Review of Winogrand, Figments from the Real World

by Philip Greenspun

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Winogrand, Figments from the Real World by John Szarkowski 1988 Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, New York, NY 10019). ISBN 0-87070-640-3. 260 pages, 208 illustrations. $45. Paperback is ISBN 0-8109-60885. $19.95.

A lot of photographers are famous for the pictures they exhibited; Garry Winogrand is famous for pictures he never even developed. When Winogrand died in 1984, he left more than 2500 rolls of film exposed but undeveloped, 6500 rolls developed but not proofed, and 3000 rolls proofed but not examined. That's a total of a third of a million unedited exposures.

Winogrand defines street photography for photographers. In myth, he sallied forth every day with a Leica, a pre-focussed wide angle lens, and ten rolls of Tri-X, then returned home to develop a portrait of New York City. This book amply displays Winogrand's art, but it is also valuable for the lengthy essay by John Szarkowski, Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art since 1962.

My feet are so flat that my friend Deborah calls me "turtle boy" so it should come as no surprise that I don't like standing around museum exhibits reading the "art prose" that purports to interpret the paintings or photographs. Szarkowski's essay, however, opens doors into Winogrand's art and world in a way that restored my faith in museum curation.

"To list in sequence the conventionally significant events of Winogrand's life is to construct what seems on paper a chronology of troubles and failures, punctuated occasionally by underappreciated successes." Szarkowski does lay out Winogrand's two failed marriages, one lasting 14 years and the other only two (after an incomplete personal survey of the field, it seems to me that very few dedicated photographers have managed to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage). He also discusses the pain of public indifference:

"A collection of Winogrand's pictures of women in public places, mostly made during the decade of he sixties, was published in 1975 at Women Are Beautiful. Winogrand's own appreciation of women was enthusiastic and undemanding, and he naively assumed that the rest of the world, at least the rest of the male world, would be eager to buy a book of photographs of anonymous, fully-dressed women walking down the street. His expectations of commercial success were disappointed."

What for me was the most valuable part of Szarkowski's commentary is his insight into Winogrand's art. Winogrand is famous for tilting the frame. Most people assume that this is because he was burning film so fast through his Leica on the streets on New York that he didn't have time to level the horizon. Szarkowski claims the tilt is a consequence of Winogrand's choice of wide angle lens and eye-level camera position. If he wanted to fill the frame with his subjects, he'd have to point the camera down at a 45-degree angle, which would distort vertical architectural lines in the background. Winogrand compensated by "making a vertical near the left edge of his subject square with the frame, and then a vertical near the right edge, or a dominant vertical anywhere between."

Some of Szarkowski's choicest words might well be applied to a great many photographers:

"The technical decline of the last work was perhaps accelerated by Winogrand's acquisition, in 1982, of a motor-driven film advance for his Leicas, which enabled him to make more exposures with less thought. On the same day he acquired an eight-by-ten-inch view camera, an instrument that proposes a diametrically different approach to photography. The new camera was perhaps an acknowledgment that his old line of thought was nearing the breaking point. He did not use the eight-by-ten, but he talked about using it..."
Szarkowski's final words won't be applied to many, however.
"When we consider the heedless daring of his successes and his failures we become impatient with tidy answers to easy questions, and with the neat competence of much of what now passes for ambitious photography. Winogrand has given us a body of work that provides a new clue to what photography might become, a body of work that remains dense, troubling, unfinished, and profoundly challenging. The significance of that work will be thought by some to reside in matters of style or technique or philosophical posture. There is no original harm in this misunderstanding, and useful work may come of it, but it will have little to do with the work of Garry Winogrand, whose ambition was not to make good pictures, but through photography to know life."