Art review: 'Streetwise: Masters of '60s Photography' at the Museum of Photographic Arts
“Streetwise: Masters of '60s Photography,” at the Museum of Photographic Arts, contains a fair number of indelible images: Garry Winogrand’s confounding shot of a stern-faced, mixed-race couple out for a day at the Central Park Zoo, each partner balancing a chimp in children’s clothing on one hip; Danny Lyon’s gorgeous, tragedy-tinged picture of young black prisoners in Texas, backs bent in syncopated rhythm over a cotton field; Bruce Davidson’s view down onto the utterly calm and contained face of a civil rights protester being dragged across brick pavement by faceless men in badges.
There are more too, but overall “Streetwise” is oddly inert, never quite summoning the energy of the era it aims to represent. Neither broadly comprehensive nor tightly focused, the show features nine photographers, with Robert Frank serving as ‘50s forerunner for the work of Diane Arbus, Ruth-Marion Baruch, Jerry Berndt, Lee Friedlander, Ernest Withers, Winogrand, Lyon and Davidson. Organized by MoPA director Deborah Klochko, in consultation with critic and curator Andy Grundberg, the exhibition is accompanied by an attractive but equally unsatisfying catalogue.
If change and redefinition are operative terms to describe the culture and politics of the '60s, so too do they apply to the medium of photography during those turbulent years. The boundaries between documentation and storytelling, personal observation and professional reportage became increasingly porous.
The photographers here are documentarians of this new sort, and street photographers too, if you zoom out on the label, as Grundberg does in his essay, so that street photography is less about location than approach -- “one that prizes chance composition, an engagement with social reality, and the unfettered, subjective reflexes of the photographer.”
Frank is given homage as prime progenitor of the mode, and 10 pictures from “The Americans,” his road-trip essay on varieties of estrangement, are intended to set the tone for the show. Unfortunately, they are among Frank’s quieter images, relatively light on social friction, so the exhibition starts off with more of a gurgle than a bang.
What follows is a period sampler of art born of equal parts curiosity and indignation, images that negotiate the relationship between individual freedoms and collective power. The dynamic between the one and many threads through the show, in photographs like Davidson’s, of the protester whose tranquil expression anchors the scene even as it reverberates outward like a question demanding an answer.
Or “Texas” (1965), Friedlander’s visual summation of segregated society, showing a smiling white man and child on one side of a sign reading “Private Keep Out,” while a black woman passes in blurred profile on the other. Or the Withers picture of a mass of striking sanitation workers, each holding high a sign proclaiming “I Am a Man,” on what turned out to be Martin Luther King Jr.’s last march.
Racial inequity and the civil rights struggle dominate, as far as social issues go. Indications of other conflicts central to the era—over Vietnam, for instance, or women’s rights—are absent. Where the show lags as a history lesson, it shines as a dysfunctional family album. Berndt shoots a wannabe pimp with endearing pathos. His image of a prostitute alone in a pizza parlor has all the tender desperation of a Hopper painting. He toughens up other images of Boston’s red-light district with noirish, inky shadows and grainy blur.
Winogrand is a master at chronicling the everyday, unrehearsed theater of the absurd, snapping powerful and powerless with equally merciless wit. Arbus homes in on unconventional sorts, fringe characters like “Jack Dracula, the Marked Man,” whose tattooed body reads like a scrambled lexicon of Americana. Her picture of a man dressed as Uncle Sam, standing in a desolate alleyway, is an incisive portrait of individual and collective delusion. These are among Arbus’ lesser-known images, and the group is not consistently strong. Baruch’s heroicized portraits of members and leaders of the Black Panthers contribute to the story of the '60s, but feel out of place alongside work with more editorial edge.
“Streetwise” nibbles at the piquant feast that is '60s photography. In ironic contrast to much of the assertive, impassioned work within, the show as a whole comes across as tempered and tame.
“Streetwise: Masters of '60s Photography,” Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego, (619) 238-7559, through May 15. www.mopa.org
Photos: Top, "Texas, 1965" by Lee Friedlander. Above: "Hooker in the Window of the King of Pizza, Washington Street, c. 1am, the Combat Zone, Boston, MA, 1967" by Jerry Berndt. Credits: "Texas: 1965," © Lee Friedlander, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco Collection of the Museum of Photographic Arts. "Hooker" © J. Berndt 1967, courtesy the artist