- - Thursday, March 6, 2014

You remember cameras — those mechanical devices that take photographs, but can’t be used for phone calls, texting, or listening to the latest Lady Gaga hit? You may even recall black-and-white photographs, once the dominant kind, now relegated to a few fuzzy news shots in the newspapers.

To anyone not familiar with the work of photographer Garry Winogrand, now the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, the first surprise is the electric impact of an only black-and-white show.

Wall after wall, gallery after gallery of pictures in this enormous display of images chosen from the output of this prolific and obsessively hard-working photographer requires an adjustment of eye and brain — the eye to the absence of the color that fills today’s imagery, and the brain to Winogrand’s unique range of subjects.

Ellen Degeneres’ viral “selfie” at Sunday’s Academy Awards, surrounded by a crowd of movie stars, offers a perfect contrast to the Winogrand exhibition. In our celebrity-saturated culture, movie stars, pop singers, and athletes are fodder for the paparazzi, the modern street photographers.

In an earlier age, Winogrand too was a street photographer, but the subjects of his Leica camera were anonymous men and women, snapped as they went about their daily or nightly business. Each is a vignette for which the viewer supplies his or her own narrative. A young girl is shown crossing a crowded street carrying a suitcase: Has she just arrived in the city, or is she bidding it a disappointed goodbye?

The pictures were often taken without the subject’s knowledge — lovers in Central Park, burlesque dancers relaxing between shows, shoppers window gazing, families captured as they drove by in their automobiles.

Aside from shots of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon, the exhibition includes one picture of an identifiable celebrity: Elsa Martinelli, an Italian starlet who had a brief career in Hollywood in the 1960s, looking somewhat the worse for wear at the Manhattan night club El Morocco.

In the 1950s and early 1960s Winogrand’s cast of thousands was captured on film in New York, which was both his home town and where he is considered to have done his best work. Then, until his death in 1986 at age 56, he began traveling for long periods to Texas, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, and the overall result is a street-level portrait of the United States’ beauty, brutality, and accidental humor.

Winogrand later called himself “a student of America,” and said he tried to learn “who we are and what we feel, by seeing what we look like as history has been and is happening to us in this world.”

That remarkable portrait covers three decades of rapid change in American life, from the post-World War II optimism of the 1950s to the despondency of the 1970s brought on by the Vietnam conflict and its aftermath, which Winogrand captured in some dramatic visuals of the protest movement and in photos taken at political meetings.

His love of women (he married three times) is on display throughout the show. Nuns, showgirls, wives, mothers, beach girls, athletes, beach girls all caught his eye. Not for nothing is his best known book called “Woman Are Beautiful.”

That some of the photos in the show are the work of genius is beyond question. At its best, his work is full of movement and human drama. Photographer Leo Rubenstein, Wingrand’s friend and a guest curator of the show, says that what characterizes Winogrand’s work is “a repudiation of the sentimental, a repudiation of style for its own sake. Winogrand was out to see and understand the world. Good photographs were a byproduct.”

If Winogrand isn’t more widely known, it’s partly his own fault. He kept no diary, wrote few letters, and rarely commented on his work. His passion was taking pictures, not processing them. As a result, he died leaving 6,500 rolls of undeveloped film of images that he never got to see except through the camera lens while taking the shot. A lot of this material has been processed, and some of the resulting photographs enrich what would have been an already captivating and unusual visual feast.

WHAT: Garry Winogrand

WHERE: The National Gallery of Art, 6th and Constitution Ave NW, Washington, D.C.

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