Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Garry Winogrand: Huge Influence, Early Exit

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In 1984, Garry Winogrand, one of the greatest documentary photographers of his era, died early and under-appreciated.

Which is not to say that Winogrand, a bluntspoken, sweet-natured native New Yorker, who had the voice of a Bronx cabbie and the intensity of a pig hunting truffles, was by any means unknown or unrewarded for his work. During his short life (he died of gall bladder cancer at age 56) he won a Guggenheim fellowship, was featured in Edward Steichen's classic "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and later figured prominently in two major photography shows, also at MoMA, curated by Steichen's successor John Szarkowski, one of Winogrand's early champions.

What is beyond question, though, is that the photographer's early death, as well as his own bizarre work habits, prevented the general public from fully grasping his genius – even if any street photographer worthy of the name still genuflects at the mention of this brilliant, bizarre shooter.

Simply saying Winogrand's output was large is like saying the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground. In fact, it is almost impossible to grasp just how much Winogrand photographed during his comparatively short professional life.

Consider this: at his death, Winogrand left behind 2500 undeveloped rolls of 36-exposure 35mm film (mostly Tri-X), 6,500 rolls of film that had been developed but not contact-printed–not to mention 300 apparently untouched, unedited 35mm contact sheets.

Do the math. Conservatively, that's at least 300,000 pictures – equal to at least two life's work for anyone else–that Winogrand took but never even saw, so busy he already had been photographing the world around him.

"Being married to Garry was like being married to a lens," his first wife told photography curator Trudy Wilner Stack. Colleagues, students and friends describe an almost obsessive picture-taking machine, who roamed his native New York and, during his fellowship year, the rest of the country, producing a body of work that equals – and in my opinion often exceeds–that of such documentary photography legends as Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Through the prodigious efforts of Trudy Wilner Stack, the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, where Winogrand's archive resides – as well as the International Center for Photography in New York–a new and remarkably diverse section of Winogrand's life has been revealed for the first time.

Winogrand 1964 is the name of both a beautifully printed coffee table book (Arena Editions, $60) as well as that of a recently-ended show of this work at ICP midtown. Finally, perhaps, some of the best, yet heretorfore largely unseen, work of this master shooter will find its long-overdue audience.

The 1964 photographs are the result of Winogrand's cross-country Guggenheim-funded odyssey in a battered 1957 Ford Fairlane, given to him by his friend Lee Friedlander. "This is Garry Winogrand's America book," Stack says in her afterword to Winogrand 1964. And, indeed, Winogrand set off on his journey mindful that he had huge photographic shoes to fill. Years earlier, Walker Evans had given the world American Photographs and the Swiss-born Robert Frank had raised the bar even further with his seminal book, The Americans.

The timing of Winogrand's trip was auspicious – at least in terms of the angst and ennui of the era in which he photographed. Winogrand applied for his grant in the early 60s, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear war suddenly had become a terrifying possibility. In his grant application Winogrand complained that the mass media "all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn't matter, we have not loved life.

I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper. This is my project."

By the time Winogrand received his grant, John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, stripping away even further the country's innocence and its sense of invulnerability.

Thus, a street-smart Jewish kid from the Bronx, who considered himself whole only when he held a Leica to his eye, hit the road, savoring and reflecting life through his lens.

"It's as though his life in photography really took hold in that slow car headed west," Wilner writes.

I agree.

There is Winogrand the ironist in a stunning picture of a group of elderly VFW types, campaign hats on their heads, cigarettes dangling from their lips, on a street corner in Dallas, all but encircling an elderly and apparently legless mendicant – whom they do not seem even to see.

There is a haunting, slightly disturbing, picture from Cincinnati of three young girls in ankle socks and pretty dresses, standing in a line at a curb at night, lit from behind by store or streetlight, leaning into the street yet seemingly held motionless, as a huge car floats by, a face perusing them from the passenger seat.

There's a great get from L.A. – one of the few pictures here that has had wide prior currency – showing a man and woman in a convertible on a warm night. The dark-skinned woman stares ahead implacably; her companion, one hand on the wheel, the other on the gearshift, eyes her appraisingly (?) hungrily (?). Your eye goes not only to the man's predatory gaze, but also to the huge white bandage at the bridge of his nose. How did that happen? Is he a prizefighter who took a left hook? Did his girlfriend do this to him? Or is it just a healing nose job?

Winogrand gives us no answers; only wonderfully contradictory, perplexing questions contained in seemingly artless 35mm frames.

Again we come to technique. Photographer and editor Mason Resnick recalls taking a workshop with Winogrand in 1976, ten years before the photographer died, and marveling at how Winogrand worked. He shot prolifically, Resnick recalled, often shooting an entire roll of film in the space of only one block, never breaking stride. And he was fearless, often standing in front of people to make their picture, yet always smiling or nodding at them, making contact, however brief, with his subjects – who amazingly, never seemed annoyed.

[When Resnick tried this smile-and-shoot technique, he was amazed to see that it worked for him too. Nobody beat the crap out of him; some people even smiled back! An object lesson to all street shooters: engagement with a subject is always – always – better than, in effect, taking something without permission. Winogrand was a master at gaining this subtle, yet all-important, access.]

By any standard, Winogrand followed in the proud tradition of black and white street shooters, who worked by available light, often with silent-as-night rangefinder Leicas. Yet what makes Winogrand 1964 even more amazing is its generous amount of lush, wonderfully seen color work, most if not all shot on archival Kodachrome slide film. Winogrand "photographed freely in color in 1964, exposing approximately 100 rolls on the trip alone," Wilner writes. "Black and white still dominated [at least four to one], but the color camera was often raised just seconds before or after a black and white shot was taken."

If Winogrand's color work does not have the narrative impact of his black and white work, it makes up for it in its spot-on graphic sense, using color and shape the way a jazz musician uses phrasing and tempo to shade a performance.

Technique once again: Winogrand almost never developed his film immediately. He said he deliberately waited a year or two in order to lose the memory of the take. "If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away," he told a class, "I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it." Better, he maintained to let the film "age," the better to grade slides or contact sheets objectively.

Let me say right now: If I ever had to work this way, I'd go nuts.

There is an artless formality to much of Winogrand's work here. Not many of the images feature his trademark skewed horizons – made as if he were too busy grooving on the image before him to worry about horizontals and verticals. Yet, interestingly, Winogrand maintained that he never, in effect, shot from the hip, i.e.: photographed without looking through the viewfinder. To do so, he said, would surrender too much control over the final image.

In fact, John Szarkowski has maintained that Winogrand's trademark tilt was a conscious consequence of his choice of a wide angle lens, and that the photographer subtly made at least some verticals in his picture "square with the frame" to keep the image from appearing haphazard or confusing.

I'm not so sure. I think some of Winogrand's stuff was shot on the fly, with scant regard for composition, only for content. I am sure that Garry Winogrand was a master, with a compassionate, ironic eye, and that there are doctoral dissertations and books yet to come on the incredible trove of 300,000 images that he made but never saw.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

A must-have for any street-shooter, Winogrand 1964 is a beautiful distillation of the photography Garry Winogrand did during his cross-country odyssey in 1964. Those accustomed only to his bxw work will be surprised by the strength of his color work as well.

© from Winogrand 1964 , Arena Editions
Garry Winogrand, in late '64, at the end of his Guggenheim year, looking like a young Al Franken without the glasses. Curator Trudy Wilner Stack: "He had a physical, sweet relationship with his children...He favored big cars and really appreciated beautiful woman and a good joke. He loved basketball and had his own camera moves: 'You should see my turnaround jumper.'"


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

The Gentle Appeal of Window Light

Airport Security: Better, But Still up in the Air

Oliver Stone, Coppertop & the Bunny

Claire Flanders' Gentle, Eloquent Eye

Not a Fit Night Out For Man nor Photog

'Tis the Season To be Snapping