Garry Winogrand, quintessential New York street photographer, is the grandfather of all street photographers in this age that seems to have turned street photography itself into something approaching a cult, with its rules, regulations, expectations, tropes, tricks, judges, juries, fans, heroes and followers many of whom, it appears, have forgotten how it all began or that it even has a history.
Garry Winogrand, as moviemaker Sasha Waters Freyer states in her Kickstarter campaign to raise finishing funds for her documentary movie Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable, was artist, iconoclast, man of his time and the epic photographer of 20th century American life.
More than a street photographer
Just a little bit more than simply a street photographer, methinks. Perhaps Garry Winogrand should be referred to as a great documentary photographer or a brilliant urban documentary photographer or one of the fathers of us all, because that is the depth and breadth of his achievements and influence.
The art of urban documentary is no less than that of depicting the state of humanity in this very moment, so that we, our contemporaries and our descendants may understand this time and us just a little better and perhaps learn from our mistakes and our successes. Even better, avoid repeating those mistakes and understand how to be successful in their own right.
Garry Winogrand died too young to fully experience his own creative success and to be celebrated for his insight into urban America. His life and career followed and overlapped with that of Robert Frank, the photographer who almost singlehandedly kicked off the strand of urban documentary photography that asks questions more than it provides answers.
That is a strand of photography which which I identify, given that no artist can ever claim to have all the answers or even some of them and should not be making such claims. Instead, we can hope to stimulate viewers into asking questions of their own.
The central photographer of his generation
John Szarkowski rightfully hailed Garry Winogrand as “the central photographer of his generation” and what a generation that was, including such leading lights of the photography of everyday life lived out in the streets as Lee Friedlander and Joel Meyerowitz, with whom he often roamed the streets of New York City in the 1960s, crossing paths with Tony Ray-Jones, Tod Papageorge and Diane Arbus.
All were the artistic children of Robert Frank and Joel Meyerowitz was so inspired by watching Frank at work while he, Meyerowitz, was an advertising art director but only one of those creative offspring, Winogrand, had the same toughness and sense of difference from those he photographed.
The others, especially Meyerowitz who was so influenced by William Eggleston’s achievements in colour, possessed a lyricism that Winogrand’s hard-edged directness and desire to see life depicted in new ways mitigated against. Only American expatriate William Klein came close then surpassed that directness through confrontation.
One of Winogrand’s most famous comments on his work is this, quoted in Sean O’Hagan’s article on the then crisis in street photography in The Guardian in 2010, Why street photography is facing a moment of truth:
“When I’m photographing, I see life,” he once said. “That’s what I deal with. I don’t have pictures in my head… I don’t worry about how the picture is going to look. I let that take care of itself… It’s not about making a nice picture. That anyone can do.”
The history and achievements of street photography – or social landscape or urban documentary or what you will – and its most influential practitioners such as Winogrand has yet to be definitely written or delineated in moving images.
It may never be fully so, but at least Sasha Waters Freyer can tell us about the one who is arguably the greatest and we who can should chip in in order to help her do that.