Works by two innovative photographers who are credited with redefining the narrative potential of the camera take center stage at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick. The assembled images offer contrasting, occasionally entertaining, and at times disturbing views of life in these United States. In “Out of the Ordinary: Photographs by Garry Winogrand and Larry Clark” the viewer is taken on a pair of intimate graphic journeys that begin with Winogrand’s focus on the unacknowledged charm of the everyday streetscape and conclude with Clark’s sobering close-up of the darker world of the youthful drug addict in the American heartland. Selected from the museum’s photography holdings, the assembled works raise questions about the boundaries between the public realm and individual privacy as they offer vivid close-ups of often-private aspects of daily life. The exhibition remains on view through July 11.
To some degree, the featured photographers make strange artistic bedfellows. Winogrand, who died in 1984, was known for his direct and unassuming portrayal of American life, an enormous body of work that fondly transformed the often overlooked into objects of social and emotional significance. For most of his life Winogrand, who began his career as a freelance photojournalist, roamed the streets with a 35mm Leica camera rapidly capturing his surroundings with a prefocused wide angle lens and, in the process, translated a view of the unremarkable into a moving graphic document. While Clark essentially followed the same artistic path in building a “snapshot” document of the world around him — what he saw and also what he did — he offered a view of a life that few of us would otherwise see — a frequently disturbing close-up of the tortured world of teenage sex and drugs.
Despite the stunning contrast in content, Marilyn Symmes, director, Morse Research Center for Graphic Arts and Curator of Prints and Drawings and organizer of the exhibition says that there are important connections between the two bodies of work, that in some ways the respective portfolios complement each other. “There are many things that tie these works together. Most important each in their way is a reflection of the human condition.”
In addition, Symmes points out that each, in its own way, functions as a lesson in how to look. “Seeing them together is instructive. It teaches you about looking. The two photographers show us — from their respective viewpoints — what we think we already know but never really see.”
According to Symmes, another link between the two bodies of work can be found in the simple declarative nature of the content. “There are no judgments made regarding the nature of the subject. There is frankness and honesty but they also reflect appreciation of humanity,” she says. “That in itself is significant.”
While Winogrand had a long and successful career, and Clark, who is equally regarded, continues to work today, the assembled images mark a beginning and an end. Clark’s photographs are drawn from his earliest work, a body of essentially autobiographic images that stirred up the world of documentary photography when they were first published as the book “Tulsa” in 1971. The Winogrand photos are from his final series, “Women Are Better Than Men; Not only Do They Survive But They Prevail” (1980). Like much of his work, this collection functions as a virtuoso introduction to the inherent charm of the everyday as it celebrates its subject, challenging stereotypical notions of beauty and glamour. Symmes say that the pairing of a first and a last major work offers an additional perspective for the viewer, one she describes as “a kind of artistic continuum.”
Winogrand synthesized the documentary and photojournalist traditions. His work is marked with a quality of immediacy learned while working for almost 20 years as a freelance photojournalist for such major publications as Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Look, Life, Carriers, and Pageant. Having mastered his trade he brought a form of journalistic narration to a medium that, until then, had centered on the frozen moment.
Winogrand was a voracious collector of the random passerby. He spent his days recording telling moments in a seemingly casual, “snapshot” format. In the process, he gave understated but profound meaning to a world made up of anonymous people caught in the everyday on the street, in shopping malls, museums, political demonstrations, athletic events, and airports. He usually caught his subjects off guard, oddly juxtaposed against backgrounds that further defined them. And his presentation brought a strong sense of immediacy with the inclusion of odd angles and often surprising croppings — an arm, the top of a head, the bottom half of a torso — camera use that until then was considered unprofessional.
In the assembled collection we are able to share Winogrand’s fondness for his subject as he easily conveys the nobility of their daily lives in an unassuming format. In one of the most telling examples we see a street scene with a pregnant mother and small child, with the little one partially obscured by her mother’s gravid abdomen; an image both caring and like many of his works, full of happiness.
“Women have always been important to Winogrand,” says Symmes, pointing out that the earlier series, “Women are Beautiful,” published in 1975, also celebrated the contemporary urban woman while questioning how the meaning of the subject is affected by everything else within the frame.
In an interview that took place in the 1980s Winogrand talked about the manner in which the process of making a photograph gave new weight to the content. “Putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it. A photograph is not what was photographed, it’s something else…It’s about transformation.”
In a surprising parallel, we are also able to share Clark’s profound connection with and feelings for his subject in “Tulsa,” a collection of grainy, black and white images taken in his 20s while hanging out with local teenagers shooting meth-amphetamine, posing with guns, and having sex. He has described the scene in simple terms: “We all took a lot of drugs; my friends got into crime, and I was kind of an outlaw back in that period myself…”
Symmes stresses the fact that despite the sordid nature of a good deal of the content there are no value judgments here. Instead this work functions as a simple narration with a very personal, often difficult story to tell. She describes this as an intimate view of the photographer’s friends that few people would ever see were it not for his art.
Clark has always been a story-teller. Known for his raw and contentious photographs, he was practically born with a camera in his hand. His mother was an itinerant baby photographer and Clark himself was enlisted in the family business by the time he was 13.
He burst into public consciousness with “Tulsa.” When the book first appeared it drew serious attention for both its content — something dramatically new — and for the quality of the images. While it was especially shocking at the time Symmes says that the years since its publication have softened its impact. “He did this a half century ago. Today we can look at it with new eyes, In part, it’s different because the shock value has softened. People are numbed by violence. We are now able to view it as a portrait of late adolescent rebellion.”
The display of images from “Tulsa” concludes with a small sampling of work that documents the photographic process. The final prints are shown in conjunction with a display case containing contact sheets with the photographer’s marks; a rare and telling view of the final artistic selection that also gives us a brief look at the images that got away.
Clark has continued to use the camera to make a personal statement on urgent social issues pertaining to the darker side of youth culture. He is especially focused on the perils and vulnerabilities of adolescent masculinity.
His ongoing concern with his subject and his profound connection with photography have ultimately led him to film — an equally controversial body of work — that continues his autobiographical focus on teen sexuality, violence, and drug use. In “Kids,” Clark’s most widely-known film to date, boys portrayed as being as young as 12 are shown to be casually drinking alcohol and using drugs. His credits include “Ken Park,” “Another Day in Paradise,” and “Bully.”
“Out of the Ordinary,” Zimmerli Art Museum, 71 Hamilton Street (corner of George Street), on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Photographs by Garry Winogrand and Larry Clark. On view to July 11. “Printmaking and Photography Techniques.” Ongoing exhibit. 732-932-7237 or www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu.