Garry Winogrand

Winogrand (1928-1984)

My tutor suggested I would find it helpful to take a look at some of Garry Winogrand’s work and so I spent a Saturday at The British Library looking at:

  • Winogrand: Figments from the Real World by John Szarkowski; and
  • The Man in the Crowd – the uneasy streets of Garry Winogrand.  

Before looking at the photographs, I thought it would be helpful to understand something of the man himself, his background and his contemporaries.  Winogrand had been studying painting at Columbia University when a visit to the university’s darkroom led him to abandon his course and take up photography instead.  In his first few years, photography earned him little money.  He worked as a stringer from 1951 and acquired an agent in 1954.  During the 1950s he worked as a photojournalist during the boom years for the picture magazines but, as this work faded away in the early 60’s he switched to commercial work. His close friend and peer was Lee Friedlander.  Later in his life, once his personal work had become more widely accepted, Winogrand taught at art schools and universities.

Winogrand told his contemporary Tod Papageorge that he felt he only began to become a serious photographer in 1960.  According to Szarkowski, Winogrand was part of ‘the available light revolution’.  Amongst other things, this would have meant using graphic qualities to impart meaning and also moving in closer to include less in the frame. Although not originally knowledgeable about other photographers, Winogrand had been shown American Photographs by Walker Evans, this caused him to realise that photography could be used intelligently and the book remained a significant influence on his work.  From 1960, Winogrand began to photograph the ‘magic power’ of women on the street leading to his, (weakest), book, ‘Women are Beautiful‘.

Pictures of family outings led Winogrand to realise that there was more to Central Park Zoo and this led to his book ‘The Animals’ in 1969.  Szarkowski, (1988) comments:

“In Winogrand’s zoo…the animals are not more important than the humans, and are in fact united with them in a peculiar kind of symbiosis. Winogrand’s zoo is a kind of theater, in which humans and the lower vertebrates act out in parable the comic drama of modern urban life”

In his street pictures of the early 60’s, Winogrand developed two pictorial strategies:
  • exploring the unexplored possibilities of the wide-angle lens (hand held) e.g. photographing an entire pedestrian from a distance normally used to photograph faces, (and with interesting geometric consequences – although he was not interested in attention grabbing optical effects)
  • tilting the frame, making a vertical near the edge square and so discovering a freedom of composition and perhaps, through sloping lines, implying connections between people.

Note: I relate to both these points.  During my assignments, I repeatedly commented on the fact that a very wide angle lens could be used very close to people who would assume, wrongly, that they were not the subject of the photograph.  However, in conjunction with this finding, I have struggled to find the best approach to the distortion of horizontal and vertical lines near the edges of the frames.  

Winogrand is often quoted as saying that “he photographed to see what the things that interested him looked like as photographs”.  Szarkowski, (1988) went further and considered Winogrand’s approach to subject size:

“Winogrand had consciously been interested in the question of viewing distance since at least the mid-sixties, by which time he understood that that closer is merely easier, not necessarily better.  How small in relation to the total field can the most important part of the subject be and still be clearly described? Or, more precisely, how is the meaning of the most important part of the subject affected by everything else within the frame.”

Winogrand was a prodigious worker throughout his life.  He left more than 300,00 0 unprocessed exposures at the time of his death.  His working methods remained straightforward, Tri-X film, D-76 developer and Polycontrast paper.  Two further quotes  help to sum him up:

“.. Gary Winogrand, whose ambition was not to make good pictures, but through photography to know life” from Szarkowski, (1988)


“He was concerned with what was on the surface, it’s uppermost layer, the open secret, so patently superficial that everyone missed it.” Lifson, (1999).

The images

Below is a slide show of some of the images I particularly related to.

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Some of the reasons his work appeals to me include the unlikely and implausible subjects he finds, for example the monkey in the convertible in ‘Park Avenue, New York 1959’ and the incongruity of the man carrying a rolled up object in ‘New York n.d.’ .  Winogrand’s images also demonstrate what Barthes termed the ‘punctum’, for example the teeth of the brown bear against the bottom of the sign in ‘Central Park Zoo, NYC 1962’, the plaster on the nose of the man in ‘Los Angeles 1964’ and particularly, the serviceman who has lost his legs sitting on the ground in ‘American Legion Convention, Dallas 1964’.  These are powerful images indeed.

I have enjoyed learning more about Garry Winogrand and hope to take some of that learning forward into both how I approach the next assignment and also how  I approach some individual shots.


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