While Henri-Cartier Bresson’s name gets thrown around as the godfather of street photography, I would argue that when many people think of the genre, what first pops into their heads is the style of Garry Winogrand, and he would probably be turning in his grave right now given that he famously hated the term.
The energetic and restless Winogrand incessantly captured daily life in New York City and America from the ’50s to the early ‘80s, and his body of work defined the post-World War II era America, filled with opulence and power, but mixed with a deep underlying anxiety.
Born in 1928 as a Bronx native, Winogrand studied photography at the New School under Alexey Brodovitch in 1949, who taught him to rely on his instinct rather than classical techniques, and it is clear that this advice stuck and helped him define his style. His work was documentary but spontaneous in nature, and focused on the human condition.
Winogrand often employed tilted horizons and angles to fit more into the scene, while removing a sense of perfection and overt design. This helped his work feel more real, dynamic, anxiety ridden, and in the moment. It seems as if he purposely sought to distance himself from a more classical and orderly style and this helped mimic the spontaneous and chaotic nature of the moments and subjects that he was attracted to.
While he photographed in a quick and spontaneous way, when evaluating his work, it is clear that he had a sharp focus with clear narratives. He published four books in his lifetime, Women are Beautiful, The Animals, Public Relations, and Stock Photographs: The Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and Rodeo. However, these four bodies of work do not do justice to the full scope of his life’s work and vision, and it was actually the posthumous publications of his work that address this.
Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s department of photographs, stated that, “He was a collector, like Whitman, of experiences,” and “I think there is this anxiety in the pictures that suggests something else is going on, which was pervasive in the culture at the time… It’s self-evident in the out-of-control-ness that he allows into his pictures and how they don’t seem to have a center.”
The content, the form, the design, and the focus mixed with ambiguity of the images all came together to portray the underlying feelings of the culture at the time. But the question is, did he make those decisions consciously, or did his way of shooting arise naturally as a result of the era. Did Winograd purposely start tilting his images with a wide-angle lens or was he naturally drawn to shoot that way and eventually realized that he was on to something? I would argue that it was a mix of both as he certainly experimented and evolved throughout his career.
Winogrand paved a new way for photography to be considered as an art, but he did this with snapshots and without the delicate and formal nature that many photographers have used to compose their works. Winogrand went by his gut and his art revealed itself over time through the body of work, a formal build up of a narrative between hundreds of thousands of snapshots. Real life was his clay and he was constantly refining, moulding, and building on it each day.
Even with this overarching narrative, Winogrand understood that photographs could be ambiguous and open to many interpretations. It is fascinating how you could take any image away from the group and have it interpreted in completely different ways. You could organize sets of the works into many different ideas and themes, opening the images to even further interpretation. But the entire body itself has a sharp-minded and obsessive focus on American life and culture.
An image from Albuquerque of two young suburban children walking onto their driveway with an overturned tricycle and the barren apocalyptic desert is eerie yet ambiguous, but within the scope of his work it is clear that this is a take on suburban America, mixed with his strong fears about the atomic bomb and the destruction it might cause. There is a contained innocence within the safety of the driveway, looking out into the desert.
Winogrand’s images were less perfect than Bresson’s and the picturesque scene became less important to him over time. While each element came together harmoniously in Bresson’s prints, Winogrand seemed to grasp at imperfect moments in time. After all, perfection was rarely a part of real life. Elegant people were a major part of his focus, but he had a way of photographing them that seemed to strip the elegance away, to reveal the fears and troubles that lurked beneath the surface.
“I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and what we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have become cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at the 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 further and deeper. –Garry Winogrand, from The Man in the Crowd.
Winogrand understood that he could tell a complex story through his work, and part of the story was about him. Through showing other people’s stories, he revealed his own internal struggles, fears, and his pondering of life’s questions.
In a particular photograph of a clown running from a bull, the clown looks directly at the camera with almost a look of resignation, taunting the bull but unsure why. It looks like a moment of introspection for both the photographer and the clown. Winogrand said soon before he died, ‘That clown is me.’
But as many of his colleagues have described his boundless energy, toughness, and combative nature, perhaps he was also the bull.
For those interested, here is a fantastic collection of Winogrand’s work that will be a great focal point of a photography book collection:
More work from Winogrand:
What is Street Photography? – An Introductory, How-To Guide for Beginners: Learn about the basics of street photography in this easy to digest guide.
The Essentials of Street Photography eBook: Download the well-reviewed book that will teach you the ins and outs of street photography.