Garry Winogrand & American Nostalgia
The street photographer Garry Winogrand (1928–1984) belongs to a pre-digital America that knew nothing of Twitter trolls, fake news and social distancing. I feel like I missed the party when I look at his pictures today. Ironically, I discovered Winogrand on Pinterest.
In ways I can’t imagine now, Winogrand freely wandered about snapping photos of regular and famous men and women — especially women — on America’s urban and suburban streets. He carried only his single lens Leica M4, a light, durable and rather boxy rangefinder built for mobility.
With this very non-digital camera, Winogrand found a street festival happening in mid-20th century America. How his celebratory and often whimsical black-and-whites contrast with my newsfeed’s stream of tear-gassed street clashes. When did the party end? When did America lose its sense of humor?
My poem is my 21st century response to Winogrand’s book Women Are Beautiful, a photo collection celebrating women in the first decade of modern feminism. During the 60s and 70s, Winogrand took candid pictures of women in New York City and other American locations. In 1975, he gathered a selection for a solo show and book. Some critics then and now found the photos problematic at best and exploitative at worst. To them, Winogrand was not so much celebrating women as appropriating their images for his own purposes and pleasure.
While the women in Women Are Beautiful are uniformly young and attractive, there are no erotic poses, titillating flashes of skin or tacky come hither looks. We know these women. We went to high school with them. We work with them at the office. We share an apartment with them.
The critics do have a point, however. Winogrand liked looking at beautiful women. Whether they liked being looked at or liked looking at him didn’t matter. And capturing images in public places without permission certainly qualifies as appropriation, even as asserting white-male-privilege. The woman in the poem would definitely see it that way. Looking at Winogrand’s photos, I’m sure more than a few of those women felt the same.
But doesn’t making art always involve appropriation? The novelist and playwright appropriate family, friends and lovers for characters. The poet appropriates intimate experiences for verses. Visual artists appropriate everything they set eyes upon. Art doesn’t work if it has to ask for permission. In my poem, the image dissipates as soon as the young narrator asks to take the woman’s picture. Nothing’s left but a blurry snapshot of a stranger.
Winogrand’s time has passed. Pixels have replaced film. Kodak makes pharmaceuticals now. The women in Women Are Beautiful have grown old; some have probably died. While the narrator has access to technology Winogrand couldn’t have imagined, he can’t relive Winogrand’s America. But maybe by letting Winogrand go, he can begin to see the future rising over a dark horizon. Of course, that image is just as blurry as the one he deleted.
Winogrand’s Leica M4 rangefinder required the photographer to focus through a viewfinder rather. But the Leica’s viewfinder was far more sophisticated than the crude viewfinders found on today’s cheap disposable cameras.
Rangefinders differ significantly from the single lens reflex (SLR) cameras that became synonymous with 35mm photography. The media and the popular mind almost always imagine the photographer eyeing the world through a long lens SLR. But in fact, the boxy little Leica was very popular with photojournalists and pros on the go taking candid shots.
The First Documentary on Winogrand
The first documentary film on Winogrand, “All Things Are Photographable,” premiered in the fall of 2018 and aired on PBS in 2019.
The documentarian Sasha Waters Freyer produced and directed the film. Though she considers herself primarily a moving image artist, she majored in photography as an undergraduate. Currently, she chairs the Department of Photography & Film at Virginia Commonwealth University.
In an interview in the blog Women and Hollywood, Freyer explained what drew her to Winogrand as a subject:
A new, comprehensive retrospective of Winogrand’s photography opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2013, and traveled to The Met in New York — which is where I saw it — as well as other venues. Seeing his work again — which had been so important to me as a college photo major — inspired me to wonder why there had never been a documentary about him.
The film marks a rising interest in Winogrand. His pictures appear all over Pinterest, and a Winogrand Flickr group has been in existence since 2006. Even a casual look at his work online shows the depth and breadth of his photographs. Set in the heart of the 20th century, they capture a post-war America in transition. As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we find America in the throes of another great transition. How it will turn out no one can say, and that makes Winogrand’s work all the more relevant today.