Stephen White, Los Angeles, California
Gift to Akron Art Museum, 1990
1997 - 1998: "A 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Collection" 11/15/97 - 1/11/98, Akron Art Museum
Centennial Ball, Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1969, from the Women Are Beautiful portfolio, 1969–80 (printed 1981)5
Collection of the Akron Art Museum
In 1969 Garry Winogrand received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to make a photographic study of "the effect of the media on events"; he later titled the resulting series Public Relations.1 He photographed all sorts of public spectacles, from press conferences and political demonstrations to fancy-dress parties such as the 1969 Centennial Ball at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where this photograph was taken.
The focal point of the image is an attractive young woman showing off her physical charms in an outrageous costume. A feathery boa, the most prominent feature of her attire, appears to endow her with angel's wings, which likely would be shed by evening's end in the wearer’s pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh. Winogrand's camera has captured not only the woman's exuberance but also others' reactions to it; for example, in the awakening of interest (and perhaps desire) on the part of the man at the right side of the image and the surprise (or annoyance) on the face of a woman buffeted by the feathers.
The photographer's own reaction is more ambivalent; his pictures are often "both a slam and an embrace."2 Centennial Ball, Metropolitan Museum, New York certainly has immortalized a woman's youthful beauty. Winogrand included this image in a body of work entitled Women Are Beautiful as well as in his Public Relations series. "Whenever I've seen an attractive woman," he wrote, "I've done my best to photograph her. 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."3
While the image is a paean to the woman's beauty, it also somewhat meanly pokes fun at her exhibitionism and at the evening's excesses. The ball was an important occasion for those with a heightened sense of social performance; people attended it to see and be seen. Winogrand's technique exaggerated the artificiality and sense of facade. Using high-speed film, which allowed him to freeze awkward, but revealing, fleeting expressions, he may have shot five or even twenty exposures of a brief interaction to capture that one decisive moment. Winogrand's use of a flash and a wide-angle lens at a close range flattens the figures so that they appear to be pressed against one another. Physical proximity, however, does not denote intimacy here. These people seem to be strangers, unconnected emotionally to each other and to the photographer.
The practice of photographing strangers on the street or in other public situations without their permission, and often without their knowledge, can be traced back to the late nineteenth century.4 Initially such shots were considered documentation or photojournalism. By the 1940s fine art photographers purposely began to adopt what had been considered drawbacks to this use of the medium—the awkward or irregular compositions, the grainy image quality—and to turn them into stylistic virtues. In the late 1950s photographers such as Robert Frank (see pp. 134–35) overlaid on this style a distanced, ironic attitude. Similar cynicism and alienation, undoubtedly an aspect of American culture at the time, can be found in the Beat Generation and in "rebels" such as James Dean and the young Marlon Brando.
Winogrand discovered his personal voice when he found street photography. Whatever his degree of physical proximity to his subjects, Winogrand retains a sense of distance in his images. It is not surprising that he should have been interested in the impact of the mass media. In his photographs, the photographer and the viewer are always spectators, never participants.
- Barbara Tannenbaum, 2001
1. From Winogrand's Guggenheim application, quoted in Szarkowski, 32. See also Leo Rubinfien, "The Man in the Crowd," Artforum 16 (December 1977): 33–37.
2. Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), 382.
3. "Winogrand on Women," in Winogrand (1975), not paginated.
4. The development of smaller cameras and faster films and lenses made street photography possible. For a history and analysis of this way of working, see Westerbeck and Meyerowitz.
5. The museum's print is from a portfolio of Women Are Beautiful images produced in 1981 by RFG Publishing.
Fraenkel, Jeffrey, and Frish Brandt, eds. The Man in the Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand. With an introduction by Fran Lebowitz and an essay by Ben Lifson. San Francisco: Frankel Gallery in association with Distributed Art, 1999.
Szarkowski, John. Winogrand: Figments from the Real World. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988.
Winogrand, Garry. Women Are Beautiful. New York: Light Gallery Books, 1975.
———. Public Relations. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977.