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Color Theory: Garry Winogrand at the Brooklyn Museum

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“You don’t learn anything from repeating what you know,” Garry Winogrand says before stuffing hundreds rolls of film wrapped in clear plastic bags into an unlabeled filing cabinet in a non-descript office somewhere in Los Angeles. The clip is from a 1982 episode of ‘Creativity with Bill Moyers’ that plays on loop at the Brooklyn Museum in an alcove just outside the gallery space where slide projectors click and hum through a rotation of rarely seen slides by a photographer known for his tack sharp black and white street photography. Exiting the main gallery, I wondered more than anything what Winogrand had learned from shooting in color, and how a photographer as agile and perceptive as him found ways to translate his talent to create entirely different, but wholly recognizable images.

“Garry Winogrand: In Color” has been on display at the museum since early May, and has been extended through early December, which, given the incredible amount of physical space that’s dedicated to the exhibition, is impressive. It’s an all consuming experience that starts with a subtle nod to the format that dominates the show: color transparencies. A single slide projector sits at the entry to the main gallery, rotating through a small assortment of the 45,000 color images Winogrand produced between 1950 and 1960. It serves as both a reminder of the analog roots of the exhibition, literally and figuratively putting the process on a podium, and an autonomous artifact foreshadowing what’s to come.

The scale of it all hits you first, as the relative smallness of the lone slide projector makes walking into the exhibition space that much more overwhelming. Massive images are projected on both walls of the gallery, with a bay of benches in the middle. Colors pop and flip with the clicking and whirring of the projectors, flashing images of street scenes, carnivals, county fairs, diners, and other slices of mid-century Americana. Organized chronologically, and in pairs, you move through the exhibition in a zig-zag pattern until you reach the end, with slides cycling through at an unsynchronized pace all around you. It’s a dizzying experience, but one that I think helps bring a sense of controlled chaos to the work, mirroring the conditions where Winogrand thrived – dense, fast, bright, and loud.

In what I’ll reluctantly call a curatorial palate cleanser, the show ends with a short but thoughtful collection of black and white work, and the aforementioned video. Admittedly on my first visit I largely ignored it, thinking that I knew what I needed to know about Winogrand’s most famous images. But on my second visit, I sat down and watched that video, and heard him talk about his process. Shooting constantly, often with two cameras hanging from his neck, he produced an unprecedented amount of images that are only just now starting to be uncovered. So I looked again, and what I saw surprised me. The black and white work was raw, topical, subversive, and direct. Even among all the flashing colors and vivid lights, the color images felt quieter, sharper, elegant and carefully composed. These are, of course, some of the fundamental differences between color and black and white, but Winogrand, always seeking a challenge, tried everything both ways. The fact that it works nearly every time only proves that his vision rarely faltered.