Review: Karsh and Winogrand – both shows in Washington and both revealing.

April 02, 2014  •  2 Comments

Review: Karsh and Winogrand – both in Washington and both revealing.

There are two exhibits here in Washington that every photographer must see – at least to understand the huge distance that spans 'people' photographers. One exhibit is the first of two separate shows of works by Yousuf Karsh, the famous Canadian portraitist that is at the National Portrait Gallery. The second is a major retrospective of the work of Gary Winogrand at the National Gallery of Art until June 8th when it goes to the Met in NYC.

I love seeing lots of work by one artist in one place at one time. It gives me a chance to see how his/her style holds up across time and work and, more importantly, it allows me to see styles that persevere. Anyone can get lucky once and have a great piece to show, but to persist across time and content with greatness means that there is talent and creativity not just chance.

The Karsh exhibit is in the North Hall at the National Portrait Gallery. Of course it is a beautifully lit space and, since I was there in March, most of the tourists were still huddled at home and the crowd was thin enough that you could stand and look ad lib.

Karsh's work is so technically perfect that the fact one is looking at a posed portrait just fades and you see the subject as Karsh has posed them, in a stance and situation that usually informs the viewer of the specific energy of the person. Each portrait has a richness and detail that somehow ennobles the subject.

My favorite of those shown is a portrait of painter , Georgia O'Keefe, who was the wife of Alfred Stieglitz the photographer. This work shows a rather austere but somehow gentle O'Keefe, sitting close to the door of a Southwestern style house. Above her head, sharing a large portion of the frame is a large deer skull and antlers, a motif found in many of O'Keefe's paintings of the Southwest.

This painting exhibits one of Karsh's favorite posing tricks, the emphasis on hands. In a large proportion of Karsh's portraits, the subject is posed and lit so that the clothes are subdued and unimportant while the hands are well-lit and share an emphasis with the head. That gives an impression of vigor and strength to the portraits.

 

Interestingly Krash's famous portrait of Hemingway  is a head and shoulders and, in my opinion, is much weaker for that, certainly less imposing and less meaningful than most of Karsh's other work.

The other show, and the one that really impressed me, was a retrospective of Garry Winogrand's work, 20 years after his death.

Before you actually look at Winogrand pictures, get  a better perspective on Winogrand, by first reading an excellent article on this show by Phillip Kennicott, the arts critic at the Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/in-garry-winogrands-photos-an-america-of-perpetual-motion-and-bottomless-hunger/2014/03/06/c96db872-a568-11e3-a5fa-55f0c77bf39c_story.html .

The Wingrand show is really large, more than 150 images, taking up four rooms of a large u-shaped exhibition space on the first floor of the West Wing of the National Gallery. The fifth room, in the cross-piece of the 'U', is permanently set up as a theater and shows, on continuous loop, a ten minute film of Winogrand at a lecture/discussion in 1987.

If you get to see this show, for the best understanding of Winogrand it is really useful  to pass right through the first two rooms of photos and watch the ten minute film first, before you look at any of his pictures. Winogrand talks, not about individual pictures, but about how he sees his photography. The film is enlightening and there are some really important points made that are vital to understanding Winogrand and his work.

If Karsh is the consummate perfectionist with his technique, Winogrand is all but dismissive of technical issues. 'The technique of photography is easy. A bit over-exposed, a bit under-exposed, as long as you can get a print.' He says that he wants to remain invisible. He wants not to impose his ideas and judgments, let alone his presence, on any scene. He never dealt with pictures; he was happy to take the pictures and then leave them behind. In fact, he died with some hundreds of unprinted rolls and two hundred exposed but undeveloped rolls of film. Some sixty of the prints shown in this massive retrospective have never been printed or seen before.

Now go back to the beginning of the exhibit and look at his pictures.

There is an interesting paragraph in the Washington Post that describes his work, “His work often seems on the verge of spiraling out of control, sometimes aesthetically from the emptiness of the space, the tilt of the camera or the superabundance of visual data, and sometimes because of the content, which hints at anarchic dramas, the possibility of violence, even confrontations between the subject and photographer that are never made clear. The essential Winogrand photograph says: There is more going on here than I’m going to tell you.”

And from the description of the show on the NGA website http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/exhibitions/2014/winogrand.html

“Endlessly curious, Winogrand scrutinized both cities and suburbs, always on the lookout for those instants when happenstance and optics might join to make a good picture that exposes some deep current in American culture. “

Both of these quotes ascribe some deeper, broader intent on Winogrand's part to show something specific, to create a statement.  That he intends to explore cultural issues may be pieced together by looking at his work in retrospect but any general intent is denied in both his writing and his answers in that filmed interview.

Winogrand said that it was a real challenge to find a subject that was interesting in itself and make a picture that was even more interesting - and that is the key to looking at his photos.

Everything I read or see about Winogrand tells me that his skill, and his joy, is to see that interesting something going on, trapped in the chaos of reality, and then to capture it. What he sees is what is going on wherever he is. He puts himself in places and situations to see things. He goes from specific interest to specific interest for the pictures, not for the trends. Pictures and most of all 'interesting things' are what he looks for not an illustration of cultural tides, the exposing of anything,

In virtually every picture in that show, I could find something off-beat, something out of phase with the rest of the scene, something that caught Winogrand's eye and mind and that he caught on film. His joy was not the investigation of anything, the display of a meaningful cultural event.

He was a genius, like Cartier Bresson, in instantly seeing and dissecting what he saw in time to catch it on film. Once he caught it on film, he was no longer interested in it any further – and that explains the thousands of unseen frames he left behind.

Not all of his pictures are 'big' pictures, powerful pictures, meaningful pictures. Some are just of little things but still with that piquancy of being out of phase – and with no answer, immediate or ever.

My favorite picture from that show isn't reproduced anywhere but it is in the book that essentially details this retrospective. Winogrand's idea, that even in a picture of something interesting the photographer must find something more interesting to show, is really demonstrated here. The viewer's eye is drawn to the little boy, seen between the larger people in the crowd. We notice the dark liquiod stain on the ground and then the hat and then, over at the side, subordinate to the main subject, we see the body.

It is difficult for any of us mortal photographers to comprehend the insight and speed that Winogrand displays here, seeing that scene, then picking out the boy as an even more interesting shot and then catching that shot before the moment disappears. I admit that, before this show and looking through the book, I was relatively disinterested in Winogrand's work, I didn't 'get' it and I just assumed his work and he work just a product of the in-groupp of New York critics. After seeing this show, I was converted and I regard him now as an amazing brilliant shooter.

Incidentally that book, 'Garry Winogrand' edited by Leo Rubinfein, is a must for both the pictures and the very interesting and insightful text.

Do not miss this show; if you are able and interested buy the book.

There is a fairly extensive collection of his, and many others', work at Artsy.net

 

 

Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits
November 1, 2013 through April 27, 2014

National Portrait GalleryEighth and F Streets NW, Washington, D.C. 20001

 

 

Garry Winogrand – Retrospective – through June 8, 2014

National Gallery of Art,between Third and Ninth streets along Constitution Avenue NW

 

 



Comments

2.Derrel Nonayerbusiness(non-registered)
"a ten minute film of Winogrand at a lecture/discussion in 1987"...

Garry Winogrand died in March of 1984.
1.Dr. Ted Grant(non-registered)
"Karch & Winogrand"
This is my first look over of the PHOTOFORUM and much to my surprise the opening post had a spelling error in the name of one of the world's most famous portrait photographers!
Yousuf karsh of Ottawa, Canada. Unfortunately now deseased.

However may I suggest if it is possible to make a correction in the name may I ask it be done so. Thank you most kindly.
cheers,
Dr. ted
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