By Chad Sirois
Worcester, MA – Interest in the work of Garry Winogrand has had a resurgence of late. With an exhibition of unpublished photographs at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) (March-June, 2013), inclusion in a street photography exhibition at the Smith College of Art Museum (July-October 6, 2013), and an exhibition of his portfolio “Women are Beautiful” (August-November 10, 2013) now on view at the Worcester Art Museum, it is hard for the museum-going public to avoid his complex and ambiguous imagery.
Heavily influenced by the likes of Robert Frank and Henri Carter-Bresson, Winogrand’s brand of photography is often open to speculation, interpretation, and criticism. Much like fellow street photographer Diane Arbus, his work is routinely marred as exploitative — particularly his portfolio, “Women are Beautiful.”
I sat down with Nancy Burns, Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Worcester Art Museum to talk about the challenges of presenting the exhibition “Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful” to a new audience and acknowledging his importance in the photographic canon among all the criticism.
CS: What made you decide to do a portfolio show on Winogrand’s work?
NB: While I tend to like thematic presentations of visual material, I liked the idea of researching a cohesive body of work, namely a single portfolio. It allows for more exhaustive research on a particular topic. I also wanted to try to do a mobile website for the first time — a unified group of objects gave me more time to work with a new form of technology.
I felt like this material would be of interest to the greater New England area. There’s a vibrant photography scene here and Winogrand is a favored son among photographers. There are also so many colleges — the questions regarding ethics and exploitation that Winogrand provokes make his work rich material for academics and students to investigate.
CS: It seems like exhibitions on Winogrand and street photography are popping up in museums across the country. Why do you think there is a sudden interest in artists like Winogrand?
NB: You know it’s interesting, I knew about the SFMoMA show when I was working on Winogrand, but the fact that 1960s and ‘70s street photography is so popular in many museums is intriguing. I think visual content moves in cycles, just like fashion. Some artists are always popular, like Monet or Rembrandt, but I think the street photography material is popular because baby boomers now have kids who have graduated from college. There’s a nostalgia element for the boomers, and an investigative interest from their children who want to see what their parent’s young adulthood really looked like.
I also think the era of photography apps on phones like Instagram and Hipstamatic have radically changed the way we view photography. That jaunty, hip look you see all over Facebook really owes itself to the kind of composition artists like Winogrand, Friedlander, Frank and Arbus presented to the public 50 years ago.
CS: “Women are Beautiful” is undeniably sexy and chic. Do you think a show like this will appeal to a wider and younger demographic not usually associated with traditional fine art museums?
NB: I really hope so. As I said, part of the reason I chose to work on Winogrand was precisely because he appeals to artists and provokes feminist conversations that are often at the forefront of college and graduate-level classes. “Women are Beautiful” presents women generally in their 20s and early 30s. I’d love to hear some feedback from both women and men in this demographic. Does Generation Y relate to these women or do they seem dated and otherworldly? I’m really fascinated by that question.
CS: When the SFMoMA show debuted earlier this year, some of the complaints and accusations about Winogrand’s objectification of women resurfaced. Do you think that a younger generation — who are used to obligatory celebrity crotch-shots and proclaim the “selfie” as a way of controlling the objection of their bodies — will still find his images of women problematic and predatory?
NB: I have had the opportunity to hear some responses to the exhibition and I’ve been rather surprised that women who lived through the 1960s and ‘70s haven’t been particularly shocked or dismayed by the photos. Men have said, “He obviously didn’t have a daughter.” As for the younger generation, I think it will be a mixed bag. While nothing is shocking anymore, today’s women are far more aware about how they are perceived visually by the public. We live in a world where you can take your phone and take a zillion pictures of yourself and just delete the unflattering images. We like to control how we look on Facebook. I upload photographs I like but untag or delete those I don’t. Control over one’s visible self is at the core of social media. The women in Winogrand’s photographs didn’t have control over how they were represented. I think that people, particularly women, are uniquely sensitive about that in a way we weren’t perhaps a generation ago.
CS: Untitled (Woman in a Telephone Booth, New York), is probably one of the more unsettling photographs in the show. Winogrand’s use of technique and composition makes it possible for the viewer to play the role of peeping-tom and the woman’s smile seems to hint at an acknowledgement and sanction of the viewer’s action, although she is clearly unaware of an observer. What images were most disturbing or difficult to navigate for you as curator?
NB: When I had the idea to put the exhibition into five basic groups, the Telephone photograph was one of the very first I set aside for the “Women are Objects” section. Simon Feldman, a professor at Connecticut College, described her as a “caged go-go dancer.” But honestly after almost a year, most of the photographs I initially found rather salacious became less so to me. The work I find most troubling is a photograph of a little girl bent over at the beach. Winogrand’s head is in shadow on the sand just below her legs. I’m not convinced this is an image exploiting a little girl, but I’m not unconvinced either. It bothers me.
CS: Do you have a favorite image in the show?
NB: That has changed as well. The Telephone was a favorite for a while. Last week I put the photograph he took of cheerleaders as the desktop on my computer so I obviously have some affection for that one as well. And I’m really a fan of a less celebrated photograph of two women having a cigarette. The use of empty space and the tilted composition is pretty exquisite. I know it’s a non-answer and a cliché, but my favorites have genuinely shifted through the course of this project so I have lots of them.
CS: Since this is a portfolio show and WAM does own the entire collection of “Women are Beautiful,” why are only a select number on exhibit? How did you make the decision to cut certain images?
NB: Yes, WAM does own the entire portfolio. Unfortunately I could only fit 68 of the 85 works into the space I had available. So I cut what I did out of necessity not desire. How I chose what to cut was really tricky. I was still agonizing about it in the eleventh hour. The first works I cut were the photographs I found least compelling either compositionally or in their narrative. After that I had to commit to my five themes and choose works that best spoke to them.
For example, I wanted motherhood to be represented in the in “Women are More” section. There were several examples of that so I limited myself to two. If I felt a photograph was redundant in subject matter, I typically tried to pick the best of the two and leave the other. There are photographs that did not make the cut that I consider stronger than some that did. But the conceptual idea behind the exhibition had to be the ultimate determinant.
CS: You’ve divided the “Women are Beautiful” portfolio into different sections, attempting to contextualize the seemingly random “snapshots” Winogrand took of women on the streets of New York City and in Los Angeles. Where do the images hung outside the gallery fit into your categories as “Women are Fierce,” “Women are Objects,” “Women are Reflective?”
NB: The hallway works are more of an introduction into the scope Winogrand’s technique and style. Those directly in front of the doors address two particular themes. One group of three considers Winogrand’s photography at beaches and pools over a generation. The other group is actually best engaged using the mobile website. I use the photographs there to compare Winogrand to the French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue who was photographing women on the streets of Paris 50 years before Winogrand did the same.
CS: “Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful” is the first official exhibition you’ve organized since becoming Assistant Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs. Congratulations! Has your title change made you approach the planning and organizing of an exhibition any different?
NB: Frankly no. My title changed only weeks before the exhibition was set to open, so I was working on this as “curatorial assistant” for 90 percent of the time leading up to its opening.
CS: This show has some similar elements to your first exhibition, “Leisure, Pleasure and the Debut of the Modern French Woman.” Both exhibitions depicted women, in many cases in the public spaces, largely through the gaze of a male artist. Do believe there are any similarities between the male artists’ depictions of women from your previous show and this one?
NB: That’s an interesting question. In both instances I think you have presentations of women who are objectified in some cases and/or empowered in others. I think a critical difference is the role of the photographer documenting real women as opposed to the other artists’ conjuring prints and drawings, even if they are based in reality. A major concern with Winogrand is that he didn’t get consent from the women he portrayed before photographing them. That’s not an issue in the 18th and 19th-century works the way it is with what’s represented in “Women are Beautiful.”
CS: This is the first time the Worcester Art Museum has relied on an app to provide information on an exhibit. What made you decide to put all label copy on an app? Do you think this will be a challenge to contemporary audiences to just look and examine the work instead of relying on a label to tell them what is important in a work of art?
NB: Our new Jeppson IdeaLab does have a media component in the form of content uploaded to a stationary tablet. But yes, this is the first application of a mobile website for any exhibition at WAM. There were a couple reasons why I decided to move that route. First, the material lent itself well to beta testing a mobile website. Because all but one photograph is by Winogrand, the template for the website could be relatively straightforward in nature.
Secondly, it leaves the walls clearer allowing for more artwork to be on the wall. I think that placing labels next to every work can be distracting and it also eats up valuable real estate for hanging. Since I already had limited space and knew I’d have to cut some works, I wanted to do everything I could to maximize the space I had.
Another benefit to the mobile website is that it allows me to present visual material to compare with the Winogrand work in a way I couldn’t do in a traditional wall label. For example I have one photograph I compare to Degas’s “Place de la Concorde.” It’s possible to reproduce a small image in a traditional label, but it doesn’t allow the close investigation a mobile website provides. Sometimes labels add “visual noise” to the walls that distract from the physical art in the exhibition. And it allowed me to really develop content around the 15 works I discussed. I think that short labels are definitely the way to go on the wall, but the opportunity to present more of the research I did was great.
CS: What would you want the average viewer to take away from a show like “Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful?”
NB: Assuming the visitor reads the modest text that is on the walls in the exhibition space, I’d hope an average viewer would be able to recognize why some people idolize Winogrand for his unique formal composition and his innovative use of conveying a narrative in photography. But I’d also hope the average viewer could recognize why some critics say some of these photographs exploit women. If visitors walk out of this exhibition conflicted about their feelings on Winogrand, I’ll consider it a real triumph.
CS: After “Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful” ends, what can the public expect to see next at WAM?
NB: The next exhibition in this department will return to prints after two successive photography shows. I’m going to do an exhibition on print processes. It doesn’t have the sex appeal of Winogrand, but I think a show like this conveys just how difficult it is to do prints, particularly multi-color prints. For example, I will present woodblocks alongside the finished print they created.
In other cases I have the color proofs and sketches used to develop a print, as in our color lithograph of “The Bather” by 19th-century French artist, Félix Bracquemond. Most of the works will be from the 20th century, but there are old masters as well. One of the studio instructors here a WAM, Randy Lasage, is an accomplished printmaker and I’m going to be asking him to assist me with this project. He’s a wonderful resource to have here at the museum.
(“Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful” continues through November 10 at the Worcester Art Museum, 55 Salisbury Street, Worcester Mass; For more information, call (508) 799-4406. You can follow Chad Sirois on twitter at @chadsirois.)