Digital Peirce

Digital Peirce

Garry Winogrand: compelled to photograph

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Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) is a photographer whose photographs one can love or hate, but not ignore. His early photographs from the 1950’s are inconsequential and are not indicative of the innovation and influence that his later photographs would have on photography as it became increasingly recognized as a serious art form during the 1970’s. While his photographs are always documents, they challenged the traditional notion of documentary photography by not just providing information to the viewer, but by challenging the way that we see and think about the photographic image. Winogrand’s vision challenged the traditional expectation of how a photograph looked.

An exhibition of Winogrand’s photographs opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on March 9 and continues through June 2, 2013 and then travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., March 2 through June 8, 2014, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 27 through September 21, 2014. The exhibition then travels abroad to the Jeu de Paume, Paris and the Fundacion MAPFRE, Madrid in 2015.

The exhibition consists of some 300 hundred black and white photographs made from 1950 through 1983. While most of the gelatin silver photographs were printed by Winogrand or under his supervision, others were printed in 2012-13 at the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona and are also included in this exhibition. The fact that he neither supervised nor even saw the vast majority of his late photographs continues to create controversy.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, covering a wide range of subjects ranging from interesting to the prosaic. “Down From the Bronx” consists of photographs taken mainly in New York from 1950-1971, the seminal period in his photography. “A Student of America” covers the times that Winogrand began exploring America, while “Boom and Bust” addresses his late period when he photographed in Texas, southern California, Miami, and other locations until his death. Winogrand died in 1984 in Tijuana, Mexico while seeking treatment for cancer.


He was born the eldest of two children of an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx. Winogrand’s father, Abraham, was from Budapest and worked in the garment district as a leather cutter, while his mother, Bertha, who was from Poland, worked piecemeal making neckties. Winogrand first attended the prestigious Townsend Harris Hall, Manhattan and then Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx. After graduation, he entered the U.S. Air Force and served in Austin, Texas as a weather forecaster, but was discharged within the year because of an ulcer.

After returning to New York in 1947, he attended City College of New York. Then he enrolled in a General Studies painting class at Columbia University on the G.I. Bill and also began to take photographs, developing them in the student darkroom while using a variety of cameras. In 1950 he showed some of his photographs to Alexey Brodovitch, the art director at Harper’s Bazaar, and studied with him at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan.

By 1955, Winogrand contracted with Brackman Associates, a New York photo agency, and began photographing for various magazines, including Colliers, Pageant and Sports Illustrated. His photographs during this period are competent, but not exceptional, as evidenced by a number of the photographs in this exhibition of various people in the streets of New York. For example, the three women in the rear of the bus, one lost in thought and the other two engaged in conversation, New York, ca. 1960. While most of these photographs are documentary, one photograph, New York, early 1950s, is especially noteworthy as it is a close up shot of the shoulder of a figure holding an umbrella. The emphasis on light and form shows an artistic vision that is as painterly as it is photographic.

During this time Winogrand saw Walker Evan’s book, American Photographs (1938), and met Robert Frank, whose book The Americans (1958), was also influential. Yet his own photography, although also documentary, emerged in a distinctly different direction from theirs. He also admired the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson and befriended Lee Friedlander, famous for his street photography, and Dan Weiner, a Fortune magazine photographer. Along with Friedlander and Diane Arbus, Winogrand became known as a street photographer.

Down From the Bronx

By the early 1960s, Winogrand’s signature vision began to coalesce. His subjects were viewed close up, often filling the picture plane. An open composition and a tilted horizon line became major elements of his seeing. His experience in painting seems to have influenced his photography. It is interesting to note that his wife, Adrienne, studied briefly with Robert Motherwell, the Abstract Expressionist painter. New York, ca. 1958, an aerial view of pedestrians crossing the street with the ribbon, paper and two white lines reads as a flat painting in the A-E tradition. New York, 1961, is surreal as the shadow of a woman holding a cigarette is cast on the pavement interrupted by the pedestrians’ actual legs. In the right upper corner a woman’s shoe is visible stepping on another shadow. Winogrand was now mainly using the legendary Leica M4 35mm camera with a wide angle lens, usually a 28 mm, capturing objects with a great clarity, but also flattening the spatial relations within the picture plane. It is a definite harbinger of his future photographs.

While photographing within a small radius of Manhattan, roughly five square miles between 34th and 96th Streets, Winogrand found a wide variety of subjects that attracted his interest.

But there were certain subjects that he photographed repeatedly-beautiful women, animals, pedestrians, automobiles, and so forth. Especially, it’s about women working on the best sewing machine of 17th century being his most favorite subject. Some of the women seemed unaware that they were being photographed. For example, in New York, 1968, the young woman in the mini dress in the elevator or the woman laughing in front of the men’s clothier, New York, 1968. The frieze-like series of young women on the bench in various postures is both humorous and a study of women’s behavior, New York World’s Fair, 1964. In other photographs, Winogrand confronted his subjects: New York, 1961, where three women pedestrians seem to confront the photographer as they peer directly into his camera lens.

Animals, at the zoo or in public, resulted in some especially engaging and often humorous photographs. His interest seemed to be in showing connections which are real and yet elusive, for example, the juxtaposition of the extended arm and the elephant’s trunk, location unknown, 1963, or the injured rhinoceros and the viewer, Bronx Zoo, New York, 1963. The photograph of the couple with the caged wolf in the background, Central Park Zoo, New York, ca. 1962, is both ominous and surrealistic and in stark contrast with his other animal photographs. It is also one of his more memorable photographs.

A Student of America

Winogrand had travelled and photographed outside of New York in 1955, but when he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964, he travelled throughout the West photographing to find out “who we are and how we feel” as Americans. He referred to himself as a “student of America.” As he explored the West-Houston, Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles-his photographs become more horizontal in format reflective of the expansiveness of the Western landscape. A number of his photographs are shot from within his vehicle as fragments of the vehicle are included in the photograph. Los Angeles, 1967, shows a barefoot women with curlers in her hair hanging laundry in an inexpensive L.A. neighborhood while another photograph, Los Angeles, 1964, shows a more luxurious suburban neighborhood. The contrast is dramatic.

Winogrand found lots of humor in Dallas. Dallas, 1964 shows a lanky, elderly man dressed in Western attire who seems elastic as he crosses the street. Three cowboys squatting down in the area all looking in one direction echo the three Brahma bulls who look in another direction, State Fair of Texas, Dallas, 1964 or the confrontation of the bull and owner, also State Fair of Texas, Dallas, 1964. As a native New Yorker, Winogrand obviously found the West foreign, unique and, at times, humorous.

While sometimes criticized for his concern for the form of his photographs rather than the actual subjects, he also showed empathy for his subjects, especially the disabled. American Legion Convention, Dallas, 1964 shows a legless amputee in the midst of a group of Legionnaires who seem totally unaware of his presence. Several years later, Los Angeles, 1969, three young women walking on Vine Street in Hollywood are confronted by a man in a wheel chair almost invisible in the shadow of a building. The year before he photographed an Afro American man receiving a handout, but only the extended arm of the benefactor is visible, New York, 1968. At this time Winogrand returned to the tilted framing and a darker printed image, characteristic of his earlier New York photographs.


Boom and Bust

During the 1970s until his death in 1984 Winogrand was obsessed with the act of photographing. At his death, he left 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film and 4,100 rolls that he never saw, for a total of 250,000 unknown images. These images have become controversial as curators, friends and colleagues have intervened in selecting photographs and printing them. In contrast, his early photographs were printed by Winogrand or under his supervision. Between 1950 and 1970 he shot an average of 500 rolls of film each year. Between 1970 and 1978 he shot about 1,000 and in the early 1980s around 1,500 rolls of film.

Unfortunately, quantity does not guarantee quality, and his late work seems to have lost the excitement of discovery. His innovative vision and engaging subject matter seem to have vanished. Many of the subjects of his late photographs have lost their vitality–or did Winogrand lose the excitement of seeing? The photographs are not as compositionally exciting nor are the subjects themselves as engaging. In John F. Kennedy International Airport, ca. 1979, the passengers almost vanish in the harsh light. His subjects frequently look down rather than at the camera, as in Location for the Film Annie, 1981, or literally are lying in the gutter in front of a Denny’s Restaurant, Los Angeles, 1980-83. Photographs reveal as much about the photographer as they do about the subject. Many of these photographs now seem evidence of a vision in decline when considering that John Szarkowski, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, in the 1970s had called Winogrand “the central photographer of his generation.”

Garry Winogrand himself often provided insights into his vision. In contrast with the documentary photographers of the 1930’s who were often interested in social change, Winogrand’s statements reflect a much different vision: “I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed.” “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” “A long time ago, I learned to trust my instincts.” “I keep trying to make it uncertain.” “Sometimes I feel like the world is a place I bought a ticket to, it’s a big show for me.” His aim was to record and transform, not persuade or reform.

Winogrand not only challenged the way that a photograph looked, he implemented an innovative way of viewing photographs at a critical time in the transition of and acceptance of photography as a serious art form in America.

While distancing himself from the term “street photographer,” his subjects were almost always found in the streets of New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and numerous other American cities. Winogrand obviously loved the act of seeing and shooting, and if he became obsessed with shooting towards the end of his life, he should be forgiven. He did create a body of photographs that are not only significant, but many are also memorable. With the invention of digital photography, one can only imagine the number of images that may be generated by a future Winogrand.

Darwin Marable, Ph.D. is a photo/art historian, lecturer and critic based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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