Book Review by James Hugunin:
Winogrand 1964 by Trudy Wilner Stack
Exhibition Catalogue for "Winogrand 1964," Photographs from the Garry Winogrand Archive,
Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona (Arena Editions, 2003)
Amid the deafening traffic of the town
Tall, slender, in deep mourning, with majesty,
A woman passed, raising, with dignity
In her posed hand, the flounces of her gown;
Graceful, noble, with a statue's form.
And I drank, trembling as a madman thrills,
From her eyes, ashen sky where brooded storm,
The softness that fascinates, the pleasure that kills.
A flash . . . then night! -- O lovely fugitive,
I am suddenly reborn from your swift glance;
Shall I never see you till eternity?
. . .
-- excerpt from "To a Passer-by," Les Fleurs du mal, Charles Baudelaire
Baudelaire-as-flâneur here presents the quintessential experience of the modern city: the fascination and shock which attend the pedestrian's encounter with the metropolitan crowd. But where Baudelaire speculates with melancholy whether he might ever see this intriguing apparition again, the modern street photographer guarantees our ability to re-experience the fleeting event. The camera as optical scalpel excises a slice from the flux of the real and embalms it in a gelatin-silver print. No waiting until eternity to again see that posed hand or flounces of gown.
Walter Benjamin viewed Baudelaire's poem as capturing the utter impoverishment of human life subject to the commodity form; the poem, he said, articulates the fragmentation of coherent experience and its replacement by a plethora of disparate, discontinuous impressions. The technological development of the camera has followed this trajectory: from long duration of exposure suffered by sitters before daguerreotypists to the millisecond cut into the temporal flow by photojournalists wielding their Leicas. Such instantaneous views became desired commodities and began to fill the picture magazines of Europe by the 1920s; American picture magazine followed a decade later with Life and Look. Such images mainly celebrated the throbbing pulse of modern life, intrigued by the unusual vantage point, or fascinated by quick action halted. Some photography, dubbed "Concerned Photography," looked into the plight of the marginalized, the suffering of the world with the hopes of changing conditions. W. Eugene Smith's life's work comes to mind.
With the publication of Robert Frank's The Americans (1959) a different sensibility became visible. During the 1950s a photographer had two choices of praxis: 1) reportage/photojournalism that communicated objective fact; and 2) subjective photography -- evocative, poetic, "difficult" imagery that tested one's ability to "read" a photograph. If the photojournalist communicated straightforwardly, the subjective photographer (such as Minor White) probed the personal and collective unconscious. Frank's body of work did not fit comfortably in either category. It outraged many critics who claimed Frank was distorting the facts and using stylistic bravado to suit his own vision. Which, of course, he was. It was, as John Szarkowski would later oxymoronically put it, personal documentary, a "New Document." A suturing together of fact / fiction akin to a visual version of Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo-journalism.
Frank's more personal aesthetic influenced a generation of "photographers of the social landscape" (as curators Thomas Garver and Nathan Lyons came to refer to them). One major figure to arise within this generation was Garry Winogrand. A watershed year in Winogrand's development as American premier street photographer was 1964. Drawing upon the massive archive of Winogrand's work housed at the Garry Winogrand Archive at the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, Arizona, curator of exhibitions and collections, Trudy Wilner Stack, has put together an important sampling (195 images, black-and-white and color, many only now seen for the first time) of this restive photographer's work from a year that saw the introduction of the topless bathing suit, the outbreak of numerous race riots across the U.S., Cassius Clay changing his name to Muhammad Ali, the Supreme Court upholds the Civil Rights Act in two separate challenges, the release of The Rolling Stones's first album, the Beatles phenomenon, and the deposing of Nikita Khrushchev as the Soviet Union's Premier.
As the catalogue and exhibition makes explicit, in 1963 Winogrand wrote in his Guggenheim Grant application (which he received in 1964 and used to continue crisscrossing the United States, photographing the American scene): "I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn't matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines [our press]. They 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 and deeper. This is my project." Robert Frank could have made such an observation about us Americans. We see the same disconnect among people, the bland sameness of dress, and a Puritanical drabness of the social which Frank caught in his images.
Dallas (1964) Garry Winogrand
It is certainly right to condemn formalism, but it iso rdinarily forgotten that its error is not that it
esteems form too much, but that it esteems it so little that it detaches it from meaning.
-- "Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence," Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Compare that socially-inflected 1963 insight into his practice with a later more solipsistic statement by Winogrand: "I photograph to see what the world looks like photographed." What has intervened? John Szarkowski's taking up the cause of street photography's snapshot aesthetic under the rubric of his Greenbergian modernist-formalist theory of photography. Like Clement Greenberg with painting during the 1950s, the "Czar of Photography" set the connoisseurial tone for visual haute cuisine during the 1960s, a tone which touted photography's five inherent aspects --subject matter, vantage point, time, frame, and detail -- as creative elements used to produce "a picture." This picture, according to Szarkowski, gave us little knowledge about the world and more about how the intelligent eye of the photographer saw that world, how he (more hes than shes) constructed a new order and clarity out of the discordant flux of the real. Winogrand's later repudiation of social message in his work was firmly in line with his chief curatorial benefactor's conception of photographic practice as a highly refined formal game strategy. In The Photographer's Eye (1966), Szarkowski refers to the boundaries of the frame as akin to a billiard table's cushion. Such a formalist reading is exemplified in Szarkowski's analysis of specific images in Looking at Photographs (1973). Knowing which side his bread was buttered on, Winogrand simply picked up this formalist artspeak, confirming Szakowksi's appreciation of his work.
What I found so intriguing in Stack's Winogrand 1964 (and realized during a summer 2003 exhibition at Columbia College's Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago) was a turn away from the Szarkowskian formalist construction of this seminal photographer by situating his imagery within a social context, providing a time-line of events from 1964 and reproducing Winogrand's statement showing his original concern for the social implications of his subject matter. Moreover, she provides us insight into Winogrand's color work (the originals are slides) that Szarkowski tended to ignore until he suddenly gave his blessing to color photography with his show William Eggleston's Guide (1976). Appropriately, the Museum of Contemporary Photography concurrently showed work by Eggleston during the Winogrand show. Winogrand's color work -- contemporaneous with Helen Levitt's and Joel Meyerowitz's color street photography -- adheres to the tenets of what photo historian Jonathan Green calls "New Color": snapshot-like banal subjects with subdued color, color as pertaining to light not form. In other words, Winogrand's color work anticipates later color photography, it appears surprisingly contemporary compared to his black-and-white work. It makes one want to see more color work by other photographers during the early Sixties when color was not seriously considered by most photography curators.
Houston (1964) Garry Winogrand
Winogrand's work wasn't to make its big big splash until 1967 when it was included in Szarkowski's New Documents show, which included Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus. Later, his book The Animals (1969) and Public Relations (1977) would confirm him as a master. But this exhibition and book allows to see that by 1964 he had already mastered his approach to demotic subject matter, the snapshot aesthetic whereby complex, diverse social reality is smartly stuffed into the confines of the frame in a way that maximizes all the possibilities of surprise, comedy, biting satire, and visual moxey. It confirms that Winogrand did see his obsessive clicking away at our human gestures within our built environment as connected to revealing how the modern city has shaped us and we it -- for good and bad. Like in Baudelaire's poem to a passer-by, here little things count: an untucked shirt of a tourist photographing his family at Lake Tahoe (p. 57); the drooping jowls of a morose visitor to a make-shift Kennedy memorial on Dealey Plaza (p.102); a cigar poking out of a man's mouth on Dealey Plaza (p. 103); a bizarre hat on a woman arriving at Candlestick Park (p. 166); thick glasses tumbling off teen's face at Candlestick Park (p. 171); the absurd gawking grin on a Veteran of Foreign Wars in Dallas ( p. 131); an array of expressions on faces in a crowd at a State Fair (p. 134); and, the elegant formal repetition of angular shapes in home, car and landscape in a shot of a suburban dwelling (p. 191).
Dallas (gelatin silver print, 1964) Garry Winogrand
Winogrand jostled among us; he trolled the modern crowd (which for those who first observed it, the urban masses aroused both fear and curiosity) for choice catches. He hooked and filleted our awkward humanity and sometimes maimed bodies; he recorded our furtive hustlings about town and witnessed the banalities of our social landscape like a man brooding over our cities as they were already in ruins or simply awaiting an impending apocalypse. His images -- we enjoy them as urban tableaux vivants and, not unsurprisingly, this look has been simulated in postmodernist photographic efforts by the likes of Jeff Wall -- evoke an over all sense of melancholy even as they depict the ephemeral beauty of the passing moment within the turmoil of human activity. This is firmly in line with Baudelaire's touting of modernité as an aesthetics of the contingent, the fleeting and transient. The casual stroller of the social landscape is the mute witness to such contingencies. Walter Benjamin viewed this flâneur who observes and muses over such contingencies as a figure of, a symbol for, the intensification and disintegration of experience in the modern city. But beginning with Baudelaire, this spy among us speaks. More recently he has moved on from poetic words to poetic pictures. He can now provide photographic evidence of the fusion of self and world via such "New Documents" as Winogrand and his peers generously provide us.
James Hugunin teaches the History of Photography and Contemporary Theory at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago .