An exhibition of recent work by Garry Winogrand opened at the Houston Center for Photography on February 10 and will be on view until March 25. Hours are 11-5 Wednesday through Friday, and noon to 5 Saturday and Sunday.
Imagine historians in the year 2500 trying to piece together the habits of the late twentieth century. What will the photographs of Garry Winogrand look like to them? (Will it make a difference if those historians are female or male?)
An audience accustomed to colorful still lifes and composed landscapes finds little in the work of Winogrand to warrant its attention. Contemporary preoccupations of colorful fantasies avoid the black and white precision of his observations, Winogrand’s photographs repeatedly draw me back and reinforce my conviction about the vitality of his work. Without his photographs, those future historians will misunderstand us. And we take that same risk.
Winogrand began photography in 1948 at the age of twenty. In 1952 he joined a photo agency and began doing work for magazines such as Colliers, Sports Illustrated, and Pageant. When Colliers stopped publishing in 1957, he started photographing for advertising agencies.
“The only thing that was good for is first of all, you have to be a competent craftsman, and second, you have to exercise discipline. You are basically solving someone else's problems. You gotta understand it and know how to solve it. I've always thought that doing commercial work like I did was an exercise in discipline. But it doesn't have anything to do with pictures. I was a good competent hack. I had no illusions about what I was doing…You get around doing commercial work, both magazine and advertising. You basically travel the way the rich man, only rich people, can travel. It gets you into things, entree into scenes that even rich people can't get into."
Of all the pictures I know, Garry Winogrand's are the most strongly referential to the world and my experience of it. The illusion that I would have seen the same thing if I had been in the same place is presented with a bombardment of visual activity; the immediacy is so overwhelming that it's easy to forget that the image is not the world; the delicate balance between order and disorder tempts me to assume that 1 would have perceived a similar visual meaning had I been there.
His inclusive attitude and wide-angle lens present a large field of action that includes the main protagonists and also all our possible reactions scattered in the faces of the spectators. He shows our performance, and he shows us watching our own performance.
The complexity of his photographs is due more to this simultaneity of seeing and being seen than to the density of his information. The frontispiece to Women Are Beautiful is a picture of a woman in an elevator. Through our own claustrophobic experiences of elevators (where everyone looks straight ahead and is very careful not to touch), this simple picture suggests the forced intimacy of that situation and the dual nature of looking. Many of the pictures in the book describe the reaction of a woman to the attention of the photographer, as well as recording the reactions of spectators. Any intimacy that might exist is on the fantasy level, at a distance which precludes touch.
Winogrand's apparent transparency and lack of "artfulness" is a long way from much of contemporary photography. His photographs are difficult to accept: they are not classical compositions like Cartier-Bresson's, nor playful ones like Andre Kertesz’; they are not even soulful in the way that pathos elevates Robert Frank's pictures. Winogrand's pictures are often in banal public territory such as airports, lobbys, streets, and parks without the romantic appeal of diners, cemeteries, or gas stations.
The pictures come from the journalistic tradition with which we are all familiar. Perhaps this similarity makes it difficult to consider them. On one hand they focus on the events we expect to be reported, such as parades, demonstrations, press conferences, but they tell us nothing in the form of our expectations. They are not good photojournalism; how can they be good photographs?