GARRY WINOGRAND CIRCA 1969

BY Z TUCK |

Exhibition dates: Jun 28 – Aug 18, 2012. Originally printed in Moholy Ground #005 August 2012. Reprinted online in respect of SFMOMA’s upcoming (March 09 – June 02, 2013) Winogrand retrospective.

I exited the Garry Winogrand Circa 1969 show at Fraenkel Gallery onto Geary Street with my friend, J-. She pointed to the lingerie store, Agent Provocateur, across the street. “You should put that in your review.” I laughed, thinking of the work Untitled (Topless Woman in Crowd), 1968, which (like the approximately thirty other prints in the exhibition) represents a type of Winogrand picture. In this case, the genus would seem to be a hybrid of both gawking and gawking at the gawkers.

Winogrand is not by any means a detached documenter of the male gaze, as can be seen from his second book of photography, Women Are Beautiful (1975). Indeed, Winogrand’s work participates fully in the prurient voyeurism of photography generally (his work was included in SFMOMA’s exhibit Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870). But he goes further, as do the Fraenkel Gallery curators in choosing works from a period and of a caliber that distinguish Winogrand’s aptitude at social and technical framing.

Winogrand is so clearly looking at the US in these pictures…or, more accurately, looking at Americans looking.

In Untitled (Topless Woman in Crowd), a diagonal bisects the picture into an upper 40% filled with trees and sky and a lower 60% made up of a crowd at some kind of fair or music festival. The foreground to mid-ground of the lower part of the picture creates a semi-circle around and pointing towards a topless woman in a floppy sunhat. From there, the eye jerks back to the second focal point: a distant figure standing above the crowd. The position of this figure occupies the liminal space between trees and crowd. There’s the distinct feeling that this person is an official entertainer and that they are being ignored. Finally, the gaze seesaws between the indistinct “talent” and the naked object of lust.

Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

Winogrand’s talent lies in framing scenes like these to create an archive of lived comportment. Here the gawker transforms into the anthropologist. At stake is not how people ought to behave as proper festival-goers, but how they actually behave. It is an ethically responsible stance. As Winogrand himself claimed: “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.”

Circa 1969 is the perfect core sample for both the range of Winogrand’s talents and preoccupations as a photographer; his trademark tilt, his fixation with the manifold beauties of women, his relentless chronicling of the human zoo.

This street photographer with the 35mm Leica stands in the history of 20th century photography alongside contemporaries such as Lee Friedlander, Bruce Davidson, and Diane Arbus, to name some of the other photographers in the historic 1967 exhibition New Documents. “For me the true business of photography is to capture a bit of reality (whatever that is) on film…if, later, the reality means something to someone else, so much the better,” said Winogrand in Bill Jay’s Views on Nudes (1971). In Tenth Anniversary Party, Guggenheim Museum, New York, revelers look at each other lustily, greedily, ignoring the art in the background. I couldn’t help but think of this as the time of the ascendency of Minimalism and, soon, Postminimalism. In a cunning inversion, the paintings are wallpaper and the attention doubles back to Winogrand, whose realist tendencies and expert composition- especially of crowds-are reminiscent of Gustave Courbet.

According to fashion writer Chioma Nnadi, fashion house Chloe’s Creative Director is mining Winogrand’s work for inspiration, using it as a kind of visual compendium of an era during which styles endured longer and were more frequently blended in the outfits seen on the street. As fashion reconsiders Winogrand’s legacy, I believe that other channels might benefit from a similar reconsideration. Given that Winogrand received a Guggenheim to study “the effect of the media on events,” it seems that contemporary photographers could be more attentive to the Romney/Obama contest, Occupy, or simply contemporary US life in general.

Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

Courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery

Winogrand is so clearly looking at the US in these pictures…or, more accurately, looking at Americans looking. What was the object of our collective gaze in 1969? In the picture of spectators at the Apollo 11 launch, people crane their necks and almost every face has a camera or binoculars in front of it. More pointedly, Winogrand shows a political agnosia in what is presumably a picture of a person asking for money. The viewer takes in most of the man pleading for funds, but only the closed fist and suit sleeve of the person preparing to drop a coin in his hand. Through a composition of inclusion and omission, Winogrand has communicated how one can hear and even respond to a request without really looking at the person asking or the conditions around their request. There’s a note of Walker Evans here.

What are the foci of our collective gaze today? The sixties had racial tensions, changing social mores, the Cold War, Vietnam, LBJ’s Great Society programs. The aughts have their own analogue to each. However, as French literary theorist Roland Barthes observes inCamera Lucida (1980), “The Photograph does not call up the past…The effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been abolished (by time, by distance) but to attest that what I see has indeed existed.” Circa 1969 is the perfect core sample for both the range of Winogrand’s talents and preoccupations as a photographer; his trademark tilt, his fixation with the manifold beauties of women, his relentless chronicling of the human zoo. It’s also a magical year and a perfect place to begin an inquiry into the possibilities of depicting what exists now.

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