Apart from seeing a print or two in books on the history of photography I have had only three brushes with Winogrand’s work: the book “The Man in the Crowd, The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand” (Fraenkel Gallery and DAP, 1999), the retrospective at San Francisco MOMA (“Garry Winogrand”, 2013) and the recent PBS program (American Masters, 3306, 2019, https://kcts9.org/programs/american-masters/episodes/3306.)
His photography was the hot item at the time I was becoming serious about photography and it puzzled me. In fact, it still puzzles me.
The American Masters episode combines a good deal of Winogrand’s work with interviews and commentary by photographic luminaries and Winogrand’s three wives as well as by Winogrand himself.
The director’s statement that “His ‘snapshot aesthetic’ is now the universal language of contemporary image-making.” strikes me as considerably more than a bit too broad. One writer, Leo Rubenfien opined that Winogrand was the defining photographer of the American 1970s in the same was that Robert Frank was for the American 1950s and Walker Evans for the American 1930s. I believe that is a more accurate statement – but still not very satisfactory to me.
The “American Masters” program set me to thinking about my mixed reactions to Winogrand’s work. I went through the 1999 book (again) and read my own journal entries about the 2013 SF/MOMA show. I’m still sorting out my thoughts and I have come to some (tentative) conclusions about his work that I find more satisfactory.
Winogrand was your prototypical brassy, outspoken, pushy, often sarcastic New Yorker. He had no use for those that philosophize about photography – a position with which I whole-heartedly agree. His statement that he “photographed to see what things look like photographed” or that “Anything and everything is photographable.” are about as analytical as he got. When a critic stated to him that his work was “very subtle” Winogrand’s answer was “Subtle? My work is about as subtle as a sour pickle.” He also was adamant about being purposeful in his photographing. When asked how often he shot without looking through the viewfinder. He hotly stated that “I never shoot without looking through the viewfinder.”
Digression: It would be easy to think that he didn’t look through the viewfinder. Videos of him at work show him continuously fussing with his camera (and likely doing nothing but keeping his hands busy and looking like he wasn’t ready to take a photograph) then raising it to his eye for perhaps two seconds before going back to fussing with the camera and unobtrusively advancing the film. One tidbit from the PBS show was that he worked with a 28mm lens. That allowed him to hyperfocus the lens to get enough depth of field that, combined with his “in your face” practice of being close to his subjects he rarely had to focus – and depending on the legendary latitude of Tri-X for shutter speed left him with nothing to do but glance through the viewfinder and tag the shutter button. He had done that so often and for so long that he was able to see what was about to happen and in the 2 seconds or so the camera was at his eye get the negative – sometimes. Thus endeth the digression.
That is not to say that Winogrand was an unpleasant person or that his taste in photography was narrow. All the interviewees in the PBS show seemed to have warm regard for him. Robert Adams, landscape photographer and writer about photography says: “Garry Winogrand’s subject was, I now believe, also perfection, though many of his street scenes appear to tip under the weight of roiling confusion – so much so that for a long time I did not appreciate his accomplishment. I even wondered if I would like him in person, though when I met him one afternoon at a conference in Carmel I certainly did, as anyone would have. He was cheerful, ardent, and without pretense. … After Winogrand died, a mutual acquaintance told me that he had said he wanted to make pictures related to mine. I could hardly believe it because our work seemed so far apart …” (Robert Adams, “Why People Photograph”, Aperture, 1994, pp18, 19)
In the following paragraph Adams noted “he was accepting of complexity in a way that I admire.” (op cit, p19)
And that statement, after several more leaps of thought, kind of turned on another light bulb for me. I propose that Winogrand was one of photography’s equivalents of the great Louis Armstrong. In the world of jazz there are a handful of musicians that are respectfully called “horn changers” – that introduced a new way of using an instrument. Armstrong was one of them – probably the best known outside of jazz circles. Before Armstrong came on the scene small group jazz was almost exclusively that of collective improvisation by the entire ensemble reacting to what else was going on and hoping for the best. (Playing that way is really fun, by the way.) Louis Armstrong introduced the notion of featuring a single instrument, trumpet in his case, improvising a melodic line with the ensemble reacting to what the soloist was playing. He added a new way to play jazz – but by no means invalidated the older way nor did it become a universal language for future jazz musicians.
Winogrand’s “accepting of complexity” (I would say “chaos” or “disorganization”) was in a way a reaction to the then-gospel notion of “the decisive moment” (more accurately translated as “images on the run”) pioneered by the great Henri Cartier-Bresson. Did Winogrand invent the snapshot aesthetic? Well, no. Every family album full of 4x6 prints on glossy, deckle-edged paper has lots of them. What Winogrand did do was to take that style of photography from the (private) family album to the (public) arena. Did he add anything? Well, yes. He was very good at what he did. And he took it there to an extreme that could never be matched until the dawning of the digital age. His thousands of rolls of film are no match for the billions of photographs on photo-sharing websites now.
I also quarrel somewhat with his statement that he “photographed to see what things look like photographed”. He left thousands of rolls of film, many not even developed, when he died. In that way he could be compared to the much less famous Vivien Maier – who also left a lot of undeveloped film when she died and seemed to be obsessed with leaving a record of the world around her.
Which brings me around to the SF/MOMA Winogrand show of 2013 and the much smaller Photographic Center Northwest show of Vivien Maeir, also in 2013.
The SF/MOMA show was about half of negatives that Winogrand selected and either printed or were printed under his direction. The other half were selected after his death – by friend and fellow photographer Tod Papageorge and printed by Tom Consilvo, who printed for Winogrand during the last decade of his life. The great John Szarkowski, who championed Winogrand’s work from the beginning, commented that he felt Winogrand’s later work, largely from Los Angeles, was losing its edge – an opinion that was hotly debated at the time. I agree. In my opinion neither the content nor the print quality had quite as sharp an edge as the prints from negatives that Winogrand himself selected. Whether that reflects a change in Winogrand or, in my opinion more likely, the difficulty of going through thousands of somebody else’s negatives and trying to second guess what Winogrand would have selected and how he would have printed them.
Vivian Maier made few prints during her lifetime and was, it seems, an indifferent printer. Her show was made from negatives selected by a person who had never even met Maier and was printed by a master printer using his own judgment.
Both shows were a peek into the world in which the photographer lived – one the uneasy streets of New York and Los Angeles and the other the gritty streets of Chicago’s south side and snooty streets of an upscale suburb.
In discussing Winogrand’s work with my wife she noted that in a way both of these photographers may have been trying to record and even make sense out of the world around them and that the eventual artifact of a print was a side effect. The act of photographing may have been the important bit – almost in the way of a hoarder or perhaps a diarist trying to compile a record of their life and times.