I Don’t Give a Rap About Gasoline Stations – The Winogrand Problem
Garry Winogrand: . . . ‘I forgot what year when Robert Frank’s book came out. He was working pretty much around that time, ’55 or whenever it was. And there were photographs in there, particularly that gas station photograph, that I learned an immense amount from .’
Student: ‘What you’re responding to, is it the quality of the intelligence that states the problem?’
Garry Winogrand: ‘Yeah, I don’t give a rap about gasoline stations. . .’
‘He had a special affection for those of his pictures that were almost out of control; the pictures in which the triumph of form over chaos was precarious. He believed that a successful photograph must be more interesting than the thing photographed, but he photographed nothing that did not interest him as a fact of life. Success – the vitality and energy of the best pictures – came from the anarchic claims of life and the will to form.’ John Szarkowski
In 1980, I attended the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery Annual Picnic and Softball Game, held in a small Beverley Hills Park. It was a fine late summer’s day, with temperatures in the thirties Celsius, and almost all West Coast photography was in languid attendance, dressed for the most part à la mode Californian – tank tops and satin running shorts were de rigueur. Darting in and out of this decidedly laid back gathering was a stocky, bespectacled figure wearing a heavy army combat jacket and two Leicas. In contrast to the air of somnolent bonhomie, this figure was all business, shooting pictures incessantly, with quickfire movements of both self and cameras. That, I soon learned, was Garry Winogrand, the fastest gun in the West (and anywhere else, for that matter) – a man of manic energy who, when not engaged in taking photographs, talked just as rapidly, regaling his listener with a constant stream of New York Jewish oneliners and highly opinionated phototalk – the Phil Silvers of photography. Shooting inordinate amounts of film, Winogrand charted a vast, freebooting odyssey through three-and-a-half decades of American culture. He was a pervasive influence upon our understanding of the photographic medium and, potentially, of the culture he documented so assiduously.
At his death in March 1984, Winogrand left some 2,500 rolls of film unprocessed. When John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art in New York came to plan a major Winogrand memorial exhibition, he and his colleagues were faced with the daunting task of sifting through in excess of 300,000 images left unedited by the photographer. Such unbridled profligacy prompts a question, and points to the existence of what one might term the ‘Winogrand Problem.’ For that matter, it perhaps raises uncomfortable questions about the problem of photography in general.
Modern photography, by reason of unceasing technical advance, is eminently capable of producing a mindless accumulation of automatic images, whose meaning at best is peripheral and uncertain, whose tenor at worst is dumbly exploitative and reactionary. Photographers all too frequently make pictures so conceptually casual and brainlessly superficial that their minimal meaning is exhausted at a glance. A great deal of film is wasted by even the best photographers, and almost criminally squandered by the bad and the mediocre. Garry Winogrand, however, was hardly mindless. He possessed one of the most acute of photographic intelligences, and the best of his pictures exhibit a truly virtuoso use of the 35mm camera, demonstrating a Rabelaesian formal energy that seldom has been equalled. Yet can we say that, if not mindless, much of the gargantuan amount of film he exposed was to somewhat meaningless effect? Did all this exuberant pointing of the camera, this machine gun clicking of the shutter on more than half-a-million occasions, have meaning, or enough meaning beyond a kind of automatic writing, a stream of consciousness tracing of fleeting sense impressions? This is the primary question that would seem to nag at John Szarkowski (in top authorial form) in his profound, disturbing, and moving essay to Figments From the Real World, the monograph accompanying MOMA’s retrospective tribute to one of the figures specifically nurtured by the museum’s photography department in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. It may be remembered that Szarkowski performed a similar memorialising function for another leading protegé, Diane Arbus, some dozen years or so earlier. Then, he was able to organise a brilliantly cogent overview of the photographer’s work. But Winogrand, so much broader in scope as well as so prolific, could not be rounded off so neatly. Despite external problems caused by her choice of subject-matter, Arbus worked within a relatively narrow, familiar photographic framework. Winogrand was by far the more puzzling, enigmatic, and genuinely ‘difficult’ photographer.
The work that clearly bothers Szarkowski emanates mainly from the vast amount of film shot by Winogrand in his latter years and left in an unedited state. The bulk of it was shot in Austin and Los Angeles, the photographer’s last two cities of residence. Faced by this accumulation of material, Szarkowski seems bemused by such first hand evidence of Winogrand’s wayward profligacy, and positively frustrated by the fact that no discernible grand theme emerges from the mass. Much of this late output seems aimless and repetitive, the photographer operating almost on automatic pilot, one might say. Reading between the lines of his essay, I feel that Szarkowski is troubled because photography itself might be implicated as much as a burnt-out, unhappy Winogrand, forcing himself to function in cities where clearly he did not feel at home, in contrast to the well remembered sidewalks of New York. Having proclaimed Winogrand as photography’s leading light for over twenty years, it must have been painful for Szarkowski to admit the following:
‘. . . it seems to me that Winogrand was at the end of a creative impulse out of control, and on some days a habit without an impulse, one who continued to work, after a fashion, like an overheated engine that will not stop even after the key has been turned off.’
Occasionally, Szarkowski notes, Winogrand dragged himself back to something like his old form, but would seem to have gone beyond the usual artistic process of attempting to make ‘good’ pictures, impelled on a largely aimless course that was compulsively awful but nevertheless fascinating, like a slow motion nervous breakdown:
‘Yet to a biographer the most compelling of the late work would perhaps not be the work of the good days – work with which we are relatively familiar – but the doggedly repetitive, absent minded, oddly ruminative work of the other days.’
The familiar work of the ‘good’ days – a ‘good Winogrand’, in other words – presupposes a lightning fast, usually candid street shot, a fusing of disparate visual elements into a characteristically choreographed melange of some complexity. This image cannot be foreseen. The motifs gathered together by the camera do not exist prior to their presentation in the frame, and they do not exist afterwards. They are sensed, felt . . . divined subliminally by the photographer and plucked, just as subliminally, out of a flux of shifting visual sensation. Their only existence, their reality, is the picture. Then, as the New York critic Max Kozloff has written, that piece of sensation so intuitively frozen can hopefully be assigned a useful role within the realm of culture – a meaning:
‘To be swayed by photography, it must create a dialogue, that is, enter culture and be assigned mutually enhancing relationships with its own kind. That desirable state, for all serious photographers, is embodied in the problem of recurrence, of recurrent imagery.’
This recurrence, spread over a large number of images, we may take to be Winogrand’s theme. And since the photographer largely worked in social situations, generally where people would interact with each other or with their environments, it would not be unreasonable to suppose further that Winogrand’s theme is a social one. We might conclude, therefore, that the ‘good Winogrand’ is permeated with a social sense, laced with a predetermined, mediated sense of social context, however intuitively felt. But is this indeed the case? And should it be so? Should we expect, and demand that the formal order of the image underpin some kind of moral order? In the context of Winogrand, this issue of morality might be tested in two questions. Firstly, is too much photography simply about leering – about unfeeling, disengaged looking? And secondly, to what degree was Winogrand himself engaged beyond the mere implementation of the photographic event, beyond the stalk and the perfunctory kill. You would not have received much of an answer from the photographer himself. If he ever stood still long enough to ruminate upon his photographs, it was to reiterate that their meaning resided in the process of their making. Those who questioned him about the significance of this or that in a particular image exasperated him -or perhaps worried him – and generally received short shrift. ‘I don’t give a rap about gasoline stations,’ he replies to one interrogator, an alternative slant upon his most widely quoted (and misquoted) aphorism:
‘I photograph to find out what the world looks like in a photograph.’
In denigrating ‘contextual’ readings of his work, Winogrand confirms the extent of his faith in gesture-as-meaning. He was interested, in other words, primarily in how the camera drew – in the visual elements that the machine pieces together to generate its transcription of actuality. Every spatial configuration, eerie temporal disjunction in 2,500 rolls, in 300,000 frames, produced different marks, unique inflections. A tilted horizon generated a different emotion from a non-tilted horizon. Every external gesture donated a potential human value to an internal life, firstly to photographer and then to viewer. Drawn – and this is crucial – not from the subject but from the frame. Yet when selected and edited by the photographer, these gestures described by the camera should have a consistent resonance as direct, personal evidence of a visual war of nerves – if only in the form of marks. Then, despite their objective partiality, and precisely because of their material specificity, these ‘illusions of descriptions’ are compelled to allude, however slyly and imperfectly, to the human condition. Even if the internal truths we would wish them to express were illusory, even if Winogrand himself feigned disinterest, he must have been well aware of their potential for cultural commentary by gathering them together and publishing them under such loaded titles as Public Relations and Women are Beautiful. Thus in spite of the formal manoeuvring, we can be reasonably certain that Winogrand’s world view is evidenced somewhere in his imagery. If he was reluctant to talk about it, it might have been because he felt that he had revealed enough of himself already – in visual terms – for those with eyes enough to see. Possibly, the fear went deeper. Like others who photograph so extensively, or indeed practice any art with such ferocious intensity, the process would seem to have had an almost talismanic force for Winogrand. As Leo Rubenfein perceptively put it, the art of Garry Winogrand constantly reiterates ‘estrangement from the world, and the photographer’s imaginative reclaiming of it.’
If Winogrand sought to discover a better world through his reclamation, however, he would seem to have remained disappointed. If through the personal agency of his photographs he was fabricating a self-portrait, mirroring his own psyche, he would appear not to have liked what he discovered. Certainly, he was of deeply pessimistic mien, a trait masked by his ebullience and energy, but underlined in his work by a marked degree of sourness. He wrote, for example, in his application for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963:
‘I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been 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.’
We have not loved life . . . a profound admission which explains why the general tenor of Winogrand’s vision would seem to teeter continually between misanthropic sourness and elemental dismay. We might regard these tendencies as differing extremes of his basic pessimism, two sides of the same coin – the gross and the fine Winogrand as it were. If his singular achievement was to energise the frame so adroitly, and thereby animate the characters and situations encapsulated within it, the problem is that so much of this energy might be construed as sour in tone. The critical test for a ‘good Winogrand’ therefore, might be considered to rest – taking its formal qualities as read – upon whether an image, or series of images, lampoons or caricatures, upon whether the predominating rhetoric is well judged satire or mere self-indulgent, ill-natured sarcasm.
In an obituary I wrote after Winogrand’s untimely death, I ventured that there was a sense of incompleteness about his work, and that it would take a Szarkowski to make cogent sense, a wholeness of it. In retrospect I realise that this was wishful thinking. The work’s sense of being in the making, its raw spontaneity, is fundamental. Winogrand anyway, had already made his own sense, manifest in each separate body of work. Each strand was consistent only by dint of his restless personality. Each gathering together of images revealed greatly differing facets of that personality, the whole as complex, as troubled, and ultimately as unknowable as that of any human being. As Rubenfein says, ‘our discussions remain beginnings, they leave unnamed what Winogrand has seen.’
Winogrand’s tendency to play the simple voyeur was most to the fore in Women are Beautiful, his least successful book, a fact he recognised, though its failure (its relative failure judged by his terms, not the hostile criticism it received from feminists) both puzzled and challenged him. Probably he learned its lesson, that shallow photographic lechery, no matter how formally sensational, is not enough. For his next two books – the last during his lifetime – demonstrate altogether richer textures. Public Relations – arguably his masterpiece though many retain an affection for his first modest publication, The Animals – brought him closer to wider historical realities and closer to a coherent theme than at any point in his career. The book dealt with those events, such as press conferences, society parties, or political demonstrations, which are in part ‘fabricated to be photographed,’ and thereby fabricate history. But typically, Winogrand, the intuitive dissident, was having none of that, and provided his own pungent commentary upon the lost illusions and empty promises delivered by the surface glitter of American society in the sixties and seventies.
For all his protestations of disinterest, Public Relations finds him almost fully engaged, and reveals slyly the residue of his early leftward, Jewish socialist leanings, while demonstrating unequivocally his unmitigated sense of alienation. His last book, Stock Photographs, shot at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show over a number of years, sees Winogrand in Balzacian mood, cynical yet generous, taking an assuredly pointed look at mankind but rarely descending into gratuitous cruelty. This is the warmest of his publications, parading a bizarre cast of pseudo-mythic frontier characters with exuberance and great visual panache, and, (almost) allowing some genuine bonhomie to filter through. In the main, however, the Winogrand that pervades American photography is the somewhat alienated malcontent. Martha Rosler’s description of his great friend, Lee Friedlander as ‘a solitary guy who slipped around with a camera in a crazy clockwork world, fantasising with mock voyeurism about sleezily sexual targets,’ is even more apt when applied to Winogrand. Except that the voyeurism is anything but mock.
The three key American straight (documentary) photographers of the sixties, Winogrand, Friedlander, and Diane Arbus, all tend to speak of alienation. Their visions – infused with those of Robert Frank, William Klein, and Lisette Model – are stamped with the indelible imprint of the dog-day years of Eisenhower and the Cold War. And of the trio, it is Winogrand – psychologically scarred by the Cuban Missile crisis and the John F. Kennedy assassination, yet also strangely liberated by these events – who seems by far the bleakest. Of the three, his lack of belief in the truth of photography seems the most profound. Arbus used her sense of psychic alienation to set up a perverse, subtle critique of social mores. Friedlander is a lone wanderer, but by intellectual choice. He remains essentially centred, in step with what he photographs. He symbolises it (coolly enough) in his ‘self portraits’, and proclaims it in his elegiac studies of trees and flowers. But Winogrand remains a man apart, adrift in an America with which he did not quite connect, an American hinterland very different from vibrant, racy New York, the hometown to which he talked continually of returning. Perhaps the quintessential Winogrand images are of those desolate, inhuman airport lounges, the umbilical cord reaching back to home and heart.
The critic Ian Jeffrey once asked rhetorically why Winogrand was so important. Part – a vital part – of the answer is that like André Kertész, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Frank before him, Winogrand was a street photographer. That genre – freewheeling, casual, intuitive, essentially experimental – brings us, it seems to me, close to the existential heart of the photographic process. It demonstrates in its purest form the far from simple impulse to observe, reach out, and encapsulate a fragment of actuality – perhaps in order to put oneself in touch with it for the first time, perhaps to reclaim it, quite possibly to ‘colonise’ it. The broadly diaristic nature of this process, exemplified in the sixties and by Winogrand in particular, results not in reports but in confessions. And (never far away from confessions) in playing games. But, as Winogrand used to remind his students, games are an eminently serious business. In searching only for what had not been seen before, Winogrand extended profoundly our notion of the formal potential of photography, and through the agency of these new forms extracted new meanings from the world. The nature of these meanings – fragmentary, elliptical, intensely personalised – do not make for comfortable viewing, especially in Winogrand’s case. We are disturbed by the hardness of his mind, even as we cherish his keen eye. We ask – as indeed we should ask continually – whether misanthropy wins out over despair.
One of Winogrand’s pictures in Public Relations shows a pugnacious Norman Mailer, arguing vigorously at his very public fiftieth birthday party. Mailer and Winogrand, I fancy, were alike in a number of ways – chauvinistic, bellicose, arrogant, pompous to a degree, basically insecure. So part of Mailer’s brilliant early essay on the phenomenon of the hipster-flâneur , the ‘white negro’, makes for me a curiously apt epitaph for Garry Winogrand, the wandering Jew lost in the vastness of America:
‘. . . the decision is to encourage the psychopath in oneself, to explore the domain of experience where security is boredom and therefore sickness, and one exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat, where he must gamble with his energies through all those small or large crises of courage and unforseen situations which beset his day . . .’
from Creative Camera (1988)