Gary Winogrand

Gary Winogrand

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It is Los Angeles around 1982. Our man is loitering and walking along the street, small camera bag slung over one shoulder, Leica in hand resting briefly at the side of his ear, as if he can hear it ticking. Attracted by something in front of him he brings the Leica to his eye, clicks the shutter and flicks the camera rapidly away as if flicking a fly from in front of his face. Rechecking the exposure, he moves and repeats the same movements. Sat at a café someone asks this man with the broad New York accent what he’s doing, he shrugs, laughs, affects a broad smile and replies “I’m surviving”. In the USA this seems the most appropriate and suitably non committal answer to ward off further enquiry from a hesitant public perhaps uncomfortable at being photographed by a stranger.  When the day is done our photographer unlocks a door, enters and proceeds to add his days work to a large polythene bag containing roll after roll of labelled film which he then locks in a metal filing cabinet. This is American photographer Garry Winogrand appearing on the American Public Broadcasting Service show Creativity. During the clip Winogrand casually admits that having been in LA for a little under two years he has developed about two thousand rolls and has a further two thousand to go.  Garry Winogrand has intrigued me since I became interested in the art of photography. The purpose of my essay is to explore Winogrand further.   What were his influences and what was his contribution to photography? Why the unusually large output of film and what does his work and prodigious output tells us about Winogrand the man?

Main Text

Born in the Bronx, New York City in 1928 there is little biographical detail of Winogrand’s early years. He lived in a small apartment with his father, Abraham a leather worker and mother, Bertha who made neckties for piecemeal work. It was from this apartment that from an early age of ten or twelve Winogrand formed the habit of walking the streets late into the night. Winogrand told friend Tod Papageorge in taped conversations in  1977 that he walked the streets of the Bronx until late at night, seeking refuge from the apartment where his parents ”did not put a high priority on privacy” and where one could be alone only in the bathroom.  The early wanderings and presumably observations of Winogrand, is where he found privacy and solitude. Here is the earliest clue to the approach he was to adopt for the rest of his life.

Following High School Winogrand spent eighteen months in the US Air Force before going on  to study at City College New York. Two semesters later in 1948 Winogrand moved to Columbia University New York, enrolling on a General Studies painting class. Here at the age of 20 Winogrand started taking photographs, experimenting with various cameras.  He met George Zimbel a fellow student and photographer for the Columbia Spectator who had 24hr access to the University darkroom and together Zimbel and Winogrand formed the ‘Midnight to Dawn Club’, photographing by day, developing and printing through the night.

Around this time the previously accepted aesthetic conventions in photography which valued a high standard of technical competency, craftwork and sophistication were beginning to be questioned and challenged. In the 1948 exhibition French Photography Today at The Photo League galleries New York, the curator and photographer Louis Stettner, apologised for what he felt were prints not presented to American standards. More significantly in 1945 and also in New York, Alexey Brodovitch the Art Director of Harpers Bazaar had produced his book Ballet.  Being very much a departure from what had gone before Gerry Badger wrote, the images in Ballet “transgressed every notion of what a good photograph should be“. Influential in championing this kind of photography Brodovitch ran the Design Laboratory giving workshop classes in photography and design. Garry Winogrand attended his photojournalism class in 1949 at the New School of Social Research in NYC. Brodovitch’s ethos and that of other teachers in New York was to encourage their pupils to break the rules, be different, experimental, challenging and put trust in their own judgement. This new style of photography although criticized from various quarters was seized upon by Winogrand who “embraced the medium as passionately as he did because it seemed to answer his agitated sense of himself”.

In 1952 Winogrand was taken on by the Pix Photo Agency in Manhattan where his friend George Zimbel worked. The same year he married a dancer Adrienne Lebow.  In 1954 Winogrand left Pix and joined The Brackman Associates. His pictures began to appear in Sports Illustrated, Pageant, Argosy and Redbook amongst others. In 1955 two of Winogrand’s photos appeared in The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (MOMA).  Winogrand was introduced to photographer’s representative Henrietta Brackman. Winogrand turned up for his interview with “three or four piles of prints that reached from floor to desktop” Brackman’s diary notes describe  him as “with strong inner drive – his own style and character”. Photographer Dan Weiner also represented by Brackman suggested Winogrand look at Walker Evans book American Photographs when he learnt of Winogrand’s proposed trip, in 1955, around the USA with his wife. It was this book that brought Winogrand to the realisation that photographs could reveal much more than initial surface detail. However the  most significant influence came from Robert Frank who travelled America in 1955 producing three years later the photo book Les Americains. Winogrand admired Frank’s use of the wide angle lens, an approach that Winogrand was to adopt in most of his life’s work. In terms of imagery Frank and Winogrand occupy the same territory. The fundamental difference was that as a Swiss immigrant Frank was an outsider looking in. His images  of America showed “a seedy, grey underbelly, populated by isolated, alienated people” …….”A landscape of desolation that seemed to consist of highway detritus, dingy diners, decrepit automobiles and greasy gas stations”.  An America that perhaps only an outsider could, or dared show and not surprisingly the subject matter was criticised.  Whereas Frank generalised and seems more considered in his approach, Winogrand was more snapshot orientated focusing in on the complexities and subtleties of human communications.  Nevertheless Frank had prepared the ground for Winogrand, the pessimistic insider commenting on his own country. This new style of photography known as “the available light revolution” was being championed by commissioners of photography Alexey Brodovitch of  Harpers Bazaar and Alexander Libermann at Vogue.

It was not until around 1960 that Winogrand considered he first became a serious photographer. Despite having his first solo exhibition at the Image Gallery NYC his marriage was beginning to fail. Separating in 1963 and divorce in 1966, this was a difficult time for Winogrand. Being a secularized Jew his family background was one where divorce was not contemplated. His biggest fear was the thought of having to leave his children Laurie (age 10) and Ethan (age 8).  At times like this there is a need to develop coping strategies. Winogrand chose to immerse himself further into photography, as he told Tod Papageorge “Photography is always out there: it’s a way to get out yourself “.  He turned his attention to photographing women in the street , something he continued for the rest of his life producing Women are Beautiful published in 1975.  Adopting the wide angle lens he often had to close in on his subjects, containing more peripheral detail and not worrying about verticals or horizontals being true in the frame.  There’s an anxiety to the images.  Indeed it was during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 that Winogrand reached an important realisation in his life. Walking the streets day and night in desperation and fear at the thought of nuclear war,   Winogrand’s underlying pessimism brought him to the conclusion, “At that point. I found I was nothing. I had nothing. I had nothing to say about what would happen to my life. And it was liberating. I was nothing. Which meant that I was free. Which meant “live your life”.  

While the USA was anxious about its future, the new style of photography found a keen supporter in John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at The Museum of Modern Art.  Szarkowski held a number of influential exhibitions over the next few years and Winogrand was one of Szarkowski’s favoured photographers.   In 1964 Winogrand was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to travel through America. His application for the Fellowship reveals Winogrand’s pessimism, “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”.  Some of the results of this work were shown in the New Documents exhibition (a joint showing with close friend Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus), one of three influential exhibitions in the late 60’s.   

If, as Susan Sontag asserts in On Photography that “To collect photographs is to collect the world” then Winogrand made more of an attempt than most but much of Winogrand’s work is sympathetic to Sontag’s other theories. Sontag feels that photography is a way of acquiring, a form of possession allowing the photographer to both participate and alienate.   There is a predatory aspect to Winogrand’s images, essentially seeing his subjects in a way they cannot see themselves and in that sense they are violated. In this respect Winogrand’s photographs of women are the most problematic and provide ammunition for Freudian psychoanalytic theorists and feminist criticism. The criticism being that photography allows women to be looked at and men to possess the gaze. Furthermore, those photographic images which construct women as objects for the pleasure of the male gaze are an exercise of power; the concept of voyeurism and fetishism. Winogrand’s images of women are unsettling, predatory, and slightly aggressive. It’s as if the images are echoing a resentment and frustration that perhaps Winogrand had with his relationship to women at the time of his marriage break-up. As if photographing women was a way of retaliation, control and possession, dealing with his angst and again finding an escape out on the streets.  If subconsciously Winogrand’s work in this area is a means of control and voyeurism, then his persistent evasiveness allowed him to sidestep the criticism and debate?   We have little to work on except the summations of contemporaries and his reported quotes.  In 1970 at the Rochester Institute of Technology he stated to a class “I photograph to find out what something looks like photographed. Basically that’s why I photograph in the simplest language”. There is certainly a work ethic to Winogrand’s immense output, as if he knew of nothing else. As if at times the mere act of going out, and pressing the shutter was enough to satisfy the inner need and anxiety he felt.

He told his friend Lee Friedlander “If it wasn’t for photography I’d probably be in jail”.

Winogrand was not the first street photographer. There is a clear link to Americans Robert Frank, Bob Schwalberg, Ed Feingersh and Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee) and Europeans Andre Kertez, Brassai and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Comparing Cartier-Bresson’s influential book  “The Decisive Moment” to the work of Winogrand, Cartier-Bresson almost rigidly stuck to the confines and limitations of the frame, mostly refusing to crop, producing lyrical, poetic and essentially positive life affirming narratives. Winogrand however was frustrated by the confines of the frame and acknowledged that the frame readily changed meaning. He uses a wide angle lens to include as much detail as he could, but still there are things happening outside the frame that we should be aware of. Where we feel Cartier Bresson has an almost welcome and integral presence in the picture, Winogrand is predatory, slightly invasive and voyeuristic. There is a sense that, although being on the street the camera acts as a barrier between him and the public, negating the need for interaction and dialogue. He likes it this way because he is, after all, in his own private world, he can continue snapping away uninterrupted. In this sense Martha Rosler feels that Winogrand is a right wing photographer “who aggressively rejects any responsibility ( culpability) for his images and denies any relation between them and shared public meaning”  Where Cartier Bresson searches out the decisive moment out in the field in a predetermined way Winogrand is far less secure. He can’t decide what the decisive moment is or will be.  The more he shoots the more chance he has of determining what the decisive moment was, at a later date. Some of his images are direct hits  and; the decisive moments as Cartier -Bresson would have it are clear and obvious. In other shots the decisive moment is not so obvious; neither is as Barthes theorizes “the punctum”. There is ambiguity and we have to work harder for a deeper understanding of the photographer’s original intentions . Winogrand admitted that he would often try and change the scene by tilting the camera, attempting to define the interpretation that he felt worked best for him. In a sense Winogrand’s work is democratic, the wide angle lens equalizes everything but in a stultifying way. Often there is tension and insecurity shown to best effect in Public Relations . In his Airport series people are waiting or in transit to seemingly uncertain futures, the Airport terminal buildings, arrivals and departure lounges acting as a metaphor for the American dream.  In Winogrand’s The Animals  a bored public stare at equally bored animals unable to communicate with each other. All through Winogrand’s work there is this sense of boredom and waiting.  Winogrand steps back as an impartial emotive observer, neither empathising nor criticising.

In 1969 Winogrand separated from his second wife of two years Judy Teller. He had started teaching and made the decision to give up commercial assignments. He was awarded his second Guggenheim Fellowship to continue exploring media events and their effect on the public.  Between 1969 and 1976 Winogrand shot about 700 rolls of film at public events, producing 6,500 eleven by fourteen inch prints for Tod Papageorge to select for the exhibition and book Public Relations.

Between 1971 and 72 Winogrand was teaching at the Institute of Design, and Technology in Chicago. In 1972 he married Eileen Adele Hale before moving in 1973 to the University of Texas in Austin. While in Texas he continued shooting thousands of rolls of film. He received a commission to photograph the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and Rodeo which he covered from  1974 and 1977 culminating in the book published in 1980. In 1978 Winogrand resigned from the University of Texas and again moved to Los Angeles, taking up his third Guggenheim to document California. Print sales allowed him to rely less on teaching or commercial assignments and more on his own photographic pursuits. Gradually Winogrand could not keep pace with his own output. This was exacerbated by the acquisition in 1982 of an auto wind for his Leica and the thousands of pictures he took from the passenger seat of his car while being driven by his friend Tom Consilvio. However Szarkowski tells us that his last few thousand rolls were failures technically be it either optically, chemically or merely lack of a steady hand. It was as though the mere act of making an exposure, the pressing of the shutter was enough to satisfy the need, the final results being  of much less importance. When in 1983 Winogrand was asked in a German television interview why he photographed, he reiterated the comment he had made to Tod Papageorge, “how do I say it? The way I would put it is that I get totally out of myself. It’s the closest I come to not existing; I think which is the best – which to me is attractive”

On the 1st February 1984 Winogrand was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer. Attending therapy sessions Winogrand wrote “he had not resolved feelings of regret and fury at the failure of his first marriage” and more tellingly “hopelessness and helplessness about the world”.  Revealed is the internal, melancholic and pessimistic Winogrand in opposition to the public energetic, talkative persona we see in the grainy video clip from 1982. So did Winogrand shoot so prolifically in order to deal with this inner pessimism and anxiety, to keep it at bay? Was there some kind of obsession taking place?  Shelley Kasle, Ph.D. Research Assistant Professor at the University Of Arizona College Of Medicine who gave a talk at the Center for Creative Photography, Tuscon, Arizona (CCP) in 2001 entitled Winogrand: Approaching Obsession; “If one were to interpret Winogrand’s photographic output as obsessive and or compulsive repetitions of an anxiety quelling ritual…. We did not find symptoms of either construction in Winogrand’s work. We only found approach approach approach”

On March 19th 1984 Winogrand died at the Garson Clinic, Tijuana New Mexico. When Winogrand died the scale of his output was realised. According to Szarkowski, there was discovered, about 2500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6500 rolls developed but not proofed and contact sheets made from about 3000 rolls. Furthermore discovered processing rolls indicate that while in LA alone he developed 8522 rolls of film. The Garry Winogrand Archive established at the  CCP in 1983,  comprises of “over 20,000 fine and work prints, 20,000 contact sheets, 100,000 negatives and 30,500 35 mm colour slides as well as a small group of Polaroid prints and several amateur motion picture films”



Not surprisingly this vast legacy presents itself with problems. John Szarkowski describes the frustration of looking through a third of a million images, “trying to make sense of and derive a clear and concise body of work which somehow reflect the photographer’s intentions and ethos”. For CCP the debate in 2001 for the six guest curators chosen to select images for the exhibition, ‘The Garry Winogrand Game of Photography’ was similarly problematic. Should images that Winogrand had not looked at be included in their exhibition?  Would Winogrand have chosen those selected images himself? Was the fact that he did not destroy them, justification enough to show them? Or by showing them does that not in effect re-interpret the artists work in a way not originally intended? Winogrand left a conundrum and the debate will doubtless surface again as his archive continues to be explored.

What is clear though is that amongst the mountain of work, amongst the mundane, ordinary and some would say “ overrated “ indistinguishable images there are some real gems   and Winogrand continues to be an influential photographer.  In terms of photographic history he began when the traditional photographic practise was being challenged. It was the right time and New York the right place to be. In this respect I feel Winogrand was a photographer of his time, when street photography was far less challenged both aesthetically and morally than it is now. Certainly Winogrand is well known for evading discussion over the meaning of his own work, even denying its existence but inevitably there is meaning given to the image by the viewer. Winogrand was at heart pessimistic about the world. If he chose from his contact sheets those images which, as Paul Hill asserts “the specific motifs that can act as vehicles for your inner feelings” and   “In that sense all photographs are to some extent self portraits, whether you directly include yourself or not”then Winogrand’s images are very much autobiographical and in that sense pessimistic, whether he cared to admit it or not.




Harris Alex, Friedlander Lee (2004) Arrivals and Departures: The Airport Pictures of Garry Winogrand, Germany. Steidl

Szarkowski John (1988) Winogrand Figments from the Real World, New York The Museum of Modern Art

Papageorge Tod (1977) Garry Winogrand Public Relations. New York The Museum of Modern Art

Parr Martin & Badger Gerry (2004) The Photobook: A History volume 1, London, Phaidon Press Ltd

Turner Peter. (1985) American Images – Photography 1945 – 1980. London, Penguin Books.

Green Jonathan (1984) A Critical History American Photography. New York. Harry N Abrams Inc.

Dyer Geoff (2005) The Ongoing Moment (2006 Edition) London, Abacus

Malcolm Janet (1977) Diana & Nikon Essays on Photography Expanded Edition. New York. Aperture.

Sontag Susan (1977) On Photography London. Penguin

Barthes Roland (1980) Camera Lucida, London, Vintage

Hill Paul (1982) Approaching Photography (Second Edition) Lewes. Photographers Institute Press

La Grange Ashley (2005) Basic Critical Theory for Photographers, Oxford, Focal Press

Barrett Terry ( 2006) Criticizing Photographs An Introduction to Undertanding Images ( Fourth Edition). New York Mc Graw Hill

Wells Liz (2004) Photography: A Critical Introduction (Third Edition)

Journals / Articles

Rubinstein Raphael (2002) Snap Judgements: Exploring the Winogrand Archive, Art in America V90 No2 p46 -51

Grass Jozef (1991) Overrated images? British Journal of Photography v138 p57

Web Resources

Courtemanche Jeanne (2001) The Garry Winogrand Game of Photography Two Part Exhibition culled from CCP’s Vast Archive, Garry Winogrand Press Release,

Kuspit Donald (2003) Avedon versus Winogrand, Art New England 24 no2,

McLaren Fiona (2002) Game Over? Garry Winogrand’s Game of Photography, Afterimage; Jan2002, Vol. 29 Issue 4 ,