Mass Media’s Martyr: Reassessing Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand: World's Fair, New York City, 1964. © Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

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Garry Winogrand’s career ended with a unique act of renunciation. When the photographer died of cancer in 1984, at the age of fifty-six, he left over 2,500 rolls of film undeveloped and another 4,000 processed, but not contact printed: in all, roughly a third of a million frames. It’s a prodigious bequest, even for a voracious eye that took in some of the great subjects of its age—racial integration, the gendering of public space, media saturation—yet also one that has made for an uncertain legacy.

Two recent reappraisals of Winogrand’s life and work—by documentarian Sasha Waters Freyer and British writer Geoff Dyer—throw new light on why postwar America’s most intuitive photographer lost faith in the public dimension of his practice.

In Waters Freyer’s Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable, which premiered at Film Forum in New York on September 19 and appears in PBS’s American Masters series, gracefully choreographed pictures share the screen with footage of Winogrand’s many lectures and homemade 8mm films. Waters Freyer imbues the photographer’s life with the arc of a national narrative. Born in the Bronx in 1928 to a working-class Jewish family, Winogrand was part of the generation that moved from the outer boroughs to Manhattan in the years following World War II. After a brief stint in the Air Force, he enrolled in a painting program at Columbia, before dropping out to work as a photojournalist at glossy magazines like Collier’s, Men, and Pageant (suffocating all the while from their insistence on bland narrative illustration). Off-duty, Winogrand prowled the five-mile stretch of Fifth Avenue between 34th and 96th Street, the prime hunting ground for the budding generation of street photographers who often jostled and bumped into one another in pursuit of the decisive moment.

If his greatest influences, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, depicted a country that was abject and unjust but hopeful, Winogrand photographed one that was off-kilter, careening through the sixties and the seventies, the Sexual Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement. Not satisfied simply with adopting a wide-angle, 28mm lens, Winogrand began tilting his frame, thus adding the diagonal slant that seemed to characterize a country tipping over from its own unchecked momentum. In one well-known photograph, taken at the New York World’s Fair of 1964, six young women sit on a bench, their legs crossed in chaotic harmony; at the ends sit a young, black man in khakis and an older, white man in a suit. The jumble of limbs and shielded whispers, of political and personal narratives, embodies the interweaving of public and private spheres that characterizes the best of Winogrand’s practice.

Possibly as a reaction to his photojournalistic work, Winogrand was reluctant to speak about the “meaning” of his photographs, preferring to focus on matters of form and technique. This ambivalence belied his penchant for politically fraught subject matter, best represented, perhaps, by an iconic photograph from his 1969 book The Animals, of a strikingly beautiful, interracial couple holding baby chimpanzees at the Central Park Zoo. Yet, as many critics have noted, it’s the deliberate ambiguity of this photograph—their serious expressions, the middle close-up—that makes it an image of cutting satire about fears of miscegenation, the collapse of the family.

Women are Beautiful (1975), a collection of sidewalk portraits taken mostly in New York, is his most controversial book. Although Winogrand was undoubtedly enthralled by feminism and its revolutions in dress and body language, he was never able to separate his own, sexualized voyeurism from a sympathetic interest in his subjects. The result is an inherently muddled collection, in which Winogrand has a tendency, even in his pictures of women’s marches, to reduce real grievances to the sighting of bared breasts in the bra-burning era. Waters Freyer’s considered, judicious treatment of Winogrand’s central contradiction adds tension to the otherwise conventional American Masters format, with several interlocutors like art historian Shelley Rice, curator Erin O’Toole, and Laurie Simmons coming to terms both with Winogrand’s objectifying impulse and his eye for political resonance within daily life.

 

In many ways, Geoff Dyer—the author of a history of photography, an extended reflection on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, fanciful vignettes on jazz, and several collections of travel writing—should be the ideal critic for Winogrand’s hurried, dexterous style. Both men honed their distraction into a fine art. The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (2018) is an excellent example of Dyer’s perceptive, if impressionistic observations: burnishing Winogrand’s lesser-known color photography with a “ghostly, lovely bit of blue” or pointing out the many visual puns Winogrand reveled in, like a quartet of elderly women promenading past a heap of bulging trash bags. Dyer’s breezy prose isn’t for everyone, but it’s well suited to the book’s form: a selection of one hundred photographs, each accompanied by a description of two or three paragraphs.

What this book of snatched glimpses lacks is an interrogation of the vantage point of the street photographer. Winogrand often admitted wanting “not to exist,” so as to take in the unfiltered world like an Emersonian transparent eyeball. But, as Simmons notes in Waters Freyer’s film, he needed the confidence of invisibility in order to capture the rush of public life. Dyer does write persuasively about Winogrand’s “ballet of the glimpsed and the unseen, the concealed and revealed”: his pictures of men looking at women, and of female subjects confronting the viewfinder head-on. Yet more often than not, Dyer ends up reinforcing the male gaze, rather than explicating how Winogrand dissected it. In his writing, women are still “crushes,” “girlfriends,” or “battle-axes,” objects to be desired, possessed, or shunned.

Responding to the rise of media culture in the ‘70s, photographers of the Pictures Generation—including Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine—effectively took the picture out of its frame, examining the ideologies of gender and race that went not only into representation but also into spectatorship and circulation. It’s important to situate Winogrand within this larger context. Indeed, in his most significant project, 1977’s Public Relations, he powerfully captured the presence of an increasingly ubiquitous media: at press conferences, state dinners, centennial balls, and exhibition openings.

One gets the sense that, at the end of his life, Winogrand became reluctant to bring more images into the world, but couldn’t give up the habit of seeing, framing, and documenting. Hilton Als once cautioned against the impulse to canonize “St. Garry of the Lens.” It’s a useful way, nevertheless, to imagine an artist whose last pictures—of lone figures receding in the background, scenes glimpsed through the windshield, a woman collapsed in the street—speak of martyrdom in the age of mass media rather than renunciation, a patron saint of the crooked eye and the furtive glance.