Harpies at the Met

A review of the Garry Winogrand retrospective at the Met, through Sept. 21

Garry Winogrand; El Morocco, New York; 1955

I’d like to think that I would have been a good ‘60s child, but the truth is that I would skip Woodstock for a chance to mingle with the midtown Manhattan middle classes a decade earlier. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed the hazy air and free love. On second thought, if I’m being really honest, I would have hated it. I would much rather spend an evening at a supper club listening to conversations over the quick tempos and bouncy two-steps of society dance bands. I’ll take classic negroni and fox-trot with a man in a suit. Flower children hold little appeal for me.

The retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work at the Met confirmed my suspicions. The first thing you see is a blown-up image of a couple dancing at El Morocco, an exclusive club on East 54th. By exclusive I mean that Carino, the head waiter, could turn you down for lack of fame, connections, or charm. Winogrand’s photograph shows a woman laughing with hysteric, almost malicious enthusiasm while digging clawed fingernails into her partner’s suit. And I thought — I would have made a great harpy that night in 1955. I would put on a show for Garry.

And that’s what everyone did in the ‘50s — put on a show. Winogrand’s work plays into the veneer of glamour we now associate with the decade, but rather than portraying a world stifled by suits, coiffs, and furs, he shows us quirks made all the more delightful by their rarity. There’s a strong currant of savagery and predation that runs through the civilized streets, like that screeching monkey in the back of a convertible on Park Avenue.

Maybe the ‘60s and ‘70s are best viewed in color. Maybe the buzz didn’t translate frame-by-frame, or people couldn’t be bothered to put on a show anymore. But Winogrand’s photographs lose their spark after the first half of the ‘60s. You can detect disillusionment creeping into his views of California and Texas, where the open streets fail to set up a stage for his subjects. Obviously a street photographer can only work with what he’s given and Garry had a lot more to play with in the beginning of his career.

You could say that midtown Manhattan in the ‘50s was a little too stilted, a little too fake. A veneer ready to crack. But that’s what makes it so appealing, even if you know it’s a trap. For those of us who have sharpened our enthusiasm into a weapon subtle enough to pass for the real thing, the zebra striped banquettes in El Morocco seem like the perfect place to play our games.