her arms are tucked in at her sides, as if she's just waded into cold water. The white daughter's back is to the camera; you can't see her face, but you do see the black button eyes of the stuffed Snoopy doll on the table beside her, which you somehow intuit as being as unwelcoming as her own. This is a terrific picture, but it wouldn't work without Snoopy. You're tempted to say Winogrand got lucky, but he got lucky way too often. All of his pictures are richly packed with this kind of incidental detail, and it's this hectic density that makes his images as memorable as they are.