May 15, 2009

NYU prof analyzes power of photography

New York University Professor Ulrich Baer explored the nature of inclusion and exclusion in the world through the works of Garry Winogrand, Hannah Arendt, and contemporary photographers Tuesday evening, in a lecture at the Cochrane-Woods Center.

Baer, who presented slides of Winogrand’s photography, began by questioning the “difference between the world and the different social worlds.” According to Baer, there is the physical world that anyone can inhabit, but there is also the world of meaning in which people interact in a variety of separated social worlds regardless of their location.

Winogrand's work, Baer said, showed the unifying influence of cities. “He was an optimist who believed in the democratizing potential of big cities.” Baer presented Winogrand’s photograph of strangers on a bench at the World’s Fair to prove this point, noting the different types of people sitting in close proximity.

Baer also used Winogrand’s bench photo to relate his work to Hannah Arendt’s, who said that the world outlasts us and is a common meeting ground. “Life for Arendt is not unlike Winogrand’s bench,” he said.

In photography, Baer said, worlds have the potential to come together because everything is in the same plane. He then showed first the flirtation between two people on Winogrand’s bench—two worlds coming together in love—and then the famous picture of Elizabeth Eckford from Little Rock, AR, in which two segregated worlds come together in hatred.

In contrast to Winogrand’s optimism, Baer presented the works of contemporary German photographers such as Andreas Gursky, who believes one can photograph the entire world, rather than just what is in it.

Although the conceptual differences between the artists presented remain largely unresolved, Baer stressed the use of photography in finding answers. “Photography is particularly important to investigate these questions,” he said.