Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967, ed. Sarah Hermanson Meister

JTF (just the facts): Published by the Museum of Modern Art in 2017 (here). Hardcover, 9 1/3 x 10 4/5 inches, 168 pages, with 147 black-and-white and color reproductions, $45. This is an historical analysis/recreation of the 1967 MoMA exhibition. Edited by Sarah Hermanson Meister, who also wrote the main essay. Additional materials include a new essay by Max Kozloff, along with his original review in The Nation (along with reviews from other contemporary publications), installation shots, full-page photos of works in the show (as well as reproductions of color slides by Winogrand that were accidentally destroyed), a checklist, a roster of guests invited to the opening (and photos of the event), as well wall text by and correspondence from the curator John Szarkowski. The end papers of the catalog are diagrams of the exhibition’s dimensions and the position of each artist’s work within it. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Museum curators and gallery owners know that when they put up a temporary art show the best chance of a return on their investment of time, money, labor, scholarship, and jive is a printed catalog. Most art hangs on walls or sits in a room for a few weeks or months, and after a decade is remembered only by the artist and a cluster of friends. Without proof on paper that a show existed, the odds of its becoming a victim of mass amnesia only increase, even in the digital age.

Catalogs, of course, are no guaranty that an art exhibition will survive in memory. In order for that to happen, it should also be lauded or solemnized by the media, preferably by a critic in Artforum or the New York Times.

One of the curious aspects surrounding New Documents, the exhibition of 94 photographs organized by John Szarkowski at MoMA in 1967, is that it enjoyed neither of these advantages. There was no money for a catalog, only a fold-out brochure, and the reaction to the work in the press was distinctly mixed. The flat-footed and rather prissy New York Times review by Jacob Deschin gave no hint that Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand might be at the vanguard for a new generation of photographers. The show was on the walls of the museum for only a few months (February 28-May 7, 1967). Not until years later did it become like the Newport Folk Festival concert in ’65, when Dylan went electric: an event that more people would claim to have attended than could possibly have been there.

How the exhibition achieved its mythic status as among the most important of the last half of the 20th century has been something of a mystery, one that Sarah Hermanson Meister’s engrossing reconstruction tries to answer. Her essay, along with the archival materials found in the back of the book, adds salient facts (as well as purely entertaining ones) to the broadly understood outlines of the story.

For instance, historians have long noted that Nathan Lyons organized a similar exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester. Toward a Social Landscape (1966-’67) featured works by Friedlander, Winogrand, Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyon, and Duane Michals. What’s more, it also had a small catalog in which Lyons wrote about “the snapshot as an authentic picture form.”

But it was news to me, until I read Meister’s essay, that the curator Thomas Garver was also thinking along these lines. A month before New Documents opened in New York, his 12 Photographers of the American Social Landscape—which included work by Davidson, Friedlander, Lyon, Michals, Robert Frank, Ralph Gibson, Warren Hill, Rudolph Janu, Simpson Kalisher, James Marshael, Philip Perkis, and Tom Zimmerman—opened in the Rose Museum at Brandeis University near Boston. This show, too, had a catalog and an essay.

So more than one curator was aware that the times they were a-changing during the early-to-mid ‘60s and that American photography was edging away from journalism or nature studies and toward a more detached, bemused, absurdist, suburban, and individually sponsored documentary.

What the two concurrent shows by Lyons and Garver lacked—and this may ultimately be the simplest explanation for the renown of Szarkowski’s at MoMA—was Diane Arbus. New Documents was the first and only time during her life that a group of her photographs was given expanded and respectful display in a museum.

Szarkowski tried not to play favorites in his selection—each artist exhibited roughly the same number of prints (30-32)—and in his treatment of Arbus he may actually have wanted to redress previous neglect. At the time of the show, MoMA had only 7 prints by her, whereas they owned 19 by Friedlander, and 17 by Winogrand. Aged 43, she was also the eldest of the three, 5 years older than Winogrand, 11 years older than Friedlander.

The prominence given to her work in New Documents, however, must have been striking then and is even more apparent in the diagrams and photographs of the installation in this book. She had a room of her own, whereas Friedlander and Winogrand were forced to share theirs. A blow-up of her portrait, Teenage Couple, Hudson Street, N.Y.C., 1963, greeted visitors as they walked into the exhibition. Her younger male colleagues had no such visibility or opening credits except their names.

Both of her biographers, Patricia Bosworth and Arthur Lubow, have commented that Arbus received an inordinate portion of the press’s attention. To read the collection of reviews, reprinted here in the back pages of this book, offers an even more dramatic sense of the unfairness in the coverage. Virtually all of it was devoted to Arbus, with Friedlander and Winogrand mentioned only in passing. As Meister notes, only a review by David Vestal in Infinity magazine bothered to reproduce an image by either of the men.

It was shrewd of Szarkowski to present Arbus in a context where her confrontational, sardonic style of portraiture could be understood as distinctive, even unique and yet connected to what amused or intrigued Winogrand and Friedlander about the crazy ugly beauty of America. They were not three unrelated photographers; they were fiercely ambitious comrades in arms.

Had Szarkowski done an all-male show—and he could have chosen a photographer more obviously like Winogrand, say, Eliott Erwitt, born the same year, in 1928—it’s doubtful that New Documents would be regarded as a landmark. The inclusion of Arbus launched her as a star, and gave the same boost to Szarkowski, who was now viewed as a discoverer of talent that other curators had ignored or missed.

Meister’s detective work has uncovered fascinating details about another aspect of this show that has enhanced its aura: the carousel of 80 color transparencies projected within the section devoted to Winogrand. As these images were never entered on the show’s official checklist, and 11 of them burned up or were damaged during the exhibition, she was forced to reconstruct the work as best she could through research in the Winogrand archive at the CCP in Tucson.

The sample from the list of 80 that she has identified, while not definitive, is convincing. Winogrand’s admirers have wondered for years if art history might not have taken another course if these slides had been widely seen and appreciated. Specifically, would William Eggleston’s one-person show of color prints have arrived in 1976 as such a shock to the art world? (My opinion is that Winogrand never committed himself to color and that Eggleston’s strange eye was his own, his taste shaped in no small way by emulating the three photographers in New Documents.)

One of the dispositive artifacts dug up by Meister is an internal memo from Szarkowski in which he discusses compensation to Winogrand for the loss of the destroyed images, some of which must have been irreplaceable. “He suggested $100 per slide, which I consider to be a fair estimate of their value,” wrote the curator—an evaluation that at the time was probably generous.

As diverting social history about the photography world of MoMA in these years, Meister also reproduces the invitation list for the opening on Feb. 27. It runs from “Miss Berenice Abbott” and “Mr. Richard Avedon,” to “Mr. Roy DeCarava” and “Mr. Nesuhi Ertegun,” to “Mr. William Paley” and Winogrand’s father, as well as his two children.

Arbus provided an annotated list of names and addresses of her own, including ones for Hiro, Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Bernstein (“Famous”), Gloria Vanderbilt, Frank and Barbara Stella (“Painter and critic”), and Eddie Carmel (“He is a young Jewish giant I am pursuing to photograph, a very touching guy”), and Marty Forscher (“who fixes all our cameras.”)

“I’m not greedy,” she wrote to Szarkowski’s assistant. “I just want it to be a good party.” Reprinted in the back of the book are contact sheets by photographer George Cserna, who attended the event and recorded the ’60s confluence of social classes and personalities that Arbus and Winogrand glorified in their pictures.

How many people actually saw New Documents, either the original installation or in the reduced version that traveled to 14 venues around North America, from September, 1967 to July, 1969, will never be known. These were some of the most volcanic years in the history of the ‘60s—with riots, assassinations, be-ins, violent opposition to a military draft that coerced young men to fight an unpopular war half way around the world, as well as humankind’s first moon landing, and enduring music by the Beatles, the Doors, the Velvet Underground, the Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix.

The photographs in the MoMA show registered none of these seismic changes, except as faint rumblings. None of the three artists is ever likely to be featured in a CNN packaged history of the decade, a fateful condition that perhaps has amplified their standing as art rather than illustration.

About the new generation of documentary photographers he had observed in the last decade, Szarkowski wrote in his wall label: “Their aim has been not to reform life, but to know it. Their work betrays a sympathy—almost an affection—for the imperfections and frailties of society. They like the real world, in spite of its terrors, as the source of all wonder and fascination and value—no less precious for being irrational.”

I have listened to the grumblings of more than a few curators from outside New York who believe that their shows never received the acclaim they deserved because their museums didn’t have the funds for a catalog or their local media lacks the clout of Manhattan’s.

New Documents didn’t require either to become a classic. All it needed was Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, and John Szarkowski. This illuminating and necessary history is one that the show could not have afforded at the time and has always deserved.

Collector’s POV: Since this is an historical exhibit recreation (of three now well-known photographers) and not a new show, we will dispense with the discussion of gallery representation and secondary market history that typically appears in this section.

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Read more about: Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Terrific read, thank you.

    In the mainstream art world I suspect this show remains largely irrelevant and from it Arbus is probably the only name that would register. If only one could have achieved that level of acclaim/interest, it is justifiably her. Even amongst the photography world Szarkowski has long been out of favour, seen as old-hat by academics. Winogrand has long been marginalised by critics, curators, and intellectual charlatans on charges levelled at him of being sexist, racist and for showing political indifference during the protest era. Friedlander seems to retain a position of respect in the photo world, not harmed by his creative output which has been extraordinary in the intervening years. Long may you run. Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus.

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