Visual Arts

Ordinary Oddities

It's no secret that photography is the art form most practiced by the masses. And because any Joe Blow with a pulse can push a shutter-release button on a camera, we've been subjected, ad nauseam, to the dreaded snapshot. I automatically think "bad amateur" when I see a clumsily composed image with focus that's null and void or a head lopped off by the top of the frame.

Touring the Phoenix Art Museum's "Garry Winogrand: Four Edges and the Facts," an exceptional celebration of his illustrious photography career, I was struck by the spontaneous qualities in his images. Several of Winogrand's black-and-white works include the apparently accidental faux pas of including a shadow of his head in the foreground or soft-focused subjects.

But that's the idea. Winogrand documented urban and rural people in an improvisational manner rather than capturing pretty photographs. The focus is on content, not composition. But unlike your buddy's haphazard camera-phone snaps, Winogrand's gift lay in his ability to recognize that split second when the planets align for the "decisive moment" — the golden rule of photographers.

One of the best examples in this show is a nameless and dateless silver gelatin print of a bagpiper in a bathroom. The fluorescent lighting isn't particularly becoming, and, on an individual basis, neither is a bunch of nasty porcelain urinals or a kilt-wearing Scotsman. But by combining the two and adding a twist — Winogrand persuaded the man to play the instrument while being photographed — the context elevates from the ho-hum to the bizarre, and we're left with a classic Winogrand juxtaposition.

The display of 58 prints includes five vivid color coupler images printed posthumously from a selection of more than 30,000 slides found after the photographer's 1984 death from gall bladder cancer at age 56. A stunning image of a little boy aiming an orange water pistol at a jogger, who vanishes into a shallow depth-of-field cityscape, is especially teasing and left me wondering why there weren't more color works in the exhibit.

But overall, "Four Edges and the Facts" succeeds because the show serves as a reminder that the camera is not only a documentation device. It's also a tool that can pull the extraordinary from the ordinary.

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Steve Jansen
Contact: Steve Jansen