Garry Winogrand

Differing Perspectives

The work of Garry Winogrand remains highly controversial. Biographical detail is widely available elsewhere but this piece assesses the key challenges.

Allan Sekula's essay 'Dismantling Modernism, Reinventing Documentary' (1976) had a considerable negative impact. It rejected both formalism and documentary. Sekula describes photographers like Winogrand as mannerists, where the 'cult of authorship, an auteurism, takes hold of the image, separating it from the social conditions of its making and elevating it above the multitude of lowly and mundane uses to which photography is commonly put.'

Seukula was not alone in insisting that photographs should not be elevated above lowly uses but it reinforced a prejudice that had long existed. Yet the response to this and various other issues would slowly help integrate the medium of photography more deeply into the arts mainstream - for instance The Tate has finally begun to exhibit photography.

Roland Barthes in his book 'Camera Lucida' (1980) was a critc who came out strongly against the practice of capturing subjects without their knowledge - central to Winogrand's practice.

There are very few writers who have countered the argument but Max Kozloff suggests that any portraiture is as voyeuristic as a picture snatched in the street. 'in the end, whether faces are the subject of a consented portrait transaction or a roving, unauthorised and impulsive click, they yield a voyeuristic outcome, constructed within an imaginative space' (Tate magazine article 2008).

Winogrand photographed in crowds which would make it impossible to arrange authorised agreement - but also the kind of fleeting moments he was interested in were not likely to be subject to pre-arrangement. Time has moved on and perhaps Barthes position may have been rendered obsolete by the almost omnipresence of CCTV - which for reasons of security continually observe those same public spaces that interest street photographers.

Perhaps the real issue is one of personal taste. It is true the New York photographers of the 60s and 70s were uninterested in emulating the warm humanism of earlier generations and were almost ruthless in the pursuit of powerful images. Where there is humour it may be witty but just as likely it would be cruel. For some this is unacceptable - as if photographers have to express a heart-warming view of society.

According to Todd Papageorge (Photographers' Gallery seminar, 2009), the consensus against social documentary and observation is now loosening its grip in America as galleries become fatigued with the large format dead pan imagery that has dominated the art market during the last decade.

Ed Ruscha was a conceptual artist who saw himself as taking up a disreputable form by chosing to use photography. In his work the presence of people is largely avoided altogether, evident from his first major piece, 'Twentysix Gasoline Stations'. As with others coming from Pop Art Rushca had a lowly view of photographers, regarding them as 'nerds and pornographers' ('Genius of Photography' BBC series interview, 2009). In Rushca's work he also saw it as unnecessary to always take the photographs himself - emphasising that actually using a camera was in fact a minor part of the work's value in comparison to the conceptual aspect.

The constructed images of Jeff Wall critiqued the street style by emulating it, using actors, sets and props. In staging an incident to then photograph Wall believed he could both amplify its social truth and crucially resolve the ethical challenges. As stated, as the wider arts community came to embrace conceptual artitsts using photography they came to more readily embraced the medium generally. Photography is - for now at least - more widely respected and elevated than ever before in its history - the original attack on the decadence of auteurship and on the pretensions of lowly photography have faded .

The actual processes of constructed photography production are largely those of traditional studio work which itself comes directly from the painting tradition - by association the works would assume more cultural prestige than 'found objects' of image-makers working on the streets. The use of large format view cameras - and the resulting prints or transparencies in light-boxes (usually the size of a large painting) - produce a more respectable investment.

Winogrand supported himself for many years through freelance editorial photography. His employment - and his own personal work - meant he used small 35mm cameras not much different to the cameras that amateurs would own. This contrast would be seen by some as another sign of the gulf between those artists who are seen to think and create and those who are seen to toil - though as Winogrand put it, 'I'm not operating a shovel and getting tired.'

While the street style was influential on a later generation of photojournalists who adopted the fragmented, chaotic style in their reportage work, the genre had to adapt in other ways; photographers would make their own presence within their work more apparent or become strongly political.

The 60s era was a time of major social change but only when those social concerns appeared on the streets as good photographic opportunities did Winogrand show any interest. He seems disinterested and neutral in outlook (in an interview with Barbara Diamonstein he said he found the speechmaking at protest meetings 'tiresome') but nevertheless he did not side with the establishment. In his own work when attending any public relations event or attempt at media manipulation he always remained sceptical.

As with the convention of the horizontal in a photograph - which he famously ignored - there is a similar idea that artists should always campaign for change which he also ignored. Winogrand stated, 'I don't have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.'


In 'Thinking Photography', Victor Burgin picks the photograph 'Central Park Zoo' to illustrate an example of the way photographs confirm attitudes of the dominant social order. He sees the combination of an inter-racial couple holding chimpanzees as reinforcing a racist discourse. However it is worth pointing out that Robert Frank was Winogrand's major influence - and that artists remember images of others' work in their heads, which they can knowingly or unknowingly refer to. The supposedly notorious Winogrand image is shown here with a Frank photograph from his book 'The Americans' (1955) which has the same effect of momentary confusion.

In his photograph Winogrand recognized its powerfulness to affect the viewer but saw any interpretation (or misinterpretion) as a reflection of society. He described its effect as one of 'an automatic yuk'. It is also worth considering that there are no other photographs taken by Winogrand that have been used to repeat the accusation of racism and if one were to look for similar pictures that display the same quirky vision they are readily available.


There is no doubt that the various challenges were effective in quickly undermining the genre. It became harder to have work shown. Galleries were aware of the potential damage that could be done to their reputation - and the subsequent risk to funding. Even the V&A's Diane Arbus retrospective (2005) showed that the determination by some to criticize the photographers of this period remains as committed as ever. Germaine Greer in an interview for the Guardian newspaper reencounters the painful experience of being photographed by Arbus.

Street work was chaotic and energetic and so was mistrusted by conceptual critics wary of anything that was not synthetic or intellectual. It threatened their own aims to use the medium in a new way. It had been argued that the medium had 'an imperative duty to avoid the mean, the bare, the ugly, and to aim to elevate the subject, to avoid awkward forms and to correct the unpicturesque' - by Henry Peach Robinson writing more than a hundred years earlier (A history photography: 1839-to the present).

While Winogrand photographed anything that interested him there was one subject that was particularly controversial at the time and remains so today - his photographs of women. His book 'Women Are Beautiful' (1975) was met with condemnation. Winogrand predicted that the issue was with one of picture quality and only as a result of the difficulty with editing he conceded 'I don't think it's as good as the other books I've done.' He was surprised and disappointed with its lack of success. But Arthur C Danto in 'Playing With The Edge' argued that Winogrand was violating the women in his photographs as he had not asked their permission and that he used the women as objects of gaze, 'The images are extremely aggressive towards the women for whom the artist hungers. The pictures are tilted, for example, in such a way that it is impossible to suppress the thought that the camera offered Winogrand a way of looking down bosoms'.

Although Winogrand was obviously attracted to women this is a silly argument. Portrait framing with a wide angle lens would naturally involve tilting the camera down for a close subject to fill the frame (more so when the photographer is taller than the person photographed).

Carl Chiarenza in his article 'Standing On The Corner, reflections upon Winogrand's photographic gaze: mirror of self or world?' believed that the work was the most successful of the books and that in order to access it we need to acknowledge and accept that Winogrand liked photographing women. Winogrand intersperses imagery full of complicated structures with much simpler portraits of individual women, in a style that is described as 'voyeurism without malice'. Really it was the 'the look' that always remained paramount to Winogrand - as much if not more than his attraction and interest in women - a fact evident in other work, for instance in this double-page spread.

Cornelia H Butler in 'The Social Scene' highlights that within the 'Women are Beautiful' collection there are a significant number of photographs that do not exoticise women. These less charged photographs have been less published; such as those of groups of women at demonstrations. Butler asks 'is any kind of feminist reading of these pictures possible? It is these lesser known pictures that have preoccupied me and that, I think, suggest another reading.'

Do the women look like helpless victims startled by the gaze of a predatory male voyeur? Where there is awareness of the photographer the women tend to look strong and determined, they do not appear to be taken aback by being momentarily singled out for attention. Also, the photographer is not attempting to conceal his presence and often they counter his gaze. Perhaps it is worth mentioning also that there are many Winogrand images where men's sexuality is the source of his humour.

Perhaps the real issue is one of demanding a middle-class viewpoint on politeness and deference - that it's rude to stare at people. Undoubtedly with Winogrand there is often a sense of the tragic silliness of humanity but he's even handed and no one escapes. It is likely Winogrand felt himself reflected in the images of scrambling news cameramen at press events or of a wandering street photographer in this image.


Winogrand recognised that the simple mechanism of photography produced an exciting transformation of reality - it is what he was particularly interested in. In his own words, 'putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it. A photograph is not what was photographed, it's something else.' He also made clear, 'the picture plays with the question of what actually is happening. Almost the way puns function. They call the meaning of things into question.' This awareness seems to be something that his post-modernist critics are indifferent to- another oversight that for a long time has contributed to the marginalisation of a whole genre of photography.

Paul Graham suggests in 'Passing Through Eden', that 'making images of life as it happens lies at the very core of the medium - is regrettably viewed with suspicion in the art world. Misunderstood as a collection of lucky moments, fortuitous observations... it has been bypassed or overlooked by many curators, writers and collectors. Jeff Wall is accepted because he manufactures every scene, incident and gesture, so that way of working is embraced'. He sees the confusion as being one of the art world failing to grasp where the photographer's artistic creativity actually lies.

Cornelia H Butler writes that during the last decade a younger generation have incorporated the history of documentary into their teaching programmes unlike their predecessors. It seems some acceptance has begun.

Artists like Paul Graham and Todd Papageorge are still prepared to stand up and say that the 70s produced some of the most inspiring photography in the history of the medium. Very articulate theories have developed to explain why people should not photograph the flow of the real world as it happens, in spite of this Winogrand's challenging but enduring influence still shines through.



Links to sites about Garry Winogrand

Fraenkel Gallery

Park Life: An Interview with Tod Papageorge

Barbara Diamonstein- An Interview with Garry Winogrand from Visions and Images: AmericanPhotographers on Photography, Interviews with photographers

Coffee and Workprints: A Workshop With Garry Winogrand, By Mason Resnick


Garry Winogrand videos:

Garry Winogrand - Part 1

Garry Winogrand - Part 2

Garry Winogrand Photographer (German film)



Butler C H, Coleman A D, Kotz, L(2000) The Social Scene: Ralph M Parsons foundation photography collection Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles

Burgin, V (1982) Thinking Photography Macmillan

Sekula, A (Dismantling Modernism, reinventing documentary, 1976) in Gaiger, J, Wood, P (2003)   Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader   New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Perry, G, Wood, P, ( 2004) Themes in Contemporary Art New Haven and London:Yale University Press

Wood, P (2004) Varieties of Modernism New Haven and London: Yale University Press

Mulligan, T Wooters D, (2005) A History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present; The George Eastman House Collection

Winogrand, G. The Animals New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1969

Winogrand, G. (1999) The Man in the Crowd: the Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand . San Francisco: Fraenkel Gallery

Winogrand, G. (1977) Public Relations New York: Museum of Modern Art

Winogrand, G. (1988) Winogrand: Figments from the Real World . New York: The Museum of Modern Art

Mulligan, T, Wooters, D (2005) A history photography: 1839-to the present Taschen

Danto, A C, (1995) Playing with the edge: The photographic achievement of Roberet Mapplethorpe. University of
California Press.


Graham P Passing Through Eden: photographs by Tod Papageorge Available from

Diamonstein B An Interview with Garry Winogrand from Visions and Images: AmericanPhotographers on Photography, Interviews with photographers Available from

Kozloff, M Tate magazine article reviewing the exhibition 'Street and Studio' at Tate Modern 2008).

Chiarenza C Standing On The Corner, reflections upon Winogrand's photographic gaze: mirror of self or world? Available from