All things photographable: Garry Winogrand, the ultimate street photographer
posted Thursday, May 9, 2013 at 4:34 PM EDT
Once upon a time a photographer such as Garry Winogrand could walk down a street and photograph freely. He could use a wide angle lens and shoot from just a few feet away from his subjects -- a practice that's considered a veritable invasion of privacy today. Back in the 1950s and 60s people who noticed that they had been photographed would simply smile and perhaps even strike a pose, or maybe they'd just continue on their way. Winogrand took thousands of street photographs in cities around the world during his career, and he helped put street photography on the map as an art form. Yet following his death in 1984, his work, unfortunately, began to fade from view.
Now's the time to revisit this master street photographer. Through June 2, 2013, a sprawling interactive retrospective of his work is on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMa). A boisterous, extravaganza of sound, video and still photography, the exhibition is as lively as the streets Winogrand photographed. After San Francisco, the show travels next year to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, then the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Jeu de Paume in Paris.
If you live within a thousand miles of one of these venues, I implore you to go see Winogrand's work up close and personal. You will not be disappointed. Don't believe me? Get a taste of what you'd see at the SFMoma show by watching this video.
The search for America
I think I understand Winogrand because we have a lot in common. We both grew up in predominantly Jewish working-class neighborhoods in the Bronx, New York, and we both attended the City College of New York and the New School For Social Research. Although he was a decade older, I think that we were both drawn to street photography as children of immigrant families. The Bronx was a place full of first and second generation “American” kids who were straddling two cultures -- America’s and Eastern Europe’s.
Paul Simon said it best in his song “America,” we've “All come to look for America.” Born to immigrant parents in New York in 1928, Winogrand was an American kid who grew up in a foreign country at home. When you're striding these two worlds, you never fit into either one very well, and Winogrand went out into the street to get his bearings.
This searching for identity differentiates Winogrand’s work from photographers such as William Eggleston, who came from an old Southern family. Eggleston’s work is elegant while Winogrand’s is free-wheeling and far more energetic. Winogrand once, astutely, said, "Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed."
In Winogrand's thousands of images, you can taste his search for America -- especially in his early work, which is a visual metaphor for a nation whose “streets are paved with gold.” His imagery is droll and humorous, never caustic or harsh. He never makes a joke at the expense of his subject. In contrast, many of us who were younger than Winogrand went into the streets more embittered. For us, we weren’t looking for America but for evidence of existential rot and urban decay.
Winogrand is lighter than that. His first book, The Animals (1969), is comprised of images taken at the Bronx Zoo and the Coney Island Aquarium. The work is whimsical and strange. The boundary between humans and animals is thin at best, and Winogrand’s sly eye catches not “decisive moments,” but “what the?” moments.
In his book Women Are Beautiful (1975), Winogrand celebrates women as no one else before had done. His images are not hyper-beauties, but rather the “real” women he simply spotted on the street one day and photographed.
"I don't know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful," he said, "but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs."
Winogrand was part of the golden age of street photography, and in those days before Vietnam and (long before) 9/11, you could photograph people openly without being accosted or arrested. There’s a great video of Winogrand that shows him shooting on the street, and it's amazing to see how warmly most people reacted to having their pictures taken.
"All things are photographable"
Winogrand photos reflect a kind of innocence -- a wide-eyed, sense of wonder at a world full of amazing things. He is a boy with a camera in a candy store and he goes crazy photographing everything.
His eyes, of course, were much bigger than his stomach and when he died he still had some 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, some 6,500 developed but not proofed exposures, and contact sheets from about 3,000 rolls. Clearly it was more fun for Winogrand to take the photos than to process and print them.
In Winogrand's day, the street was a much freer and friendlier place than it is now. He didn’t have to carry around a pocketful of model releases or worry about facing a lawsuit. It was an open and optimistic moment in America and it fit Winogrand’s style. After all, he was just looking for America, happily laughing on its kaleidoscopic streets not taking names.
Or as he put it, “The world isn’t tidy; it’s a mess, I don’t try to make it neat.”
(Images used courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art)