Garry Winogrand - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Garry Winogrand
Childhood/Education and Early Training
Garry Winogrand was born in 1928, and along with his sister, Stella, grew up in a Jewish, working-class neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City. His parents immigrated to the United States from Hungary and Poland in the hopes of having a better life in the United States, but then the Great Depression hit the country a year after Winogrand was born. His parents tried to make ends meet working in the garment industry- his father was a leather maker, while his mother made neckties. Not one to particularly concern himself with academics, Winogrand graduated from high school in 1946 and, in the immediate aftermath of World War II, entered into the United States Army, where he served for one year. After which he studied under the G.I. Bill at City College in New York City, but transferred to Columbia University to study painting the following year. It was at Columbia that a fellow student and photographer for the school paper showed Winogrand the school's dark room. Shortly after this introduction, he switched his major from painting to photography and never looked back.
In 1949, he also took a photography class at the New School, where his teacher, Alexey Brodovitch, who was the celebrated art director at Harper's Bazaar at the time, taught him to rely on his instinct rather than classical photographic techniques when taking photos. Brodovitch also taught the well-known photographers Richard Avedon and Irving Penn. Following in Brodovitch's footsteps, Winogrand, Avedon, and Penn all began as commercial photographers. While Avedon and Penn established their prominence in that realm, Winogrand would eventually abandon commercial photography in order to pursue his own projects that shunned the glossy and beautiful world depicted in magazines. Regardless, the lessons Brodovitch gave Winogrand, such as trusting his gut rather than established conventions would greatly influence him, defining not only his photographic style, but also his attitude towards the medium. Ultimately, Winogrand's working class immigrant background influenced his shooting style as well as his choice of subjects. This viewpoint ultimately set him apart from his colleagues, as well as the tremendous influence of photographers such as Brodovitch and Henri Cartier-Bresson. His unflinching view of American society places his lineage more in line with the photographers Walker Evans and Robert Frank.
During the 1950s, for a photographer to sell his work to collectors and to have museum exhibitions was still uncommon. So after college Winogrand began working as a freelance photojournalist and advertising photographer, creating images for magazines and periodicals, like Harper's Bazaar, Sports Illustrated and even Life Magazine, which at the time, was the most renowned publication in the United States. His work was shown at the famous photography exhibition at MoMA, The Family of Man, in 1955. The exhibition was later critiqued for projecting a glossy and optimistic tone and repudiated in the content and subject matter of Winogrand's later works. Winogrand later critiqued the exhibition, noting that it "popularized the type of photography seen in Life magazine," and ultimately dismissed it as a "malfunction of a museum."
Winogrand shot almost exclusively with the Leica M4, a rangefinder camera known for its small, discrete size and its nearly silent shutter that let him take photographs of people without them being entirely aware of what he was doing. He also used a wide-angle lens, which meant that more physical space could be captured. Due to the large scope captured with this type of lens, it also meant that he had to be physically close to his subjects in order to capture their facial expressions. His use of the unobtrusive Leica M4 allowed him to startle and provoke his subjects as he shot them, while the wide angle lens simultaneously captured the larger context of his subject's surroundings. The Leica M4 had been the preferred camera for Street Photographers and photojournalists for some time, but the way in which Winogrand utilized it in developing his own aesthetic and artistic voice is what sets his work apart.
Mature / Late Periods
Like most photographers of his generation, Winogrand was inspired by the black and white photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Walker Evans. It was after seeing Evans's book American Photographs that he really became driven in regards to his own work. Everyday he would shoot relentlessly, and with the dynamic energy of the city as his subject and inspiration, Winogrand began to create an unwavering body of work that was rich in its diversity. He took photos of women passing by, animals, parades, crowded street corners, airports, business men, political conventions, anti-war protests- any scene he found interesting, but always containing people. In 1960 Winogrand sold his first works to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. His agent set up a meeting with the curator of photography, Edward Steichen. Steichen, who is considered to be one of the greatest 20th-century photographers and a key figure in the rise of photography as an art form, saw something promising in the young photographer's work and paid Winogrand ten dollars for each photo he purchased.
Winogrand never liked to use the term street photographer because he felt it was an irrelevant term that didn't say anything about his work. And yet he is often associated with famed street photographers, like Diane Arbus, Joel Meyerwotiz and close friend, Lee Friedlander. Sometimes Winogrand could even be found shooting the New York City streets with Meyerwotiz. During this time, much of his work was part of group exhibitions, including curator John Szarkowski's seminal 1967 show, New Documents at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which also featured the work of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. This exhibition also featured a slideshow of some of Winogrand's color photographs, but the film caught fire in the projector, destroying all 80 images. Winogrand stopped shooting in color after 1966 so some of his best works in color have been lost forever. Nevertheless, Winogrand's presence in this exhibition catapulted his career as an art photographer. Shortly after this exhibition, Winogrand published his first photo book, The Animals in 1969.
In 1969, Winogrand was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship to photograph what he called, "the influence of media on events." Turning his camera not just on the protests but also toward the media egging on and playing a part in them, this body of work captured the mass hysteria of the time on an intimate level that focused on people's reactions to the events, rather than the events themselves. The book of this body of work, titled Public Relations, was published in 1977.
In 1969, Winogrand stopped working as a commercial photographer and instead supported himself, and his third wife and daughter by teaching. He taught in New York, then in Chicago, and finally at the University of Texas, Austin. Many of Winogrand's baffled students found his teaching methods unorthodox and confusing at first. Most of class time was spent in awkward silence with the photographer curtly answering students' questions. It wasn't until he took them outside to shoot the world around them that the real learning began. Winogrand taught the same way he photographed. He wasn't interested in teaching his students the proper photographic techniques, but rather how to use their cameras to see.
Winogrand passed away suddenly at the age of 56, one month after discovering he had incurable gall bladder cancer. He died in Tijuana, Mexico where he was seeking alternative treatment. Winogrand left behind a prolific body of work, including a vast amount of undeveloped film rolls. It's estimated there are over 5.4 million photographs in his archive. Winogrand famously developed his film one to two years after shooting so as to approach his work more critically. "If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it, not necessarily because it was a great shot." So at the time of his untimely death he left behind 6,600 rolls of film that were undeveloped. The debate over whether or not to publish these unedited images continues today.
The sheer volume of which has now created a problem for those tasked with its upkeep. As curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), Erin O'Toole, explains, "in the absence of explicit instructions from him regarding how he wanted his work to be handled after he was gone, its posthumous treatment has been the subject of ongoing debate and raises provocative questions about the creative process and its relationship to issues specific to the medium."
The Legacy of Garry Winogrand
From the beginning of his career to the very end, Winogrand's unique style was as much about consistency as it was about his defiant attitude towards the medium. He invented the tilted frame as a reaction against the horizontal point of reference found in fine art photography. And it was his tilted frame that led to the idea of the 'snapshot aesthetic', which would inspire future generations of photographers, like Nan Goldin, William Eggleston, and Wolfgang Tillmans. These photographers took inspiration from Winogrand's unusual approach to shooting and his often unusual subject matter and outsider perspective.
For instance, the snapshots of the brutal realities depicted in Nan Goldin's work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency can be seen as part of the legacy left by Winogrand. Wolfgang Tillman's experimental use of photography and his unusual pairings of seemingly discordant images can similarly be traced back to Winogrand, while William Eggleston's scenes of American life in full color more directly adhere to Winogrand's contributions to the medium of Street Photography.