In an Era of Selfies, Is Straight Photography Art?

Friday, August 22, 2014

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928 – 1984). "Coney Island, New York," ca. 1952. (The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Businessmen walking on the streets of Midtown. Couples swimming at Coney Island. Women with teased hair and cat-eye sunglasses.

Thousands of regular Americans were captured by the lens of late photographer Garry Winogrand between the 1950s and 1984. He is now the subject of a major retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum  —  and it reminds us, among other things, of the virtues of the style known as "straight photography."

For art critic Deborah Solomon, it's about time. She explained that today’s most famous photographers, such as Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman or Andreas Gursky, are all “staged” photographers. “They resented the street aesthetic or the documentary approach because they wanted to show that all photography — even the most seemingly real — is an illusion,” she said. “They thought it was silly to pretend that documentary photography offers truths.

Cindy Sherman in her 2007-08 series.

Solomon believes Winogrand’s retrospective at the Met shows the power of straight photography. “He provides us with a moving chronicle of people who look familiar to us, and they look like our parents and our grandparents circa 1960. This is New York before Starbucks and cell phones.”

And it proves that straight photography is indeed art, even in the present era, when everyone is a smart-phone photographer. “Garry Winogrand never took a selfie,” she said. “I think we have a lot to learn from this show, about focusing our gaze on sites beyond ourselves.”

Do you agree? Do you think straight photography can be art? Can photojournalism be art? Join the discussion.

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles 1980-83


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Comments [7]

Rick Bruner from Brooklyn

PS: Please have your tech staff confirm this page is compatible with the Chrome browser (which I believe has the biggest share of browsers in teh US at this point). I tried repeatedly, but pushing the "Post Comment" button did nothing. I had to open FireFox in order to submit my comment.

Aug. 22 2014 05:20 PM
Rick Bruner from Brooklyn

I heard this piece this morning and was flummoxed. While admittedly I wasn't familiar with the term "straight photography" and was having to listen close to discern if you were saying "straight" or "street photography," I couldn't conceive how anyone could consider the work of people like Brassaï, André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, not to mention the phenom of the moment Vivian Maier to be not art. I don't know if you'd consider Nan Goldin or Diane Arbus or even to be "straight photographers," as there may have been more deliberate portraiture, but the each seemed to work in naturalistic setting with available light. Or Arnold Newman, father of "environmental portraits," also working with people in their natural environments and, what to my eye anyway, seems to be mostly available light, or at least an aesthetic that suggests that. I have great respect for Cindy Sherman, but that anyone would argue that you have to manipulate the process and contrive the scene in order to call photography art seems ridiculous to me. In fact, the whole question of "what is art?" seems anachronistic. Is John Cage's "4'33" art? Was Duchamp's "Fountain" art? What about "outsider art"? I mean, come on. Isn't "beauty in the eye of the beholder"? If someone tells me that Brassaï or Kertész weren't artists, I'd say they are a knucklehead.

Aug. 22 2014 05:18 PM
Deborah Solomon from Art critic, WNYC

Hi everyone,

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Rosie: I LOVE Winogrand and Robert Frank and street photography and I hope the piece conveyed that. Perhaps I wasn't clear enough?

Rachel Klein: No, I do not have an instagram. I am on Twitter, at @deborahsolo, and tend to tweet out a lot of images.

Daniel: I agree with you. There are stories galore in Winogrand's images. When he said his pictures were "about nothing," he probably didn't mean it literally. I suspect he was trying to distinguish his work from the sort of photo-essays that appeared in the '50s Life and Look. Many of those pieces were overly cute and anecdotal. Winogrand, by contrast, didn't want his stories to have a clear beginning, middle and end, and he certainly wasn't interested in moralizing.
That said, I find enormous romance in his work, which seems to say (to borrow a song title): UNBREAK MY HEART!

Be well.

Love, Deborah

Aug. 22 2014 10:46 AM
Rosie from New York

I think Deborah really discredits the contemporary straight photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries and the trends that they've started, such as Bill Cunningham's street fashion photography and Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York series. Both photographers create art out of the every day, and it's quite "straight"-- maybe the exception is when they ask for permission to take the photo, thus alerting the subject to the photograph.
Is the problem that they're not featured in the Met, but rather the style section of the New York Times or on the internet? That raises a question of accessibility-- does it have to be featured in a museum to be considered art?

Aug. 22 2014 08:42 AM
sahadev from New York

As an inspiring photographer, I would say all sort of photography are sort of art.However, what's in the frame matters.

Many of us don't see artistic elements in someone's else art works and similarly many of us don't see art in photography. If you are creating photography with an artistic vision or if someone can see it with artistic vision I would say straight photography is art and again what's in the frame matters.

Aug. 22 2014 07:53 AM
Daniel A. Mikhailov from New York

In the realm of taste, all things being equal, natural always trumps manufactured.

If you look at wedding photography, the photographs that get the most "Likes" on Facebook are more often the ones that capture the "decisive moment" best, not the staged ones. The art is in the photographer's composition of that decisive moment. It could be manufactured to an extent, but if it happened naturally, it's always going to be more appealing.

And I couldn't disagree more that Winogrand's photos are about nothing. There is a story in them, more pronounced to some than other, but there is a 1,000-word story for each nonetheless. That's the beauty of (good) photography.

Aug. 22 2014 07:52 AM
Rachel Klein from nyc

Hi Deborah- In just the past few months, there have been several "straight photography" exhibits enjoying well deserved space on museum walls - this summer alone we have Winogrand and Aaron Rose (Museum of the City of New York). There is nothing like a perfectly captured moment, and yes I understand the argument that "straight photography" can be cropped and manipulated - but so what? Cropping out noise isn't a bad thing just like taking a photo at just the right angle isn't a bad thing either - it's artistic. I also see the vintage/nostalgia value to many of these photographers - like Weegee, Brassai, Levitt, etc., Winogrand used his eye and camera to make indelible memories. That's what art is!

PS - Do you have an instagram?

Aug. 22 2014 07:48 AM

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