Sasha Waters Freyer’s Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable, a documentary about the great American photographer, was released last month and is currently running in select theaters. In an essay for our website, Dennis Zhou reviews the film as well as The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (2018), a recent critical study by British writer Geoff Dyer.
In A.i.A.’s October 1988 issue, art historian Kenneth Silver wrote an electric essay about “Figments from the Real World,” a travelling retrospective of Winogrand’s photographs organized by John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Silver situates Winogrand within the longer tradition of European art, comparing his imagery to that of political observers like Goya and Hogarth. He also makes the intriguing suggestion that the famous “Winogrand tilt”—the diagonal slant of his photos—was influenced of the painterly slashes of Abstract Expressionism. We present Silver’s essay in full below. —Eds.
GARRY WINOGRAND’S New York is as complete and developed a representation, and is as internally coherent, as Louis Auchincloss’s New York, only inside out: Auchincloss’s tales of Manhattan unfold in the clubs and boardrooms of the privileged, while Winogrand’s instantaneous narratives are blurted out on the street and in the parks that nominally belong to everyone else. In a photograph of 1968, a black man, tipping left owing to the angle of the camera, puts out his hand to accept the change offered by the anonymous white hand which extends itself from the four perfect buttons of the arm of a suit jacket. Thrust into the picture from the lower left, the still closed white hand, which somewhat resembles a clenched fist, has not yet relinquished its gift. The rushing, receding orthogonals of the perspective, which find their horizon line just to the right of the beggar’s head, are dizzying—they may be an echo of the panhandler’s inebriation, or of our presumption of his inebriation. But the pictorial vertigo is surely the sign of our discomfort, a visual emblem of our knowledge that the scales of American society are so terribly tipped in the direction of the white bourgeoisie. Of course, there is more than a bit of irony here: not only does the beggar make a much less vigorous effort to extend his hand to the donor than the donor does to him, but the two hands cannot help but make us recall those most famous reaching hands—those of God and Adam on Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling. All the more indelible, then, is this image of the unblessedness of those who receive. As the moving white pedestrian makes a lateral pass of his charity, the black beggar—for whom nothing much will ever move—remains a fixture of the street. All donors are alike, the picture seems to tell us; every unhappy recipient is unhappy in his own way.
Even when Winogrand wandered indoors, which usually meant to an art opening, he found his way to the teeming multitudes: his photograph of the Metropolitan Museum Centennial Ball of 1969 looks like a black-tie rendition of rush hour in Times Square, as a peroxide-blond Venus—surrounded by the boozers of the charity ball circuit—sways to the rhythms in her head as she listens to those of Lester Lanin. Not for Winogrand the space and silence that only money can buy; the world of his pictures is crowded and noisy, and when it is neither, it is either peculiar or melancholy. When Winogrand photographed outside New York, especially in Texas and California after 1973, he usually put himself in the crush of humanity that is the natural habitat of native New Yorkers.
The famous “Winogrand Tilt,” much imitated but also much maligned, was in large part the photographer’s solution for problems posed by the New York street. For not only is the use of the diagonal the first law of two-dimensional pictorial dynamics—it creates movement, where the typical verticals and horizontals of the New York street establish stasis—but it also represents a gravity-defying act. In order to depict a gridded city of rapidly receding perspectives, Winogrand had to make a choice with his wide-angle Leica: either get his horizontals level (as it says in the “good photography” manuals) or his verticals straight, and he idiosyncratically chose the latter. Yet, like all highly instinctive human beings, great artists make great choices, and Winogrand’s willingness to tilt his camera—like Balanchine’s decision to simply “speed up” classical ballet—turned out to be a powerful metaphor that was soon invoked by the artist even when not dictated by circumstance: as the very ground beneath their feet seems to toss and heave, the passengers on Winogrand’s drunken boat of a picture miraculously keep their balance.
Gratia sub pressu, these photographs tell us, is the motto that should be inscribed beneath the seal of the City of New York. The compositional balance and visual rhymings of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Flaubert-like spareness of Walker Evans or the Romantic colorism of a Robert Frank—and we cannot imagine Winogrand’s work without these precedents—is eschewed in favor of the fasttalking, wisecracking style of Charles MacArthur’s and Ben Hecht’s journalists in The Front Page. “Grace under pressure” for Winogrand means that one can chew gum, walk and take pictures all at the same time.
Indeed the “Winogrand tilt” has its origin in earlier New York art, although the sources are in painting rather than photography. The slashing diagonals and vertiginous crisscrossings of direction that we rightly think of as characteristic of Winogrand’s pictures are analogous to, and surely made (if unconsciously) under the influence of, the painterly slashes of the Abstract Expressionists. More generally, the adjectives by which we would characterize Winogrand’s art are applicable both to New York City itself and to its so-called Action Painters: impetuous, turbulent, energized, dense, chaotic, direct. In strictly formal terms we feel the presence not only of Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning, but also of Jackson Pollock in both the “allover” quality of the dispersal of incident across Winogrand’s visual field (with its implied New World democratic expansiveness and lack of hierarchy), and in the role which “chance” plays in the art of Pollock and Winogrand. When Pollock said, “I don’t use the accident—’cause I deny the accident,” he was asserting what Winogrand shows us in almost every photograph, that great art is as much a matter of harnessing the higher-order “accidents” of aaesthetic endeavor (which are thus transformed into intentions) as it is a question of eliminating the accidents that result from the fumblings of the neophyte.
AS DEMONSTRATED by the retrospective exhibition of Winogrand’s art, “Figments from the Real World,” organized by John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art (where it closed in August) and now traveling around the country, Garry Winogrand was an artist for whom aesthetic “accidents” were not merely a way of life (for that is true for every photographer of the “documentary” variety, the medium’s Realists), but for whom the appearance of accident—its trace—was, as it was for Pollock before him, a sign for freedom. The power of the seemingly haphazard, under-designed look of a Winogrand photograph is to catch us unawares—to recreate for us the “accidents” with which Winogrand was continually confronted, and over which he had to gain control. Again, he seems close to Pollock here: in Winogrand’s art, photographic mastery over the contingent takes on the quality of an existential reckoning.
In fact, the element of surprise that makes itself so evident in Winogrand’s first book of photographs, The Animals, of 1969, has its origin in popular culture, in the candid camera images, “Antics at the Zoo,” that are still published in the Daily News—the elephant that snatches the toupee off the head of some visiting dignitary; the starlet who poses beside the peacock with the attendant caption: “Suzy and Feathered Friend Both Strut Their Stuff”; the monkey that makes a gesture that looks identical to one that Ed Koch made at a recent press conference (headline: “Hizzoner Has Voter Support in the Bronx!”). As Szarkowski tells us in his excellent essay in the show’s catalogue, Winogrand, before receiving his first Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964, worked for years as a photojournalist. A protegé of the legendary Alexey Brodovitch, photographer and art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Winogrand was soon taking pictures for that magazine, as well as for Collier’s, Argosy, Redbook and Sports Illustrated. Among his photo essays were “Whitey the Goat and Her Kids” and “Cat Meets Dog.”
The Animals is at once an homage to and a correction of the “human interest” genre, except that what results is poetry. A young couple leans against the railing outside the coyote cage; the man, whose face is in shadow apart from the forehead and one eye that is picked out by bright sunlight, stares with rapt attention and sexual desire into the woman’s eyes (which we cannot see, since her head is turned towards him and away from us) as she talks to him in the relaxed but defensive pose of crossed arms and legs. Meanwhile, in the cage, unbeknownst to them but apparent to us, on a direct line created by the diagonal of a shadow which points directly to the couple, walks the white figure of a lone coyote. Caption? “Love is a game of mutual entrapment”; or “Our desire for love is like the wild animal we must keep contained until the right moment”; or “Those who are beautiful, young and in love, like this couple, are oblivious to the hazards that lie ahead”; or “A wild beast lurks in every human heart and every human relationship.” Et cetera. Whatever we finally conclude about the meaning of a Winogrand picture, and it is likely to be less prolix than the above, it will not make a headline, although it often makes a profoundly moving story.
We might even go so far as to say that Winogrand’s art is built on a misplaced expectation: working not only in the medium but even in the style of the photojournalist, and seeming to stalk the photojournalist’s prey, Winogrand leads us to the threshold of the “one-liner,” anticipating—not wrongly—the salient caption which will explain and limit the meanings of the image. Instead, the meanings of his images seem to multiply before our eyes; the interpretations become unfixed; the points of view point us in so many directions, and demand so many conflicting sympathies, it is no wonder that Winogrand’s art has been, for the last two decades, one of the primary battlefields of photographic intention.
One might well ask what kind of caption could be devised for one of Winogrand’s greatest and most famous pictures, an image made at the Central Park Zoo in 1967. A superbly handsome couple—a blond, white woman and a black man—are captured on what appears to be a brilliant autumn day at the zoo: their noble features and serious expressions (both are focused on something outside the frame) give them the slightly unreal appearance of perfect “specimens” of their respective races. Yet their racial difference is not the only fact for which we are unprepared in this realm of Platonic ideals, for in their arms are two monkeys—clearly playing the role of progeny, dressed as they are in children’s clothes and clinging to their “parents” with proprietary grip. As if to make even more emphatic the contrast between our expectations and what we see, Winogrand gives us an almost archetypal image of childhood at the lower right, a little white boy in a double-breasted chesterfield coat and matching hat. Is this couple aware of their incongruous appearance? Or is it only our uneasiness that creates this incongruity? Are they incapable of having children? Perhaps they simply don’t want children. Or perhaps they have children at home. Yet, as the photographer Paul McDonough has said of this picture, what is an incongruity for one viewer here “may be just the opposite for another—a confirmation, or fantasy fulfillment, for those bigots who had always claimed that a polluting of the races would be the eventual outcome of manumission,”1 a cockeyed world view that also recalls the arguments against the teaching of evolution at the Scopes trial. It is not that the words which we use to come to terms with the image are beside the point, they are very much to the point; they are nonetheless incapable of exhausting the original power of, or in any real sense “explaining,” what we see. It is a picture that, by turns, makes us laugh and brings us close to tears. In the beginning there was . . . the gaze.
BUT IF Winogrand is an artist of place—specifically, of the concrete jungle—he is also an artist of time, which yet again betrays his beginnings in photojournalism, with its twin gods of the City Desk: Where and When. Leo Rubinfien wrote in 1977: “As a photographer, Winogrand owns the 1960s in the special sense in which it is commonly said that Robert Frank owns the 1950s, or Walker Evans the 1930s.”2 Not surprisingly, Winogrand’s New York of the 1960s—which extends back at least to 1955 and forward to 1973—has a period flavor; what is perhaps less readily apparent is that the quality of life on the New York street was in the midst of a radical change.
Winogrand began photographing in earnest on the sidewalks of New York just at the moment when gentlemen ceased to wear hats and ladies to wear white gloves on our grimy pavements. (As late as 1957, my father, who was neither particularly fashionable nor especially old-fashioned, still wore a straw boater to the office during the summer.) Winogrand came of age along with that king of style, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who, after first going hatless on the campaign trail, proceeded to become our hatless, youngest president in 1960. JFK was the incarnation of the vast middle-class dream of selfbetterment, which could not prevail, or so it seemed, if the system of elite social prerogatives—symbolized by hats and gloves—were not abolished. Even if there has been no discernible withering away of the classes, the wearing of hats and gloves as pure symbols vanished into thin air. Simultaneously—and it is not clear which is the chicken and which is the egg—the main thoroughfares of midtown Manhattan were transformed from corridors of more-or-less decorous behavior into vast, outdoor, public stages for the representation of an ongoing, modern passion play. The quintessence of the new New York street of the 1960s was traffic commissioner Henry Barnes’s attempt to choreograph The New Chaos: how many recall the so-called “Barnes Dance,” whereby pedestrians at heavily used midtown intersections would no longer cross the street when alternating streams of traffic stopped, as is normal, but instead were given a moment in which all lights went red at once, and they could swarm any which way—even diagonally across the intersections? It was every man for himself, as pedestrians rushed for the distant shores of the other side. I don’t recall any longer Barnes’s rationale for this plan or how long this new “freedom” for the pedestrian lasted; it could not have been more than a few weeks. But the die was cast: henceforth the energies that were coursing so rapidly through American culture would make themselves felt everywhere, all the time and in public. And Winogrand was there stage-managing it for posterity.
Winogrand was especially interested in political demonstrations—street theater par excellence—although his representation of politics in late ’60s America is rather more non-partisan than was typical of the era: he was not averse to photographing a right-wing counterdemonstration against the anti-Vietnam War Left in Central Park in 1969. Not only does he orchestrate a remarkable abundance of visual information, including waving flags, bare branches of trees and a mass of humanity near and in the background, but he creates a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a fat park employee who, as he converses with New York’s Finest, holds to his heart a correctly folded stars-and-stripes. Does this mean that Ralph Kramden was a real patriot? Maybe and maybe not, because the previous year Winogrand made a ghastly image of a peace demonstration outside Madison Square Garden, in which a young man who stares straight into the camera has almost certainly been the victim of those same New York City cops: the entire left-hand side of his face bleeds profusely and we can also see the dried blood on his hands. This image may not be the stuff of which great modern art is usually made—such direct observation of the passing political scene is usually considered detrimental to high aesthetic ambition—but if that is so, then Francisco Goya will have to be removed from the honor roll as well.
But perhaps it is only that I have not evoked well enough the picture’s resonances. Because it is probably fair to say that if all Winogrand had done in this picture was to set down a record of police brutality, he ought not be admitted into art’s Valhalla. Yet this is not the case, for what he has given us—with a clarity and an intensity that is astonishing—is also a picture of the dangers of sight, of the enormous burden of trying to see clearly. With the instincts of a master chef at the green market, Winogrand picks out five perfect young characters (left to right: a tall white man, a black man, the bloodied central character, another white man in woven vest and a final black man), all of whom wear glasses. The blood of the protagonist drips down his face under his eyeglasses. Is he some modern Oedipus, tragically cursed, and who, knowing of his double sin, gouges out his own eyes? Is this not also the photographer who, Pandora-like, cannot stop himself from looking, whatever the cost? At the very least we can say this: five individuals now see what they may not have seen before. And if we include the viewer of the photograph as well, that makes six.
THE ABOVE reference to Goya is not, by the way, altogether incidental to a discussion of Winogrand’s art. For Winogrand does indeed assume his place not only in a printmaker’s tradition of political imagery—which of course includes Goya, along with Hogarth, Daumier, Grosz, and many others—but also in a tradition of representations of street life, a venerable European practice, of which both Eugène Atget and August Sander were, in their own ways, late inheritors. I am referring specifically to what were known as the “Cries of the City,” which began to appear at the end of the fifteenth century but which proliferated during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Annibale Carracci in the sixteenth century and Jacques Callot in the seventeenth are probably the two best-known draftsmen to depict what was in effect a visual lexicon of the various “cries” of the urban street vendors. Paris, London, Rome, Bologna, Vienna, Berlin, and many other cities not only had their vernacular town criers—who announced everything from the latest news to the availability of leeks, cocoa, and porcelain repair—but also had an almost simultaneous folk tradition of depicting the various petits métiers de la rue in a gridded format, which showed, usually in etched form, but also in woodcut and later lithography, the individual vendors, their wares, and sometimes the actual words they cried on the street. (The vegetable vendors of modern-day Paris who still call out their produce at the market are probably aware of the venerability of their cries; the hot dog vendor at the American ball park, on the other hand, is probably less well informed about his antecedents.) When Atget shows us his great picture of an organ grinder and serenading urchin, or his lampshade vendor, or his street sweeper, he is at once recording a fact of European street life that survived into the first decades of our own century and renewing a tradition of depicting that street life which was nearly as powerful and time-honored as the things depicted.
All by way of saying that, without discounting the modernity of Winogrand’s photography, it is important to recognize that the roots of his art go deep into the soil of European consciousness; if some have claimed that his “candid” images of modern urban existence look dated in the light of postmodernism, it is probably equally true to say that they were not so utterly new even when they were new. Although it is difficult to imagine Winogrand’s art as having emerged at any other time than when it did—his interest in popular culture is very much an interest he shares with the Pop artists (and, like Warhol, Winogrand began as a commercial artist)—we nonetheless find that a great deal of art history, whether consciously alluded to or unconsciously summoned forth, is writ large across these seemingly unprecedented pictures. His bench-full of suburban girls, who have been a bit too long at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, with their interlocking gestures of fatigue, complicity and late-afternoon vanity, remind us of nothing so much as the goddesses from the east pediment of the Parthenon. The couple on the Circle Line boat (misidentified in the catalogue as the Staten Island Ferry), 1971, who are rather better dressed and more attractive than most of their fellow passengers pressing against the railings alongside and above, stand together, isolated in the center of the picture; they have the air of two saints, or of Adam and Eve, on the panels of a Northern Renaissance altarpiece. A mother and her two children are suddenly mesmerized, stopped short on a cold, wintry day along a cross street on the upper west side of Manhattan, by the sight of a fire burning in a trash can. Is this the Three Ages of Man—curious infant, anxious child, melancholy woman—as it might be depicted by a modern-day Wright of Derby, except that in place of the effects of a near-vacuum on animate objects, we find that it is mere combustion which reveals the onlookers’ emotional life to us?
And richest in allusion and most visionary of all is Winogrand’s photograph of Los Angeles, California, 1969, which turns out to be, on close inspection, a picture of the city’s most famous intersection: Hollywood and Vine. Here are Three Graces who remind us of those in Botticelli’s Primavera or Ingres’s L’Age d’Or, or Roger de la Fresnaye’s Ville de Paris, lit from behind like the stargazers and sunset-worshipers in Caspar David Friedrich. They cast long intersecting shadows, as dramatic as Tintoretto’s or Tanguy’s, as they move along the highway of dreams. We can read gossip-monger Louella Parsons’s name affixed to the terrazzo star on which they are about to tread, in a deep perspective that makes us think of Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe. But that is not all, for at the left foreground in shadow sits a severely crippled man or woman (it is difficult to tell which) in a wheelchair with a cup for taking donations wedged between his/her knees. The Graces all look in the cripple’s direction and seem to step just ever so slightly away, in an arc that any of us might make in order to distance ourselves, instinctively, from what we want to avoid. Yet, in this wondrous play of light, one’s mind wanders towards other miracles—and so the Graces begin to look like Magi, and the poor creature on the Los Angeles public assistance rolls takes on some of the mythic quality of the paralytic that, as both Mark and Matthew tell, Christ saw fit to miraculously heal. But then again this is Hollywood and Vine, and it is easy to believe in miracles in such proximity to those sound stages where Cecil B. De Mille asked Charlton Heston to part the Red Sea.
Be that as it may, Winogrand seems always to have believed, at least for much of his adult life, in the redemptive powers of unclouded vision. In a picture he made in the mid-’70s al the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show, we find again one of his favorite themes: the odd coupling of man and beast. Here a big man, a Texan whose belt buckle displays a longhorn steer, holds an enormous—it must be a championship-size, Texas-size!—rabbit in his arms. Both the man and his prize rabbit look oddly becalmed; the human stares down, avoiding the camera’s eye and the flash gun, while the rabbit looks straight ahead at us. The animal is so enormous and Winogrand gives him such attention that it makes us think of Dürer’s depictions of the fauna of Paradise. But to claim this for the picture is in fact to glorify the image in terms that are ultimately inappropriate. For there is almost no pictorial rhetoric here at all—by all standards it is not a good picture, not even by the standards that Winogrand himself had already set. Yet it is a great work of art in precisely the way that Winogrand made great pictures from the earliest days—it testifies, and that alone seems to constitute a miracle.
1. Paul McDonough, in conversation with the author, May 1988.
2. Leo Rubinfien, “The Man in the Crowd,” Artforum (Dec. 1977), p. 33.