Back to Black

Yesterday, I went to see Starburst, the blockbuster exhibit on color photography from the 1970s at the Princeton University Art Museum. (Stay tuned for my story on this.)  I am reading the catalog foreword by Aaron Betsky, director of the Cincinnati Art Museum (where the exhibit originated), where he says: “The photographers whose work appears in this exhibition looked neither at the studied poses of the beautiful nor at the anguished expressions of those caught in poverty, but at the bland, the everyday, the normal, that which was around them everywhere.”

And it made me think of Out of the Ordinary that just closed at the Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick. That exhibit looked at the work of Larry Clark and Garry Winogrand, two black-and-white photographers who were capturing these every day moments before the dawn of color in art photography. These make nice companion exhibits, and if you missed Out of the Ordinary at the Zimmerli, here’s what I wrote about it:

AS I sit in traffic, thinking about all the lost jobs and cutbacks of this recession, I keep expecting the world to turn black and white, just like those old photos of the Great Depression – grainy images of streets filled with people in tattered clothes, waiting in a bread line. Somehow, as long as the trees are still green, the cars blue and red, and the double line dividing the road bright yellow, it seems we’re going to be OK.

Now that our phones can make movies, and some people even obsessively photograph their food for blogs, it’s worth taking a trip back in time, all the way back to the 1960s, to look at some of the earlier practitioners of documentary photography.

Eugene Atget, Berenice Abbott, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Robert Frank were documenting the world in the first half of the 20th-century: Paris, New York, Alabama, Detroit. The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick is exhibiting the black-and-white photographs of people in everyday life in Out of the Ordinary: Photographs of Garry Winogrand and Larry Clark, on view through July 11.

Messrs. Winogrand and Clark adopted a less formal style than the aforementioned photographers: no longer were the images carefully composed portraits of people on their porch or buildings lit at night. These photographs were taken on the street, or in the privacy of people’s homes, and it was more about knowing just when to snap the shutter.

Mr. Winogrand is quoted as saying: “Most photographs are of life, what goes on in the world. And that’s boring, generally. Life is banal, you know… Well, that’s what’s interesting. There is a transformation, you see, when you just put four edges around it. That changes it. A new world is created… I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” = 1217998800) && (nAdsysTime = 1263535200) && (nAdsysTime = 1265868000) && (nAdsysTime = 1267164000) && (nAdsysTime = 1269320400) && (nAdsysTime = 1270184400) && (nAdsysTime = 1270530000) && (nAdsysTime = 1270789200) && (nAdsysTime = 1270789200) && (nAdsysTime = 1271307600) && (nAdsysTime = 1274763600) && (nAdsysTime = 1274850000) && (nAdsysTime = 1276146000) && (nAdsysTime = 1276664400) && (nAdsysTime = 1277096400) && (nAdsysTime = 1277442000) && (nAdsysTime = 1277960400) && (nAdsysTime = 1277960400) && (nAdsysTime = 1278046800) && (nAdsysTime = 1278997200) && (nAdsysTime
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The works on view come from the museum’s collection. “We do have a small photography collection, and thought it would be useful to get more visibility,” says Marilyn Symmes, director, Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and curator of Prints and Drawings. “We are increasingly teaching more photography, and I wanted to show we have important photographs in the collection. These portfolios haven’t been shown in their entirety here before.”

Both photographers document daily life in America, – “Both are portraying candor, honesty, no judgment, ‘this is what I record'” – but Mr. Winogrand is more interested in the public arena and urban settings, whereas Mr. Clark goes inside the American heartland.

Mr. Winogrand moves through city streets, his subjects unaware of what he is up to. He would shoot continuously, and then go back and print the interesting juxtapositions of unrelated people, says Ms. Symmes. “It’s his eye that makes the photograph interesting. These are ordinary moments you may or may not notice. You may create a narrative, or maybe it’s public theater that engages us because we are interested in what is going on or composed. In a second it could be gone, but now it’s frozen in time.”

Mr. Winogrand published Women Are Beautiful in 1975, and wrote “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.” The photographs in his 1980 series WOMEN ARE BETTER THAN MEN, NOT ONLY HAVE THEY SURVIVED, THEY DO PREVAIL challenge stereotypical notions of beauty and glamour.

Seen here: a large middle-aged man, shirtless and headless when seen from behind, hunches over to commune with an older woman, whose wrinkled face and lugubrious eyes look up to his as his arched body seems to shelter her with kindness; two women in fancy hats, dressed to the nines, wait at a street corner, while a man stands behind them, seemingly devoid of expression or feeling, as if he needs to be led on a leash; in a stylish outdoor café, a white mother and daughter are seated at a table, the mother sucking on a cigarette, as a black mother and daughter approach, the mother dressed in white and smiling behind Jackie-O sunglasses, as the daughter shoots a look to the seated girl: friend or competitor? Women do indeed prevail!

Larry Clark, born in Tulsa, Okla., studied photography at the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, then returned home and began photographing his teenage friends: seeking thrills from drugs, sex and guns. Clark is quoted as saying: I wanted to present the way kids see things, but without all this baggage… You know… they’re living in the moment, not thinking about anything beyond that and that’s what I wanted to catch. And I wanted the viewer to feel like you’re there with them…”

All the images in “Tulsa” are related, and they seem to tell a story. (Don’t take drugs: it will kill your baby!) They were shocking for their time, and even today there’s a parental advisory on the wall before the gallery. “They were shattering heartland America, breaking the rules, tempting fate,” says Ms. Symmes.

“Both Clark and Winogrand are considered major figures of American photography and have influenced younger photographers with disparate views of documenting America. In a university setting, students and professors explore all aspects of American society and its problems. It prompts students to consider the society they will be contributing to. It’s not all pretty, but a microcosm of what exists in the news, a poignant moment.”

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