Monday, April 30, 2018

"I really try to divorce myself from any thought of possible use of this stuff."

For a photographer with so many memorable quips to his name, Garry Winogrand didn't leave much of a paper trail. The four books he made during his lifetime (five if you count the 1976 Grossmont College booklet) consist almost exclusively of pictures. Although they also include some great essays, none are by Winogrand. Nor did he write for any outside books or sources. 

The most he contributed to any publication was the pithy half page intro to the Grossmont catalog, insightful but abbreviated. Winogrand also wrote a brief introduction to Stock Photographs, but it was merely a perfunctory passage which said nothing about the photos. Outside of those few instances the longest surviving Winogrand essay came about only through rote task. That was his much quoted Guggenheim application written in 1964. You know the one, 
"I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn't matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty…I cannot accept my conclusions so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper. This is my project…" 
Winogrand's 1964 Guggenheim essay
Until recently I hadn't read that essay for a long while, and in my memory it laid out Winogrand's ideas about photography and planned approaches for the year of shooting. But a fresh revisit belies all of those notions. The essay actually says very little about photography apart from "photography, photographers, photographs deal with facts." Instead it's a sort of gateway to the 1960s, as were some of the photos to come.

When it comes down to it, almost none of the famous Winogrand aphorisms we know and love were written by him. Instead they come to us secondhand, transcribed by acolytes: 

"I photograph to find out what things look like photographed."

"Great photography is always on the edge of failure."

“Every photograph is a battle of form versus content." 

Thank god someone was around to record that stuff. As an oral sage Winogrand's in fine company, right up there with Socrates and Jesus, at least in the photo world. Like them his lectures are the main material extant. But Winogrand's were far more prickly, closer to Confucius than any western prophet. Here's an excerpt from RIT in 1970:
RIT audience member: I saw a photograph that—there’s a photograph that had “Kodak” and there’s a kid holding a dog— 
Garry Winogrand: Yeah. 
RIT: —and the people kind of wandering in and out. Now, it might be due to my own ignorance or something, but could you give me like a straight answer as to what you’re trying to say in that photograph?
GW: I have nothing to say. 
RIT: Nothing to say? Then why do you print it?
GW: I don’t have anything to say in any picture.…My only interest in photographing is photography. That’s really the answer. 
RIT: Why do you print it if it has no meaning? 
GW: With that particular picture—ah, I’m interested in the space and I maybe can learn something about photography. That’s what I get from photographs; if I’m lucky, I can learn something. 
RIT: Then you’re trying to reveal something about space? 
GW: I’m not revealing anything. 
RIT: Then what do you think is the purpose of the photograph if you’re not revealing anything. 
GW: My education. 
RIT: Then what’s the purpose of that? That’s what I’m trying to find out. 
GW: That’s the answer. That’s really the answer…
Poor RIT student. Getting critical analysis out of Winogrand was like pulling teeth. And his photos aren't much help. They're just as awkward and inscrutable as his lectures.

It's not that he didn't give a shit. Indeed, Winogrand cared and thought deeply about his photos. But he was reticent to guide any specific interpretation. "Photos have no narrative content," he said. "They merely describe light on paper." Raw visual description of the world, that was the thing! How might reality translate into a two dimensional four walled box? Here's how: "When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts." The mutability of such facts, even frozen in silver, was the source of endless possibility, the only motivation needed, and its own answer. No need for art mumbo-jumbo. 

But still, would it have killed him to get something in writing? 

Garry Winogrand, 1957, by Lee Friedlander


Fortunately he had a crack team of writer friends to do the heavy lifting. Helen Gary Bishop, Leo Rubinfien, and Tod Papageorge all contributed introductions to his monographs, each one stellar. Winogrand's direction to Papageorge (Public Relations) was simple enough: "I don't care what is written just so long as the photography is not discussed." But the plea fell on deaf ears. Papageorge's essay did in fact discuss the photography. Oh well. Its verbosity was balanced out by Winogrand's own contribution to Public RelationsHere it is, in its entirety: 
"The way I understand it, a photographer's relationship to his medium is responsible for his relationship to the work is responsible for his relationship to the medium." 
In other words, if you're trying to understand what my photos are about, take a hike.

If Winogrand were to codify a relationship to his medium, it centered on process. The daily act of looking and translating the visual world into photographs wasn't just an obsession, it was integral to his existence. It was his waking state. "I get totally out of myself. It's the closest I come to not existing." In the end shooting consumed his energy to the exclusion of other tasks. Small irritants like developing film, looking at it, and pruning the resulting photos into a cohesive structure — the steps normally necessary to transform exposures into some viable archive —all fell by the wayside. 

Normally this would doom one's legacy. Instead Winogrand's myopic devotion has only burnished his. Three thousand undeveloped rolls, or whatever the number is, are now just an element of the myth. Since his untimely death in 1984, his star has risen steadily. A new feature length documentary bio is about to hit theaters. He is the subject of eight posthumous books and counting. And —despite his sentiments regarding photo theory—these books are chock full of analysis. That's not to say he would hate them all. But we can probably assume he would be mildly irritated.

Reevaluating Winogrand has become something of a critical parlor game, and since he left such a thin paper trail, the field is wide open. He's like Vivian Maier, Disfarmer, and Bellocq all rolled into one, a tabula rasa. Better yet, he's a street photographer (a term he hated), a genre which has exploded in popularity since his death. 

The basic formula is to gain access to the Winogrand archives at the University of Arizona (somewhere north of 1 million film exposures, depending on who's counting), craft a new edit featuring at least a few "unseen" photos, then perform a critical reappraisal of his photography, his life choices, and how he might —or might not— fit into a historical context. There's a sense of ok, he died with unfinished business, let's finish it for him. Kinda like Socrates or Jesus.

In the mid-eighties, when curators were still developing and editing his unseen rolls, his archive was a jungle of untapped potential. Szarkowski had a field day with Figments From The Real World in 1988. All the rolls have since been developed, and by now every frame seen by at least someone or other, at least by Leo Rubinfien if not others. 

In some ways it's a spent mine, and curators are now sifting through pre-examined tailings. But new ideas, new edits, and new Winogrand books keep coming, each one taking a slightly different tack. They run the gamut from Alex Sweetman's Archive 26, written from an adversarial stance, to John Szarkowski, who championed Winogrand against all doubters and called him "the central photographer of his generation." Others —Trudy Wilner Stack, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Alex Harris, Lee Friedlander, and Leo Rubinfien— fall somewhere between, bewitched to varying degrees by his spell. 

The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, 2018, by Geoff Dyer

The latest is by Geoff Dyer, author of The Ongoing Moment and occasional New York Times photo critic. His The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand has just been published by University Of Texas Press. Winogrand's directive —"the photography is not discussed"— may not have worked on Papageorge but it's found a more receptive audience in Dyer. His essays dance around a variety of topics and tangents including literature, painting, poetry, sex, travel, and television. Yes, they do discuss the photography too, but it has a secondary role, merely a departure point for Dyer's whirlwind of ideas and speculation. Winogrand's photos are included too, but almost as an afterthought. A better title might be The Street Philosophy of Geoff Dyer.

Winogrand was famously averse to analysis, yet Dyer was commissioned to write just such a book. So the whole enterprise is problematic from the get-go. To his credit he addresses the dilemma directly in the introduction: "In my notes, for reasons I can no longer fathom, I kept reminding myself that this should not be a book about photography. Well it is about photography, obviously." An explanation which may not settle the issue, but is quite Winograndian. 

Atget, 2000, John Szarkowski
Dyer's book is modeled on Atget, the MoMA book published in 2000 by the aforementioned Szarkowski. For that book, Szarkowski picked 100 photos by Eugene Atget, wrote an essay on each one, then laid them side by side in what's become a classic of the genre. The writing is sharp and the model simple, two traits borrowed by Dyer for his tome. 

Dyer's book sequences 100 Winogrand photos in roughly chronological order (a slight departure from Szarkowski. Atget is not chronological), each sharing a spread with a short essay. The photographs tend to loosen up over time as Dyer traces the course of Winogrand's career from tidy fifties candids to his final days spewing motor driven exposures all over the passenger seat. Dyer's writing follows suit. The book's early essays are fairly conventional, but they begin to shift in tone beginning around the midpoint. The unmooring gathers steam as later essays dip a toe in the stream of consciousness, speculating on phone booths, gender bending, and animal magnetism. This proves the perfect accompaniment to Winogrand, whose late work has always been something of a stumper to critics. Szarkowski, for example, famously dismissed it. Dyer's assessment is much kinder, helped along by his poetic sensibility.

Poetic or not, I think the word Psychiatry would fit better in a Winogrand book title than Philosophy. He was a street psychiatrist, almost a clairvoyant. As reluctant as he was to analyze photos, strangers he could analyze with penetrating insight. He possessed an uncanny ability to size up people in public, single out the ones dealing with problems, and reveal that internal turmoil in his photographs. Almost all of them depict a central person or group of figures cleanly framed, his photos a hotline into their minds. In photo after photo his does this, somehow setting aside the extraneous to focus on the interior. According to Friedlander he was "a bull of a man, and the world his china shop," yet one with extraordinary sensitivity. China shop be damned, the world was his analyst's couch.

Part of Winogrand's psychiatric makeup was his chauvinism. He personified the male gaze. Walking the sidewalks of the 1970s New York, leering through his lens at gorgeous women —Yes, that was him, the predecessor to a small cottage industry of contemporary street voyeurs. Many of Winogrand's photos seem to be simply about ogling females and not much more. To be fair, he ogled everyone, male or female. But beautiful women were a favorite subject. 

To Winogrand's credit he owned it. Women Are Beautiful may be a provocative title for a photo book, but at least it's less sexist that Winogrand's original working title, Confessions Of A Male Chauvinist Pig. Winogrand made no attempt to hide his leericism. Still, I think the original title would not have aged well. 

Dyer addresses Winogrand's male gaze by curating a selection with a large dose of Women Are Beautiful style photos. Some were included in that book. Others are new. Whether this is an homage to Winogrand's chauvinism or a reflection of Dyer's own bias is not clear. But whatever the reason the book's primary thread is women, and Dyer's book contains a higher concentration than any of the other posthumous books. 

Photo #3 in The Philosophy of Garry Winogrand


He sprinkles them in a series through The Street Philosophy, comparing and contrasting the depiction of women as he progresses chronologically through Winogrand's career, which roughly coincided with the rise of feminism. In one of the opening photos, shot during "the pre-feminist" world, a woman walks demurely with eyes on the sidewalk, "an early example of a classic Winogrand street scene." By the middle of the book women strut before Winogrand, highbeamed and brazen, or as a sexpot mannequin, or eating ice cream with a smile, or strolling in full color down Fifth Avenue. Dyer plays with the idea of following the "same" women in various photos throughout the book, although of course each subject is unique.

By the last few pages the chronology has reached the early 80s, just before Winogrand's death, and his male gaze has melted into hedonist abandon. A contact sheet of frames from Hollywood's Ivar Theatre shows a stripper exposing herself —every last inch of it, in a stroke of proud bravado— to a pack of men during the club's regular camera night. Dyer's essay is unrestrained, 
"You glimpse a woman on the street and fall in love for a second and if you're a photographer that is great, but if you're lucky enough to talk to her and perhaps go on a date and go to bed with her and make love then at some point, although you want to see her face and feel your love for her reflected in her eyes, you also want this —this crudity..." 
Hm, so that's what the photos are about after all? Boy meets girl? They screw. Is it that easy? 

Winogrand was a regular denizen at the Ivar, along with many other famous LA photographers of the time. He shot thousands of frames there, some of which have surfaced in the years since. To my knowledge the frame highlighted by Dyer is printed here for the first time. It's a curious choice, especially when printed side by side with the full contact sheet. There's not much to recommend the photo aside from, well, crudity. Maybe that's the point.

It's tough to say exactly what drew Winogrand to the Ivar, whether it was naked lust, sheer spectacle, or maybe some combination. Perhaps here his famous aphorism (one of the few he expressed in writing) applies: "There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described." Here was the mystery of the female fact clearly described, laid open before the camera, the same naked truth which mystifies all men.

Sun. Photo Night — Bring Your Camera
(1977 Ross MacLean Collection)
Dyer's essay on the Ivar is probably my favorite in the book, the closest to a free rambling —and, yes, crude— dream. I can overlook its speculative quality because mysterious facts aren't the point here. Instead: fantasy. Like any good street shooter Dyer works best when he has room to stretch out and explore, "when he lets himself get deeply, comically weird," as Jennifer Szalai describes it. For me that's the main thing he's contributed to the Winogrand canon. We've had plenty of critical analysis, thank you. But until Dyer, not nearly enough wandering tangents.  

If Dyer is an entertaining essayist he's less successful as a photo curator. The selection is, frankly, a mixed bag. There are several great photos but also some clunkers. Part of the problem is that he's made a conscious attempt to pull from equally from across Winogrand's career. Some of the earlier work —made circa 1960 when Winogrand was not yet very good— seems half baked. Too many are shot with long lens and short depth of field, techniques Winogrand would later abandon for good reason. The late career photos hold up poorly too in comparison to the sweet spot, roughly 1964 - 1977.

Dyer has explained that some images were chosen more for the essay they might generate than for their inherent visual quality. I suppose that's a partial explanation, but not completely satisfying. After all, this is a new book of Winogrand! Dyer has access to a million unseen frames. Show us the goods! The selection of color work in particular is disappointing. We haven't seen much of it to date, and perhaps the promise of new color led to unreasonable expectations. But judging by the photos presented here, I can't help wonder if Winogrand's small color oeuvre has been mostly picked clean already. It's hard to know without visiting the archives in person.

Photo #20 in The Philosophy of Garry Winogrand


One notable exception is a rarely seen color photo of monkeys, pizza, and an open convertible top from 1964. The composition, layering, and general weirdness is spectacular. It's a top notch photo, even if somewhat untypical of Winogrand's style —closer to Huger Foote or Wolfgang Zurborn than a street prowling candid. It's one of his few with no psychiatric impact. Unfortunately the publisher has mangled the color palette, or perhaps they've just tried to preserve the color cast of crappy old slide film. Hard to tell. In any case it's way off. It's even more unfortunate that Dyer uses this photograph as the basis for an essay about color.  

I think Dyer's main curatorial problem is he's looking at the photos as a writer, not as a photographer. As I leaf through The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand I can't help inserting myself into each scene, and the questions come in a flood. Why did he stand here not there? How close could he get? What brought him to that place? Who was he with? What else has happening nearby? Why did he walk down that street? How long did he stay at that scene? Did he notice that stuff off to the left? Why did he shoot it from that angle? Those are the natural questions a photographer might ask. And what makes Winogrand's photos so wonderful is they are tough to solve. Some photos work just because they work. Period. And most photos don't, for the same reason. Why? Who knows. But overanalysis —philosophy, if you will— often doesn't help the process.  

The alternate approach, shared by Dyer and most outside curators, is to view Winogrand's photos as finished products. The emphasis is more on the meaning of the photo than how it came about. What does it express? How does it fit into his career, or into the culture? In this consideration philosophy can be quite helpful. Mandatory, even. But it's not necessarily the perspective of Winogrand. "I really try to divorce myself from any thought of possible use of this stuff," he once said of his photos. "That's the discipline. My only purpose while I"m working is to try to make interesting photographs, and what to do with them is another act...Certainly while I'm working I want them to be as useless as possible."

Useless indeed, unless publishing posthumous monographs. I'm sure Dyer's book won't be the last on Winogrand. Another one will come along in, say, five years or so. But for now it's the current gold standard. It's a big, handsome clothbound production, built to last. If you're a fan of Winogrand it belongs in your library. In fact you probably own it already. 

If you're not a fan, I doubt this book will convert you to the cause. Winogrand remains as unapproachable as ever. He was a tough nut, and it takes a while to get beneath the shell, and even then the prize is ambiguous, just a bunch of light on paper. 

6 comments:

markalor said...

A pleasure to read, really makes me wake. up again... Thanks man.

Stan B. said...

When I first heard Winogrand "explain" his work I thought he was trying to be clever and purposely evasive. Over the years, I realized he was just being perfectly... frank.

Don Hudson said...

Nice one Blake

Vedran Perse said...

I'm one of those that already have it...and this article is very nice companion to it.
What I like about a book is as you nicely put "wandering tangents". Plus photographs rarely seen even in the big retrospective of few years ago, particularly non US ones ..

Marilyn Andrews said...

Great read!

Blake Andrews said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.