Garry Winogrand: ‘The central photographer of his generation’
A profile of the Bronx-born street photographer par excellence, whose best-known work documented turbulent times across the United States in the 1960s and 70s
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Garry Winogrand’s (1928-84) parents were Jewish immigrants to the United States from Eastern Europe. After a brief spell in the Air Force in the late 1940s, he returned to live with them for a few years.
His initial studies, at Columbia University, were in painting, though he soon realised his temperament and talents were better suited to photography. As his friend Tod Papageorge put it, ‘Garry found painting a slow, deliberate process that demanded lots of patience. He preferred to work in a way [that] could convulsively seize what it described... Photography answered his agitated sense of self.’
Few artists have been quite so synonymous with a major institution as Winogrand was with New York’s Museum of Modern Art. He showed at MoMA at pretty much every stage of his career, starting in 1955 with The Family of Man. Curated by Edward Steichen, this group exhibition is now regarded as one of the most successful photography shows of all time. It was Steichen who purchased the first Winogrand works for MoMA’s collection: three prints for a total of $30. Ultimately, Winogrand’s work was featured in ten MoMA exhibitions during his lifetime.
In 1988, four years after his death, Winogrand was the subject of a posthumous MoMA retrospective called Garry Winogrand: Figments from the Real World. In the 1990s, the collector Barbara Schwartz made the museum a gift of 200 of the photographer’s prints, which would form the content of the 1998 exhibition Garry Winogrand: Selections from a Major Acquisition. Prints from this exhibition make up the bulk of an online sale of Winogrand’s work at Christie’s in January 2018.
Winogrand’s early work was mostly commercial — for magazines and advertising agencies. While his work had been shown at MoMA in 1955, his real breakthrough did not come until the museum’s 1963 group show, Five Unrelated Photographers, in which 45 of his shots appeared.
That exhibition was curated by John Szarkowski, recently appointed MoMA’s Director of Photography, a position he’d hold for three decades. Winogrand's greatest champion, Szarkowski affected the course of his career like no other.
Szarkowski’s ambition was to transform the very way we looked at photography: to wrest it from the pages of magazines and create a natural home for it in the museum. To do this, he rejected heavily styled, artfully composed photos for something more inclusive, encouraging photographers to roam, forage and discover, firm in the belief that a great photo could arise by chance. In such a pursuit, the two men were kindred spirits, Szarkowski going so far as to label Winogrand ‘the central photographer of his generation’.
Among Winogrand’s heroes was Walker Evans, the great documentarian of 1930s America.
He also admired Swiss photographer Robert Frank, whose 1958 book The Americans captured the country with an outsider’s eyes, rejecting the romantic strain of imagery that then prevailed in magazines such as Life.
Winogrand’s approach to photography was swift and no-nonsense. For him, it was the act of taking pictures that gave most satisfaction, and he often delegated the editing and developing of his photographs to others.
Though Winogrand himself disliked the phrase ‘snapshot aesthetic’, these two words perhaps best describe his contribution to photography. Winogrand brandished his unobtrusive Leica M4 like a revolver, catching people going about their everyday business. Above all, Winogrand was never one for straightforward narrative.
In 1967, Winogrand appeared in another landmark MoMA exhibition, New Documents, alongside fast-rising stars Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. The show heralded a new dawn, with all three photographers exhibiting seemingly offhand street shots of random subjects — each nonetheless packing the immediacy and power of a news photograph.
Winogrand deployed a wide-angle lens to fit as many details as possible into a single image, often without a central focus. In World’s Fair New York, for example, eight people occupy a park bench, engaged in a range of activities from yawning and gossiping to reading a newspaper. Winogrand also liked to tilt his viewfinder, with little care for a horizon.
‘I like to think of Winogrand as a visual novelist, and his work a sprawling human comedy,’ says Geoff Dyer, author of The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (a book of 100 essays on 100 photos by Winogrand, out in March 2018). ‘His photos have so much detail and so much going on, your eyes can never rest.’
Winogrand did arguably his best work from the turn of the 1960s to the early ’70s, capturing the upheavals, convulsions and chaos of America in that period. Airports, rodeos and political demonstrations were a few of his favoured backdrops.
‘We all know Winogrand as the ultimate street photographer,’ Dyer says. ‘But let’s forget for a second his art-historical importance and think more about his historical importance — in the incredible resource his photos represent for anyone interested in American history of the late 20th century. Whether it was race relations, the role of women, political battles… it’s all there in his photos.’
In 1980 Winogrand said, ‘Sometimes I feel... the world is a place I bought a ticket to. It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.’
By this he really meant America, which he had criss-crossed on numerous occasions, including on three separate Guggenheim Fellowships.
Late in life, Winogrand took teaching jobs in Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles, yet New York was the city that inspired — and defined — him most. According to Jeffrey Fraenkel, the gallerist and manager of Winogrand’s estate, ‘New York was Garry’s meat and potatoes. Manhattan was the only place with a consistent level of energy remotely comparable to his own; the city’s visual freneticism allowed him to scatter several small but remarkable dramas through a single frame. These he kept dazzlingly in balance, much as a circus magician keeps seven plates simultaneously spinning atop their poles.’
In Winogrand, New York found its photographer laureate, one who in its leading modern art museum found a permanent home. On his death at the age of 56, Winogrand left behind 2,500 rolls of unprocessed film.