Garry Winogrand – Master of Chaos

by Kim Steele

GARRY WINOGRAND                                                                     APRIL 2013

 

Garry’s work is not about story telling or documenting his surroundings;

it’s about not story telling.

 

Park Avenue, New York, 1956

 

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (until museum closure on June 2, 2013 for renovations for three years) is hosting the largest retrospective in twenty-five years of Winogrand’s work.  If anything it is too inclusive.  Broken down to three major periods of his career, it includes some images never seen before by the public since his death at the early age of fifty-six.  He left two thousand and six hundred rolls undeveloped film, and thousands of contact sheets he had reviewed but never printed.  As told to me by a colleague, Jeffery Scales, with whom he shot in Los Angeles, “he stated that ‘anyone could print his negatives.’ ”

 

Having been raised in the Bronx, he traveled at a young age to shoot in Manhattan, which he continued to do for twenty years.  Oddly enough, he concentrated in a specific rectangle between 42nd Street up to 57th Street, between 3rd Avenue to 8th Avenue, commonly know as ‘midtown.’ I attended a lecture by his close friend and fellow shooter, Tod Popageorge.  He described Winogrand’s random method of seeking subjects and the varied nature of his interests.  They were together while Winogrand shot one of his most iconic images, the mixed racial couple sporting twin chimpanzees.  Tod shot them first and then, showing us his contact sheets-image in the exhibition, Garry circled them to capture the vapid expressions on the couple.

 

Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967

 

This emptiness is a recurring theme in his street portraiture.  It lies far outside of the legendary street shooters, Robert Frank, who influenced him greatly, Walker Evans and his buddy Lee Friedlander.  In a way, Winogrand is closer to Diane Arbus in temperament, seeking the estranged and confused nature, but on a much more subliminal level.

 

Photography is often described as a narrative form of art, depending heavily on the series of events before and after the precise moment the image is captured.  Many shooters rely on this powerful current to empower the image.  Cartier-Bresson and his ‘Decisive Moment’ is one.  Many of Winogrand’s most compelling images run in the opposite direction, the viewer has NO idea what is going on or why!  His framing was revolutionary.  Shooting at people’s feet, truncating heads, including chaos in his images but with a magical order – like atoms momentarily coming to rest for the picture.

 

The imagery is tough to comprehend, both an acceptance of the imagery and why he was drawn to take the picture.  Obviously with the expansive trove of negatives Garry left, he was a prolific shooter.  But on examination, like Arbus, his variations were fairly well focused on a particular subject, not randomly shot to see what he might catch in his proverbial net.

 

One thing for certain, he loved young beautiful women. He married three times.

 

New York, 1968

 

But throughout his career, even in the later years in Los Angeles, after John Szarkowsi then the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, claimed that he ‘had lost his way,’ Winogrand continued to pursue the youthful beauty of women.  Another of his lifelong visual pursuits was the highly energetic activity depicted in his images,  like the swimmers on Coney Island.

 

Coney Island, 1952

 

This is why he was drawn to Times Square and airports, hyperactive dynamics.  He had a balletic manner of capturing people on the streets and creating an order that made sense of them.  Businessmen walking, woman talking, bench sitters and the like fell into a gorgeous pattern.

 

World’s Fair, New York, 1964

 

His most enigmatic series was his middle period.  He practiced as a commercial photographer for publications in the fifties, which introduced him to other parts of the US.  He rebelled against the artistic restraints of the editors, and pursued personal photography exclusively.  Despite his statement that his “photos aren’t pretty,” he developed a strong audience.  From his travels he became intrigued with the Southwestern United States, particularly Texas.  There are some riveting images from that period that are 180 degrees from his New York work.  One powerful image is a boy frozen in a driveway in a ranch home in the middle of the desert, quiet, forlorn and barren.

 

Albuquerque, New Mexico 1957

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1957

 

My most favorite group of his images is from the Ft. Worth Rodeo.  He was commissioned to shoot the rodeo, and the results are breathtaking. He employed the strobe to capture a ghosting of the massive animals, flash caught in the crazed eyes, and blurring the rest of the image to create it’s own chaos. These images are very compelling, and revolutionary for their time, greatly influencing me.

 

Fort Worth Rodeo, Texas

 

There is much discussion on his waning years. Did Garry loose his chutzpah?  He appeared to often disregard the art-going public and explore his own interests.  It requires ‘a lot of confidence and courage to do something, especially something that might involve being impolite to someone in authority’ – that being the art going public.  Many people feel this work is banal. I vehemently disagree. Surrealsim is often touted as the unconscious art form, or as Walter Benjamin stated, “getting the mind out to the way of the artistic expression.” Winogrand accomplishes this.  Every photographer is intimidated to just walk on the street to capture images. It is truly an accomplishment and enjoys a rich tradition. Winogrand embraces this opportunity and succeeds. Looking at the three women walking in an arcade in Los Angeles with backlighting, they speak to us on a non-verbal level, and are compelling as a ‘good time.’ 

 

It is difficult to comprehend his internal machinations because his imagery is non-revealing.  The range is broad, from boisterous to desperate.  It is in this oeuvre that he holds a hallowed place in the photographic pantheon.

 

Sailor, Queens, New York, 1950

Kim Steele April 23, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Brilliant!!!

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