On the Streets: Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA, Part Two

Winogrand on Hollywood Blvd near Las Palmas, photo by David Fahey. c. 1982

Winogrand on Hollywood Blvd near Las Palmas, photo by David Fahey. c. 1982

I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

If you take Garry Winogrand at his word, you are left with an odd conundrum. If the act of photography is to him essentially a question in search of an answer that is found only in the photographic print—why was he so indifferent to the darkroom, and even odder, so indifferent to seeing what a print from his negatives looked like? The Leica M4 that was his stock in trade was a venerable non-reflex camera; he certainly never had the ability to see the actual image via screen check right after exposure; had he been able to shoot digitally, you have to wonder if he’d have bothered to look —being so eager to get on to that next exposure.

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

What would Winogrand have made of the point and shoot ease of photography today—with auto focus, auto exposure, auto-advance (the latter term itself a relic of the analog era)? In her essay for the traveling retrospective catalog, SFMOMA curator Sandra S. Philips writes:

Photography is now practiced more widely than ever before: it has been estimated [by Jonathan Good] that approximately 375 billion photographs were made in 2011, about 70 billion of which live on Facebook. The majority of these will never be printed; most pictures now are, and will remain, “virtual.” In the old days—in 2000—before digital, technology had become the lingua franca, when we still made physical snapshots  (the kind you actually hold in your hand or put in a scrapbook), the number of analog pictures peaked at 85 billion.

In all likelihood, given Winogrand’s indifference to curating his own work, had he photographed in the digital age, many of those images of his last decade would now be lost. It’s a commonly held opinion (by many East Coast savants, at least) that except for his forays into the American West under his first two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1964 and 1969 (and while still resident in New York)—that his work declined after moving to Los Angeles in 1979 when he received his third Guggenheim. One revelation of the SFMOMA retrospective is of a new vision inspired by the expansive, open spaces of the West, while preserving his ongoing engagement with human subjects that are not unlike his signature New York work of the 60s and 70s. Garry Winogrand never succumbed to landscapes or the merely pictorial.

Most of the photographs from his last half dozen years were never printed, or even examined by him in his lifetime; they are seen in the San Francisco exhibition for the first time.

Los Angeles, ca. 1979

Los Angeles, ca. 1979

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

The decision by exhibition curators to make contact sheets and prints from film frames that Winogrand never saw has spawned debate in both scholarly and photographers’ circles. There is, however, considerable precedent for such printing; in a catalog essay, Erin O’Toole cites John Szarkowski doing just that for his landmark MoMA retrospectives of Eugene Atget and E.J. Bellocq, even most famously, with the Neil Selkirk prints of Diane Arbus that were the focus of her posthumous 1972 MoMA retrospective. When, in 1983, James Enyeart, the then director of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, received a second batch of prints and negatives from Winogrand for archiving, he asked the photographer to come to Tucson to determine which images were “fit for exhibition and which should be designated as study prints; Winogrand declined to weigh in, saying, as Enyeart recently recalled, ‘You know the difference, don’t you? Now it is your job.’ ” [catalog quote]

(All the photographs in this essay I’ve re-photographed from the catalog itself; they are of compromised framing and image quality, and a scan was not easy without breaking the catalog spine These are relatively unknown images, difficult to find online.)

Los Angeles, ca. 1978

Los Angeles, ca. 1978

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

This refusal on Winogrand’s part to assume the hierarchical perspective of the artist overseeing his prints is consistent with his work habits throughout his career. Winogrand stopped making prints himself in the early 70s. Thomas Consilvio, his final printer, the friend who accompanied him to the clinic in Tijuana for alternative cancer therapy, received few notes from Winogrand. And when Szarkowski asked Winogrand to edit work for the 1967 New Documents show, the artist submitted hundreds of prints in dozens of boxes—and then left. But the controversy about what to do with this late, unexamined work rages, one prominent curator suggesting the film be developed and archived for future study by scholars but never made public, while another says the unprocessed film should be stored in a freezer rather than developed—posing the all too real question before us now, “What happens when there are no longer processing chemicals available?”

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

This academic dustup would seem to suggest a belief on the part of many that there is unlikely much inherent value in Winogrand’s late work, a view common among some critics about the “late work” of many great artists—Matisse and de Kooning coming readily to mind. In fact, in his intensely personal catalog essay, Winogrand’s close friend and photographer Tod Papageorge reminiscences about their days working side by side on the bustling New York streets, notably that nexus of eclectic urban life—5th Avenue between 42nd and 57th Streets. Papageorge subscribes to the view that Winogrand lost his center when he left New York to teach at the Institute of Design in Chicago in late summer of 1971 (though Winogrand continued to maintain his apartment on the Upper West Side where he stored much of his work.)

I reluctantly came to believe that Garry suffered more and more from leaving New York (whose unyielding bedrock, he once told me, he considered his mother nature), allowing the fierce spirit that seemed directly connected in him to the streets he so powerfully photographed, to turn on itself and gradually, but inexorably, to contract.

I don’t see this “contraction” in the images of Winogrand’s last decade. Papageorge’s judgment reeks to me of a New Yorker’s geo-centricity. True, the claustrophobic canyons of Manhattan, a world of steel, glass and concrete present a kaleidoscopic backdrop that for the most part can’t be replicated in another city, and the human pageantry is often less dramatic in its urgency elsewhere, but the same constant themes emerge in Winogrand’s individual and group portraits wherever he photographed.

Los Angeles International Airport, 1978-83

Los Angeles International Airport, 1978-83

Los Angeles, ca. 1974

Los Angeles, ca. 1974

Winogrand, much as he loved and was influenced by Robert Frank’s The Americans, did confess that the Swiss photographer had missed an essential element in his travels—the “metastasizing suburbs” that is a signature of the American West. And even though much of his last decade’s work continued to be mostly urban, the architecture and the physical space (such as open sky) of Winogrand’s Western work is different from the canonic images of the 60s and 70s.

You can see this in the portrait of a Texas woman in a bathing suit, head thrown back, that contrasts its narcissism with the casual street spontaneity of an earlier New York scene:

San Antonio, ca. 1975

San Antonio, ca. 1975

But it does evoke that classic image of the laughing young woman holding an ice cream cone, shown here in three alternate contact sheet frames of the scene:

12_THREE ANGLES

Differences between the 60s New York scenes and the later Los Angeles ones are highlighted by an emphatic freewheeling use of the camera in the Western work, as though the liberated space away from Manhattan unleashed in him an even more unrestrained wildness, more and more a deliberate retreat from any sense of “professionalism” and toward a “snapshot aesthetic.”

13_WOMANatBUSBENCH

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Lisette Model, a champion of street photography herself, said that

— What the eye sees is different from what the camera records. Whereas the eye sees in three dimensions, images are projected onto a surface of two dimensions, which for every image-maker is a great problem. The snap shooter disregards this problem, and the result is that his pictures have an apparent disorder and imperfection, which are exactly their appeal and their style. The picture isn’t straight. It isn’t done well. It isn’t composed. It isn’t thought out. And out of this imbalance, and out of this not knowing, and out of this real innocence toward the medium comes an enormous vitality and expression of life.

“An apparent disorder and imperfection” is a phrase that seems to lie at the heart of the way Garry Winogrand photographs life.

Winogrand delighted in turning the critical perspective of “snapshot photography” back on the critics:

They [the critics] use it to refer to photographs they believe are loosely organized, or casually made, whatever you want to call it. Whatever terms you like. The fact is, when they’re talking about snapshots they’re talking about the family album picture, which is one of the most precisely made photographs. Everybody’s fifteen feet away and smiling. The sun is over the viewer’s shoulder. That’s when the picture is taken, always. It’s one of the most carefully made photographs that ever happened.

I love Winogrand’s inversion of the term “snapshot.” It gets to the root of a recent photography show at the Art Institute of Chicago titled “The Three Graces” that featured amateur snapshot portraits of trios of women:

John’s Bailiwick: The Three Graces, The Snapshot and Roland Barthes

However you define Winogrand’s “snapshot aesthetic,” it is profoundly different from the long exposure, Hasselblad, tripod studies of Alexey Titarenko, or the “decisive moment” classic compositions of Cartier-Bresson, or the hauntingly intimate immersion of Jim Nachtwey.

Some critics have suggested that Winogrand’s work did take a decidedly more introspective, even melancholic, turn when he moved West. Three late, previously unprinted images from Los Angeles reflect that.

Santa Monica Pier, 1980-83

Santa Monica Pier, 1980-83

Santa Monica Pier, 1980-83

Santa Monica Pier, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

Los Angeles, 1980-83

But others show the exuberance one would expect at the beach, the Venice Beach boardwalk having for Winogrand the same kind of attraction as the passing cavalcade of life that 5th Avenue held for him in New York, denizens of the former being much more “unbuttoned”— and unclothed.

Venice Beach, Los Angeles, 1982

Venice Beach, Los Angeles, 1982

Venice Beach, Los Angeles,1980-83

Venice Beach, Los Angeles,1980-83

Another haunt for Winogrand was the Ivar Theater in Hollywood, its unlikely location being next to the public library. Once a legitimate drama house, the Ivar had fallen on hard times by the 70s. His oft-times companion there was David Fahey, who was also documenting Hollywood street life. Fahey is the unidentified, curly-tressed man far frame left in this photo:

Ivar Theater, Los Angeles, 1980-83

Ivar Theater, Los Angeles, 1980-83

Now a much respected photography dealer of a La Brea Blvd. gallery in Los Angeles, Fahey recalls those treks with Winogrand photographing “photographers” photographing strippers.

I photographed with Garry on different occasions.  Whether at an air show or on the street, it was exciting to see him in action.  In the late 1970’s, we went to the Ivar Theatre, which at the time was a Strip Club.  Sunday evenings were called “Photo Nights.”  I believe we were the only two photographers that actually had film in their cameras. 

Garry Winogrand, in bg. with flash gun at the Ivar Theater. c. 1982 photo by David Fahey

Garry Winogrand, in bg. with flash gun at the Ivar Theater. c. 1982, photo by David Fahey

What was fascinating about the Ivar photo shoots was that the subjects’ reactions and expressions were so rich and full of emotion. They were a captive audience—staying in their seats—waiting for the next exotic performer to entertain and excite them.  The audience’s expressions were different with each performer, which made for rich subject matter.  Like a photojournalist, Garry was capturing distinctive pictures of humanity in all its creative forms.  He was constantly ready for the precise moment to reveal itself.  He was not reporting, but recording.

In a further note, Fahey elaborated on how he as a fellow photographer perceived Winogrand’s shooting style.

In the tradition of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, Garry began mapping out new ways of seeing the culture of his time. I always felt he worked in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner.  One might say his photographs exemplify the epitome of a creative accident.  It is just that he was somehow aware when the accident was about to happen.  He knew where to be, and when to be ready.  He had a remarkable ability to surface when something interesting was about to occur; his intuition was honed to perfection.

Garry had great luck and success in capturing the unusual piece of reality that is meaningful to the perceptive viewer.  Over time, he became quite adept at recognizing human patterns of behavior in public.  In a way, street photographers are like surfers.  They are both waiting for a perfect moment, when everything comes together.  When I first met Garry, he also reminded me of a shark; he was constantly moving, looking for his next prey. 

In examining a large body of Winogrand’s work, it becomes obvious that much of it are images in public spaces and on the street. Even the interiors tend to document large-scale events that offer him a certain cover of anonymity. I have wondered if Winogrand’s moderate solipsism, as well as his disdain about being caught in a confined space, are reasons why he avoided photographing on public transport. Many of his street photographer peers such as Walker Evans, William Klein, and Bruce Davidson have made significant work on subways and buses.

Last fall, I often rode the “C” train from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the Brooklyn High Street station during the shooting of The Angriest Man in Brooklyn— a 30-40 minute trip. Garry Winogrand was much on my mind when I made these photos with my iPhone.

On the "S" train, Times square shuttle. Sept. 2013

On the “S” train, Times Square shuttle. Sept. 2013

On the "C" train, Brooklyn bound. October, 2013

On the “C” train, Brooklyn bound. October, 2013

One can only wonder what Winogrand may have done with a cell phone camera, one smaller and less visible than his beloved Leica. Might it have altered his on-the-fly technique?

Winogrand at work with his Leica and daughter Melissa,Los Angeles 1983 photo by David Fahey

Winogrand at work with his Leica and daughter Melissa,Los Angeles 1983, photo by David Fahey

This landmark exhibition moves after San Francisco to the National Gallery in D.C. and then to The Met in New York City, followed by Paris and Madrid. How will Europe receive Winogrand’s Whitmanesque “barbaric yap.”

Next: The Rite of Spring at 100.

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