The Garry Winogrand retrospective had been full of images chosen and printed in Winogrand’s lifetime, as well as chosen and printed posthumously without Winogrand’s permission; he, who can only be assumed to have been a city person, had the reputation of being an aggressive photographer. Standing among the milling people outside of the Metropolitan Museum, I wondered about that word, aggressive.

The photograph that came to mind, not present in the exhibition but emblematic of the predatory approach, is the image of Winogrand’s shadow elongated onto the back of a woman, onto her fur hat possibly. Somewhere, every photographer shooting strangers has a version of this shadow.

But Winogrand chose to print it. Look at that picture. He has to be right in it – in the middle of it – of the situation, and in the center of the crowd, to take the picture.

Isn’t that the premise of most street photography? “If the picture wasn’t good enough, the photographer wasn’t close enough,” I think the old saying goes.

Not so with Robert Frank photographs, which are close to the action but idealistic. 

New York, 1965, Gelatin silver print, Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher

Winogrand rarely took pictures of celebrities other than political figures, or even inherently glamorous people, but his photographs are glamorous. Born in the Bronx, Garry Winogrand frequently photographed Manhattan and grew up in a big city, where in the 60s people came and still come, to be photographed. His photographs show bodies against bodies in only the way a city can force them together.

Aggressive. I think of Wegee listening to the police wire for reports of homicides. I think of Cindy Sherman staging herself as seen by a predator through her bathroom door. I think of Diane Arbus approaching misfits spotted in the park –

But Diane Arbus is empathetic with her subjects. 

I’ve never believed someone’s asked permission is necessarily empathetic. 

And, Cindy Sherman could never be called aggressive. Her pictures are staged. The viewer observes not the action, but the staging. 

The city and those who fill it. Groups of people clamoring – clamoring around each other, anonymous people gathered around and whispering, around some action, the president’s arrival, or more so, anonymous people drawn to the center of Winogrand’s attention – like a woman head thrown back in front of a store laughing. If a person in a Winogrand photograph is alone, the person is usually a drifter skirting a scene. Or a fragment of a larger pocket. A photographer directs our attention: cast in the afternoon light, women on their lunch breaks are enshrined.

Los Angeles, 1969, Gelatin silver print, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Reading and re-reading descriptions of social groups taking forming across the Atlantic Ocean at the same time, in the 1970s, in the Parisian clans of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, the question occurs: What would it have looked like for Winogrand to photograph out-right exhibitionism of the fashion world, rather than the unidentified cast of the street? Seen by Winogrand, what would a photograph have looked like where Warhol is adjusting his wig, and in mimicry of the accessorized wig, Karl Lagerfeld fanning himself with a fold-out fan?

A viewer of the exhibition wandered through, saying, “He is unemotional. I was never a fanatic – although Winogrand captured his time.”

One of the most alone photographs – one not marked to be printed by Winogrand but selected from contact sheets after his death – is the picture of a woman lying in the gutter of a passed automobile, a discarded person. Shot between 1980 and 1983, the woman looks like the remains of the previous era’s photographs, that era full of political conventions, post-war tuxedo balls, and bouffant hair. Lying in the gutter, the highest rides dropping the lowest afterward, the woman embodies this quote by Winogrand, “Literal description, or the illusion of literal description, is what the tools and materials of still photography do better than any other medium.”

Los Angeles, 1980 – 1983, Gelatin silver print, Posthumous print (frame not marked by Winogrand on contact sheet), courtesy The Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona

In his grant application to the Guggenheim Foundation, Winogrand wrote that he could not accept the evidence collected within his own photographs, and this was the reason in fact to keep photographing, to find something other than – a dystopic American life.

He must have loved to have been downtown. Not prone to leaving the sidewalks, the businessman cigar-in-mouth, and the automobile. He sought the intrusions most easily found in public. He did not want to be intruded upon, but wanted to look at by-chance encounters between groups of people. Sometimes the encounter existed between Winogrand and a stranger, and the term aggressive is applied, because Winogrand is expectant, and the other person unexpectant. Sometimes divergent groups are observing each other, or even more, encroaching upon each other.

Another remembered anecdote about photographers, paraphrased I think from Diane Arbus, “Photographers like to be around people and alone at the same time.”

Some photographers meet a person outside and bring them inside, but Winogrand was not interested in knowing more. He was intent on knowing what could be found in a split second. Winogrand’s photographs are a belief that all important information will be provided in an encounter. Not a performance and not a staging. By definition, a photographer likes to encounter.

Metropolitan Museum of Art Centennial Ball, New York City, New York, 1969, printed 1974, Gelatin silver print, Gift of William Berley (1978), © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Favorite Winogrand pictures: some of the lascivious Ball pictures. And actually, all of the automobile images, though I usually dislike pictures taken in cars. Plus a picture taken from above, looking onto an afloat swimmer. What about you?

The detail of the chain linked inside a man’s blazer and the picture of sock and loafer feet lying to the side of a gathered crowd. And car pictures, yes, mostly one of a man shouting, or yawning, in the driver’s seat.

The detachment of observation is not unemotional but – 

emotion appears as a brusque welcome.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art was flooded on a Saturday, the remains of the museum emptied onto the stairs at closing. People rubbed elbows with one another in a rush to reach the sidewalk first.

New York World’s Fair, 1964, Gelatin silver print, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Dr. L.F. Peede, Jr.

Erin Leland

Based in New York, Erin Leland is an artist using photography, writing and video. She has recently exhibited in the group exhibition, White Petals Surround Your Yellow Heart at the ICA in Philadelphia and in her solo exhibition, Everything is Everything at Michael Strogoff Gallery in Marfa, Texas.

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