The Gary Winogrand Exhibition at Le Jeu de Paume, Paris

Rejected from the blockbuster exhibitions due to December congestion, I was rather pleased with myself when I stumbled upon the Gary Winogrand retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, Paris. Most visitors would feel a sense of guilt in going to see an American retrospective when visiting Paris, but having near-exhausted all cultural possibilities when living in the city, I felt it was acceptable. Gary Winogrand (1928-84) was a street photographer who captured the vibrancy of post-war America in the mid-20th century. He rejected the pious humanism of 1950s journalism, instead capturing the fear, humour and joy of Americans from New York to Santa Monica. He photographed characters like the beautiful Elsa Martinelli, 1955 whose seductive gaze reminds me of Anna Karina, the darling of France’s Nouvelle Vague film movement. Each photograph is detailed, yet ambiguous, so there’s room for your own imaginative interpretation of this, ‘potent gesture in human affairs.’ Reminiscent of the voyeuristic Ashcan school’s ideologies, his visual poetry illuminated social issues in New York and further afield.

 What makes this body of work particularly intriguing is that he photographed at such a pace that most of his work fell into obscurity after his death, so we’re seeing many photographs for the first time. He was notorious for accumulating thousands of rolls of film, which were abandoned, undeveloped until now. Politically agnostic, he saw his photography as a light-hearted endeavour, not ‘fatal or heaven-bound’ and therefore felt little need to discipline his own production. As he famously said, “the world is a place a bought a ticket to…it’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.” Imagine his envy if he could see Scott Schuman, the world famous street fashion photographer who can shoot hundreds of looks a day and only needs to click upload to satisfy his millions of adoring readers.  

Divided into three sections; Student of America (shot outside New York), Boom and Bust (LA and Texas) and Down from the Bronx (New York), the retrospective offers an in-depth look at Winogrand’s diverse body of work. The first space Down from the Bronx was particularly provocative, because it brought me back to my time working in the South Bronx for the Dreamyard Project. Though, the grit of the 1950s tainted by the Great Depression added a different filter. Each photograph reminded me of my experience of the extraordinary juxtaposition of extreme poverty with a diverse range of creative expression. Not least, the impeccable sartorial sense of many of its inhabitants, especially the elderly dandies you occasionally spot gliding around a corner. Though, at the other end of the spectrum, the excessive sportswear will never appeal.

 This was a time when the mass circulation of picture magazines was cementing photography’s position as fine art. As I saw at the Magnum exhibition at Berlin’s C/O gallery, publications like Life Magazine were bringing photojournalism into the lives of Americans nationwide. Images like Central Park Kissing, 1969 capture the sense of liberation in post-war America. Although unlike the C/O gallery, the photographs had no blurb beneath, which was somewhat disorientating when it comes contemplating the narrative. A bittersweet curse, which did at least promote intense debate as to the poignancy of a smile or the tailoring of a suit in Two Men, 1958.

 Unlike the famed landscape photographer Sebastiao Salgado that I saw at the Polka Gallery the next day, Winogrand most certainly does not spend months immersing himself in communities before taking the final shot. Instead, he steals moments from people, often in the seconds before their realisation of his presence. As a result, their character or even their purpose in life is as much of a mystery to him as it is to us. I rather like this notion, because as with Phonebooth woman (coffeeshop), 1962 and Elevator Woman, 1968, these two rather alluring images beg us to question their motives. Do they wait for lovers or do they just tempt the viewer for their own entertainment? My favourite piece was the Statue of Liberty ferry, 1968, which depicts a bejewelled aristocratic couple marooned in the middle of a crowd of tourists dressed in the clothing of an entirely different social class. They clutch coffees and stand together for protection in a moment of snobbery perfectly captured by Winogrand who ignored the statue in favour of this pair. “There’s nothing more mysterious than a fact clearly described.”

 As he moved into the 1980s, Venice Beach, 1982 and Three Women, 1980 captured the glamour and the adventurousness of the moment in fashion. It’s a far cry from his initial images of the Bronx, but illuminates his progression with the times as he follows America’s movement away from the Great Depression, into the swinging 1960s and the effervesence of the 1980s after the cold war. Beyond the intrigue of being amongst the first people to see his abandoned work, the exhibition is particularly appealing, because of the diversity of the photographs. Individually they are not ground-breaking images, but as a body they capture the spirit of America in pivotal moments of change. Spontaneous in his approach, he doesn’t seek to win the Pulitzer prize, but instead takes life as it comes and indulges his own curiosities, without considering his audience. He wasn’t preparing for a particular exhibition, but “photographed to see what something will look like photographed.”

 

Written by Flora Alexandra Ogilvy, founder of Arteviste.com