A billboard on a passing bus announces a major retrospective of America’s greatest photographer of urban life. Above it, riders sit at the windows, caught in a fleeting moment of distraction not unlike those in Winogrand’s own images. In the right corner, a young blond woman looks down at a book, or more likely, this being 2013, her iPhone screen. Another young blond woman, shown on the exhibition ad below, looks in the opposite direction. This fortuitous juxtaposition and the even more unlikely fact of a major museum traveling exhibition of more than 300 of Winogrand’s photographs, almost 30 years after his death—would have seemed both inevitable, and pure happenstance, to the genial yet morose, public yet reclusive, artist.
Winogrand’s death of gall bladder cancer at 56 in Tijuana, Mexico was as unpredictable as the images that he made while walking the streets of New York, Dallas, Albuquerque, Tucson or Los Angeles. Gallery owner David Fahey, a close friend, had lunch with the photographer in Los Angeles shortly before his death in mid-March, 1984. Winogrand’s main health issue that day seemed to be an elusive itch on his forearms. It is somehow fitting that a man, who so lived in the moment while walking the streets with his always-present Leica, should have been so unconcerned of his own eruptive mortality.
Winogrand breathed the heady air of the instant of image creation. He was not a master of the fetid, dank air of the darkroom, his undeveloped Tri-X cassettes being mute testimony to his near indifference to printing. Many have said, not harshly, that he was the quintessential voyeur. It is as if there was so much life being lived in front of his lens that it had to be caught. So, more than an observer, it is fair to say Garry Winogrand was a collector: a collector of life on the fly, a photo-lepidopterist, of life so fleeting that its very elusiveness was hypnotic. Someone had to record it, why not he?
Today, in a culture more and more obsessed with choreographed and manufactured public life, bleeding faux dramas all over social media—it is this single, schlumpy man who, moving largely unnoticed through the passing parade, sees grandeur in life’s simplest spontaneous gestures.
Proof that Winogrand was no circumscribed artist executing a preordained vision lies in the record of his unknown photographs. While the exhibition includes many of his most recognized and lauded images, fully a third of the photos in this retrospective were never seen by the artist. Winogrand’s huge archive is housed at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. It includes 20,000 prints; 20,000 contact sheets of 36 exposure rolls; 100,000 negatives and 30,500, 35mm color slides. There are also Polaroids and some amateur motion picture film (though one may shudder to imagine how erratic and quick his panning film camera may have been).
But here’s the kicker. If you needed any physical evidence of how much of Winogrand’s concentration was focused solely on “image capture,” consider this: at the time of his death, he left 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film; 6,500 rolls of developed but unproofed film; and 3,000 contact sheets, only a small number of which have any grease pencil markings as witness of his examination—in sum, more than 320,000 frames that he never saw after clicking the shutter, and almost another 110,00 that he never saw beyond a contact sheet. By anyone’s definition of that often abused term, you would have to say that Garry Winogrand was a “shooter.”
Had Winogrand brandished a Colt or a Glock instead of a Leica his “open carry” technique would have had him prone on the sidewalk, cuffed. In an earlier piece for this blog titled “Streetwise” I wrote of this quick paced flanêur:
He held his 35mm Leica M4 low in his right hand like a chain smoker bogarting his cigarette. When something caught his eye as he ambled down the sidewalk, the camera shot up to his face as if to take a toke. Even before the lens reached his eye, his finger snapped the shutter; then the wrist flicked the camera away as if shaking off a persistent ash, dropping it down again at his side. Hardly anyone ever knew she had become a Garry Winogrand photograph.
I would often see Garry cruising photo exhibitions at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery on Melrose, seeing what other photographers were doing. He often lunched with David Fahey who frequently interviewed contemporary artists for the gallery newsletter. The one time I saw Garry shooting on a public sidewalk was while Paul Schrader and I were filming a steadicam scene for American Gigolo on a Westwood Village street. A clean-cut Young Republican type is tailing Richard Gere, who ducks around a corner at the entry to the Bruin Theater. Gere grabs the guy as he passes, and pins him up against a display poster for Walter Hill’s film, The Warriors. I was setting up an over-the-shoulder shot, and then turned around on the dolly seat to look toward a sound from the street. There was Garry Winogrand snapping away, wrist flick and all. “Hey, Garry,” I shouted out. I’ll be with you in a second.” I quickly finished setting the shot, and then looked back to Garry—he was gone. I had blown his cover.
Fellow photographer and longtime close friend Lee Friedlander wrote about Winogrand’s street style in an essay in the posthumously published book of airport photos, Arrivals & Departures:
His most cherished place, I think, is New York City. The last time he was in New York, I had met him for an early breakfast, about 7 A.M. We ate quickly and then wandered about the city together, each of us with chores to do. Garry always did a lot of shooting, but on this morning he acted like someone horny-horny for New York and for photographing New York. It was wild to watch him. For three or four hours he photographed everyone who passed him. I said: Garry, you’re doing a census. He looked at me quickly and made a grunting noise and went back to his hunt. He wasn’t going to discuss something so sacred—in doing so, he would belittle it.
A fuzzy but revealing video of Winogrand on nighttime Hollywood Blvd. and on daylight Beverly Hills streets reveals how he moves. It ends with him stashing dozens of exposed 35 mm film rolls in plastic bags in a steel file cabinet:
Friedlander also describes another of his breakfast chats with Winogrand:
… I asked Garry to tell me about Norman Mailer’s fiftieth birthday party [which is copiously covered in Winogrand’s book Public Relations.] He looked up from his plate, swallowed his food, and with a mischievous grin, he said: “Thirty five rolls.” End of story.
Watching Winogrand prowling the city streets with such seeming nonchalance, hardy glancing through the viewfinder of his Leica in the midst of undifferentiated crowd chaos, you wonder what could he possibly be seeing when he clicks the shutter. Certain moments do leap out at you, such as the prone beggar on the Dallas sidewalk outside the American Legion convention.
Or the farm boy next to his prize sheared sheep at a Fort Worth fair.
Or a woman in a phone booth casually revealing her thighs.
But many moments are so quickly shot that it doesn’t appear there is anything special to look at. Certainly, classical, or even conventional composition has no place here: titled angles, non-balanced, even askew framing, dominate—and any sense of “lighting” seems to be irrelevant. Yet, in the video Winogrand is fascinated by the changing light bouncing off the Georgette Klinger sign. Looking through five published books and the exhibition catalog, an unexpected continuity in much of his work leaps out to me.
Like many, I have usually remembered Winogrand’s images for their rich tapestry of people caught in that split second that may or may not be of significance to them—but because of its inherent ambiguity for the viewer, and because of our all too human need to construct narrative and meaning where none is evident, we hone in on any significant detail. This is apparent in the disgruntled man in the street
Or the girl dancing in the park
And especially in the helter-skelter of six women seated on a bench at the 1964 World’s Fair.
But there is also the unexpected Winogrand of the solitary portrait, the most famous of which is a woman laughing with joy on a New York City street.
But there are other single portraits that haunt us:
The man in a phone booth at Kennedy airport.
The woman at the El Morocco nightclub.
And a classically composed early shot from 1950 of a sailor walking a deserted dawn street, or one of a child in raking crosslight with a toy pistol aimed high, and most ambiguous of all, a fallen or dead woman lying in the westbound curb lane of Sunset Blvd. near Sweetzer.
But not all of Winogrand’s most lonely photos are of people unaware. Caught in the act, his subjects sometimes engage him with a riveting intensity that is reminiscent of the straight to camera portraits of his friend Diane Arbus, who shared the MoMA 1967 New Documents exhibition with him and Lee Friedlander.
Perhaps it’s because I am a Westerner, but one of his most disquieting photos to me is the one that graces the cover of the John Szarkowski career overview book, Figments from the Real World.
For urban dwellers there is a certain security in crowds, even though it means surrendering private space. For some, the prospect of living on open land at the edge of an indifferent Nature is frightening. Such anxiety is embodied in Winogrand’s atypical photograph of a toddler, alone, framed against the blackness of a garage, his tricycle lying on its side like a wounded animal, the house itself and its concrete driveway smack against the edge of an open desert. It is one of Winogrand’s most complex, ambiguous photographs and the one I most hanker to have.
Exiting SFMOMA below Market Street in downtown San Francisco, Carol and I crossed Third Street, headed back to our hotel. Maybe it was the lingering ethos of Winogrand’s world—but passing a pocket park, I ran into my own “Winogrand.”
Next: Part Two will look at Winogrand’s last years photographing the West, Los Angeles and nude dancers at a Hollywood strip club.