Something that brought me up short while looking at Carrie Mae Weems’ exhibition at the Guggenheim was seeing Garry Winogrand’s photograph “New York City 1967” appear twice in the backgrounds of two of her works.
You know the photo. Fifth Avenue, late afternoon, beautiful light: an interracial couple (blonde woman in gold earrings and paisley scarf, man in tie and jacket) holding a pair of monkeys dressed in children’s clothes. Winogrand includes himself in the frame as a shadow cast on the man. At the bottom right of the frame, behind them we see an “actual” (White European) child dressed in a coat with a velvet collar and matching hat, holding an unseen hand.
In Hilton Als’ brilliant essay “Animals and Their Keepers: Garry Winogrand and Photography After September 11th”, he writes “….That Garry Winogrand confronted our fear and distrust of these two “different” groups in a single image more than 30 years before the fact was not noticed. But it can be seen now, in the most controversial image in “The Animals.”…. In projecting what we will into this image—about miscegenation, our horror of difference, the forbidden nature of black men with white women—we see the beast that lies in us all. “ *
It’s an interesting photo, summing up with visual acuity and wit the fears and confusions of an era of change and revolution. It’s also totally offensive and racist as hell. I remember seeing it when I first discovered Winogrand's work in school in the 1970s, and reacting to it with a smirk. Embarrassed now, that I’d thought it funny; but in hindsight understanding my own ignorance. (Racism needs to be un-learned.)
In The Kitchen Table Series, (1990), the photograph in question appears in the background of the second image of the narrative. In this image, a woman (CMW herself, representing everywoman) sits at a table with a man, playing cards and smoking cigarettes. It is an image about equality, in relationships and power. Winogrand’s photo is subtly pinned to the wall behind the woman, one of several images surrounding a large photograph of Malcolm X, hand raised. The juxtaposition could be a reminder of how the greater photo world (in which Winogrand was canonized) saw race relations.
The Winogrand photo appears again as part of From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried –this time in a more overt and more obvious manner, as both subject and subtext. This work is an installation of single images, in different configurations. Most of the photographs are framed in black with circular*** black mats protected by red glass, etched with white writing. The shape and form is like looking through a microscope at blood-stained slides. Many of the images come from found historical sources: anthropological libraries and post-Civil War family archives.
“Some laughed/ long & hard & loud” appears near the end of the series. The text is etched over Winogrand’s photo, which is cropped into a circle, under the red glass. That Weems includes Winogrand's photo here, placing it in the context of historical racism is shrewd and stunning.
In talking about the power of photography, Winogrand said: “It’s got its own thing. That’s really what photography, still photography, is about. In the simplest sentence, I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed. Basically, that’s why I photograph, in the simplest language. That’s the beginning of it and then we get to play the games."**
Carrie Mae Weems doesn’t play the same games. Or with the same rules.
She’s outfoxed the foxes and run away with the prize.
By the way, the 2004 reprint of The Animals, while still containing Szarkowski’s introduction and the “order of the original images” does not contain this image. Interesting right?
**(“Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult – A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand” (1970) transcribed by Dennis Longwell 1970
*** Weems uses the circle and text in many of her works, including the very astute “Not Manet’s Type” (1997), which is comprised of self-portraits in circular mirrors, with text below the photos.
Photographs © Carrie Mae Weems
Winogrand photograph © estate of Garry Winogrand
All writing © Ellen Wallenstein All Rights Reserved