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Book Review: Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967


Book Review Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967 By Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Reviewed by Blake Andrews But this book serves another task which is possibly even more important. It's the long overdue exhibition catalog which, due to logistical issues, was never published for the show, nor in the fifty years since. Finally, this is it.
Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. 
Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister.
The Museum of Modern Art, 2017. 
 
Arbus Friedlander Winogrand
New Documents, 1967
Reviewed by Blake Andrews.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967.
Photographs by Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander. Text by Max Kozloff. Editor and Text by Sarah Hermanson Meister.
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA, 2017. In English. 160 pp.

Take a trip with me down memory lane for a moment, back fifty years to the era of John Szarkowski. As head of MoMA's photography department, he reigned for nearly three decades as — to borrow his own turn of phrase — the central curator of his generation.

The recent book Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967 might come in handy here, for it's a time machine of sorts. The book returns the reader to the winter of 1967. "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out" was in its infancy, the Summer of Love was just around the corner, and John Szarkowski was only a few years into his curatorial career. He was still growing into his position at MoMA, yet already beginning to press his own views on photography. His The Photographer's Eye exhibition in 1964 showed hints of separation from his predecessor Edward Steichen, but that was just the beginning. Szarkowski was itching to lay his mark, and with 1967's New Documents he did just that. In one fell swoop he broke the scene wide open and laid the groundwork for what was to come: Eggleston, Windows and Mirrors, Figments of The Real World, and everything between. But first things first. February 28th, 1967, New Documents opened at MoMA.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

What was "new" about New Documents? In short, the documentary gaze was turned inward. If Steichen's approach was symbolized by The Family of Man, an exhibition which subjugated authorship to a universalized social awareness, Szarkowski "directed the documentary approach toward more personal ends. Their [New Documents] aim has been not to reform life, but to know it." To drive the point home, he'd cooly plucked from the pile three photographers who'd turn out to be among the most talented in America.

Of course, Arbus, Friedlander, and Winogrand weren't the first to value internal exploration over activism. Weston, White, Callahan, and Sommer had all pioneered the territory, among many others. What the new generation promulgated was a focus on the "social landscape," as it would soon come to be known. Using small, handheld cameras in the street tradition, they captured fleeting moments, strangers, shadows, and other found elements in public, then translated this material photographically into psychologically probing frames which spoke less about the world than about their creators.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

From the perspective of the contemporary world in which memoirs, selfies, and executive self-absorption are normalized, such an approach may not seem radical. But in early 1967 the "me" generation hadn't yet happened. Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism was still more than a decade off. Not only had Szarkowski's curation indirectly anticipated these later developments, it seemed synchronized with the 1960s cultural revolution. Seismic shifts were underway in all parts of society. Szarkowski stuck photography's watershed moment smack-dab into the mix.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

The new book from MoMA works from the get-go to root the reader in 1967. The cover's stenciled typeface, borrowed from the original exhibition font, seems retro by current standards. Then come the end-pages which replicate blueprints of the 1967 exhibition layout. Szarkowski's original typewritten wall label from 1967 follows, then a snapshot of the venue from 1967. Before the reader knows what's happening they're fifty years in the past, and this feeling continues throughout the book, from various exhibition checklists, to contact sheets from opening night, to news clippings showing reviews from the time period. It's a smorgasbord of background material from the time. Clearly the author —Sarah Hermanson Meister— has done her homework, and it shows. She's created a rich historical document.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

But this book serves another task which is possibly even more important. It's the long overdue exhibition catalog which, due to logistical issues, was never published for the show, nor in the fifty years since. Finally, this is it. And what a treat it is! Browsing the core of the book, many of the photos will be familiar to casual fans of Arbus, Winogrand, and Friedlander. They became well-known in later years. But what's even more fun is the sizable batch of obscure material here.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

Arbus was the queen of psychological portraiture. Even in 2017, her transsexual subjects are riveting. How must they have looked fifty years ago? More striking? In any case, her oeuvre was somewhat established by 1967. But for Winogrand and Friedlander, this book is a look into their early development before their styles had solidified. The spark of Winogrand's absurd worldview is faintly visible, as is Friedlander's restless struggle with banality. But neither photographer had yet matured. In fact, their photo selection seems rather spotty, and I doubt the same photographs would've been chosen in hindsight. Perhaps the unifying trait is that all three photographers —influenced by Walker Evans— are concerned with display, artifice, the presentation of image, and how it is translated photographically. That Szarkowski was able to spot their future potential, then consolidate this mixed bunch into a sweeping photographic statement is a credit to his curatorial skills.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

It's ironic that Szarkowski's name doesn't appear on the book cover, for New Documents, 1967 is about him as much as the three photographers exhibited. For thirty years he was MoMA's photo department. Yet surveying the fine art photo scene today his influence is clearly in remission. The style of found serendipity and direct indexicality which Szarkowski championed is still widely practiced, albeit mostly among the amateur crowd. But it's now just one strain in an increasingly crowded pastiche of photographic approaches, and not a very prominent one. This includes MoMA where, if Szarkowski-influenced photography is exhibited now, it's generally treated as a historical artifact.

Arbus Friedlander Winogrand: New Documents, 1967. Text by  Max Kozloff and Sarah Hermanson Meister. The Museum of Modern Art, 2017.

One aspect of New Documents 1967 that has remained sadly locked in its time period is the reproduction quality. Book printing has come a long way in the past fifty years, but there's little sign of it here. There is a general lack of tonality that lets the material down. Perhaps this is an attempt to remain faithful to the time. A catalog published in 1967 might very well look like this. But it's 2017. Contemporary readers demand more, and why shouldn't they have it? Perhaps readers can suffice if they imagine themselves in a time machine while thumbing the pages. — Blake Andrews


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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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