Curiosity is the libido of art, and photographer Garry Winogrand was its visual Don Juan.
Over a 40-year career, he photographed with prodigal fascination the cities, foibles and mores of America. He pointed his Leica, with its wide- angle lens, at a roiling chaos of visual information. Anything might tickle his curiosity.
So prolific was he, promiscuous some might say, that at his death in 1984 at age 52, he left behind a third of a million exposures either undeveloped or unedited. He could never catch up in the darkroom with the conquests of his shutter button.
To be more specific: He ran through film like an alcoholic runs through gin. He left behind 2,500 rolls of film undeveloped, 6,500 rolls developed but not edited or printed and about 300 contact sheets unedited.
The pictures he did print are often enigmatic: You can’t always tell why he took a particular picture, at least until you look long and hard, and look through an entire box of them. Then, Winogrand’s odd world view takes hold and his pictures become addictive. It is a Winogrand world.
Someone once said, “The world is not only stranger than you imagine, it is stranger than you can imagine.”
In many cases the photographs he left are jokes we can enjoy. An elephant’s trunk stretches across the frame to catch some peanuts dropped from a hand. No elephant in the picture; no person. Just hand and trunk.
A middle-age couple sit in a convertible on Park Avenue in Manhattan; an angry monkey perches on the seat back. What does such a thing mean?
A bagpiper in full Scots drag plays a bagpipe in a men’s room in front of a rank of urinals.
Few of the pictures have titles, and for those that do, the titles tell us very little: Park Avenue, New York, for instance, for the scowling monkey, or Apollo 11 Moonshot, Cape Kennedy, Florida. That picture shows a crowd of people from the back watching — and photographing — a rocket launch, while one small woman in the foreground looks in the opposite direction and makes a picture — we can never know of what — with her Kodak Instamatic.
But more often than not, the punch line is equivocal; more often it looks as if there must be a joke we do not get. It is on this edge of comprehension, subtle and uncomfortable, that Winogrand’s most important photography creates its meaning. For pictures with punch lines, Elliott Erwitt is much more consistently funny. But Winogrand tells us something deeper and more disquieting.
Most of us live in a world where things proceed largely as we expect them to. We hardly notice the anomalies. Winogrand was never so acculturated that he had conventional expectations; it freed him up to see what was really in front of him. Nixon Attorney General Elliot Richardson in a press conference alone and isolated — small — at a folding table and surrounded by tape recorders. A man and a woman — their backs to us — stare at a gorilla in a zoo; the gorilla stares back.
Other photographers made consciously surreal pictures — Les Krims, for instance, who taped dozens of photos to his mother’s nude body, or Duane Michals, who used camera trickery to show a soul departing through an apartment window.
But it isn’t just the world by itself. As Winogrand insists, it is the world wrung through a camera lens. The act of making a picture changes the world.
He often said he made pictures to find out what the world looked like in photographs. And there is an awareness in Winogrand’s work that photographs rewrite reality. He makes us question our belief in the supposed truthfulness of photographs.
Winogrand knew that the four edges of a picture frame are a cookie cutter that slices out a bit of reality’s dough and separates it from its context and remakes the facts. No doubt there were a bevy of reporters listening to Richardson’s comments, but because they don’t appear inside the image frame, they cease to exist. This is what Winogrand means when he talks about seeing how something looks in a picture. It is changed. Utterly and inutterably.
Winogrand was aware that a photograph has a grammar and syntax that we have learned to read. He makes us distrust that syntax.
He also plays God, making order out of chaos. Or at least, being aware that human perception will force meaning from chaos, he creates an artificial meaning from something that has none. In doing so, he forces us to consider the very existence and nature of meaning itself. Perhaps meaning is just a pattern we have gotten used to, a habit. Perhaps all it takes to create new meaning is a new pattern.
It is the artistic equivalent of naming constellations in the night sky. In that sky is a confused mass of stars, but we have grouped some together and named their configuration. The Big Dipper does not exist of itself, but only in that we have invented it. Orion, Scorpio, Gemini: The boundaries of any of these constellations could be redrawn and renamed. Put together the tail of the Big Dipper with the stars Spica and Arcturus and call it ”The Great Sky Scythe.”
Winogrand realized that we create such patterns; they are not inherent in reality. Winogrand understood that perception creates reality, or at least that we have no way of knowing reality except as it is ordered by our perception.
He will find four or five people walking down the street, or gathered at a party, and use the edge of his picture as that cookie cutter. He makes us see those people as a coherent group, just as we see the Big Dipper. A part of us knows we have been manipulated, but the instinctive part of us accepts the fiction. Photographs confer validity even to lies.
Yes, Winogrand presents a picture of America over the past 30 years; yes, the photographs often have a visual punch line; yes, they show sometimes grotesque people. But above all, they experiment with what the mere fact of pressing the shutter button does to reality.
They don’t all work: That would be too much to ask of such a prolific seer. But even the boring photos play with what the camera does. An ordinary person standing with a drink in his hand at a party, someone else stands behind him. We are forced to stare at the photo until we satisfy ourselves that we understand why he took that photo.
At times no reason ever emerges. But the event, framed in the viewfinder, probably a meaningless juxtaposition of two partygoers, is forced to seem as if it were meaningful. The simple fact of its being taken creates that fiction.
The bottom line becomes not whether the picture has any meaning, but our understanding that we automatically assume it must. We see ourselves seeing. We become aware of the picture’s frame as an event in itself.
He was a peculiar man, neurotic and obsessive. His thousands of photographs of women, for instance. He took pictures over and over of women on the streets. He seems to have been sexually obsessed with them, but only as seen. They drown us in their banality, but Winogrand saw something different. Photography has made them worth ogling; it has made them into cover models, no matter how dreary the reality.
“Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her,” he said. “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”
Of course, everyone and his student is now playing with the ”medium as message.” But what is different with Winogrand — aside from the fact that he was doing it 30 years before the crowd — is that most of the facile youngsters doing so now almost seem to have no conscience about it. The tricks of the media hustler are used as if they were of themselves profound.
But Winogrand’s investigations are less glib, less pat. He is an intellectual intuiting a Postmodern truth. And there is an implied criticism of this packaged meaning. Winogrand is intuiting how images convey meaning and how they do so without any linear, verbal sense.
Others have used what he found, made theories about it. They turn what Winogrand found into sales pitches for Coke and Big Macs. But Winogrand was a discoverer, someone delighted and sometimes horrified by what he found.