Winogrand | Figments From The Real World
Photo book of the year 2023
This is my personal photo book of the year 2023. For the book of the year, it is completely irrelevant whether it is a book from this year or perhaps a much older one. It also doesn’t matter whether it’s better, more colourful, quirkier, more beautiful, sadder or simply funnier than other books. It’s simply MY photo book of the year. And I’ll try to find a few words to explain why…
With this book review, I will be writing this column in English only from now on. German-speaking readers may forgive me… if necessary, there are very useful online translators these days.
2023 – Winogrand | Figments From The Real World
Some of you may be wondering why this book of all books is my book of the year 2023. It was published in 1988 and is certainly no longer an insider tip. Perhaps a little dusty – that’s how some of you might feel about it. Especially the younger ones, I would imagine.
There are two reasons for this, one profane and one substantive.
The profane reason is that I have only owned this book for a few months. Of course, it is long out of print, and I “only” bought a used second edition from 2003 – which is expensive enough, to be honest. So I couldn’t have presented it any earlier.
The substantive reason is partly the radicalism of Gary Winogrand. His work itself has not influenced me as a photographer as much as that of Robert Frank, William Eggleston or Stephen Shore, for example – but his tendency to disregard the rules of photography has. And of course, his interest and curiosity about how the world looks in pictures… but more on that later.
About Gary Winogrand
Gary Winogrand, born 1928 in New York City/USA, was an American photographer. His path into photography was mapped out from the very beginning. He studied painting and photography at the City College of New York and at Columbia University. However, he was in a darkroom early on in his studies, left painting alone and – as he said himself – never looked back. His further education also led him into photojournalism and thus to the New School for Social Research. His participation in one of Alexey Brodovitch’s legendary workshops in 1949 was probably also very influential for him.
In the early 1950s, Winogrand was already working as a freelance photographer and photojournalist. This was followed by his first participations in major exhibitions, including at the MoMa in New York. By the beginning of the 1960s, Winogrand had already made a name for himself on the photography scene and in 1964 was awarded his first of three Guggenheim fellowships. The purpose of the fellowship – “…for photographic studies of American life” – already foreshadowed the focus of his later work.
In the years that followed until his untimely death in 1984, Gary Winogrand became one of the great chroniclers of social life on and in the streets of the USA. However, his style was not so strictly documentary, rarely conceived in series and hardly narrative as such. He developed strongly in the direction of street photography, which he significantly influenced and popularised. He himself – at least that’s what he said – didn’t want to tell any stories with his pictures.
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.GAry Winogrand
Figments From The Real World
Gary Winogrand was certainly not an easy and uncomplex person. In the book’s essay, John Szarkowski – who knew him for many years – describes him as “egocentric, overbearing, demanding and (except to his children) insensitive”. At the same time, however, he also attests to Winogrand’s “extraordinary intelligence”.
If you like, these descriptions are reflected in his life’s work. He is characterised by brilliant images, radical cuts with seemingly randomly tilting frames and an almost manically driven focus on the scenes of life.
At this point, however, it should not be concealed that not everyone celebrated his photography. On the one hand, he was frequently slated by more classically orientated critics. Also, his books were certainly not financial successes during his lifetime. Neither “The Animals” (1969) nor “Women are Beautiful” (1975) were really worth mentioning in terms of sales at that time. On the other hand, especially the works of the latter were also perceived – and not only by feminists – as somehow critical or at least slightly disturbing in terms of content. I agree with this.
The restless obsessive
Gary Winogrand was an obsessive. Obsessed with photography, obsessed with the image, obsessed with what he could fit between the frames of his pictures. Restless and always in search for the next picture. Click. Go on. Click….
I have cut out a sequence from a short documentary video about Gary Winogrand. If you watch these few seconds, you might understand better what I mean… 😉
Sometimes I feel like . . . the world is a place I bought a ticket to. It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.Gary Winogrand
This behaviour naturally made him an icon and a pioneer of street photography. And led to him taking pictures that not everyone dares to take and are therefore not seen everywhere. On the other hand – as you can probably guess – this form of mania did not exactly lead to a structured way of editing the pictures he took.
As he got older, taking pictures seemed more important than developing, enlarging and perhaps publishing them. Not to mention cataloguing or anything like that. At his death, Gary Winogrand left 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and 300,000 unedited images.
The decisive frame
Henri Cartier-Bresson developed and propagated the idea of the decisive moment in photography. Winogrand probably saw it a bit the same way. But I think for him the question of the decisive frame was more important. He saw his pictures as his personal representation of reality, which he could change by framing. Because not only the moment, but also the frame changes everything.
Photography is about finding out what can happen in the frame. When you put four edges around some facts, you change those facts.GAry Winogrand
Especially in later years, this almost became a driving force behind his photography. This seemingly random tilting of the pictures mentioned above was probably not so random at all. In many contacts you can see how he apparently tried out this tilting – and thus also changing the content of the pictures.
As with many photographers at the time, Winogrand’s photographic career began more or less in the field of photojournalism. However, this – and the occasional technically undemanding advertising photo – was more about earning money. Or, strictly speaking, perhaps just to keep his head above water financially.
His real motivation, however, seems to have been life itself. Again, more precisely: what life looks like in photos.
[…] with the work of Gary Winogrand, whose ambition was not to make good pictures, but through photography to know live.John Szarkowski
The Photo Book
Winogrand | Figments From The Real World is conceived as a retrospective and an accompanying book to the exhibition of the same name at MoMa and elsewhere. It begins with John Szarkowski’s essay on the work – and in part the life – of Gary Winogrand.
Szarkowski then divides Winogrand’s work into 8 chapters – which I found somewhat oddly chosen. On the one hand, there are chronological phases – such as the “Eisenhower Years” or “The Sixties”. On the other hand, he also divides the chapters according to focus, such as “Women” or “The Zoo”. I don’t have a better suggestion at the moment, but I’m still left wondering.
In the last part of the book there is a chapter on unfinished work. However, in view of the almost unbelievable number of unedited pictures, this is very small.
The book is well made and wrapped in a yellow linen cover. At least mine has survived the last 20 years very unscathed.
Is it my favourite book? No. Is it my most important book? No. Is it my most instructive book? Equally no. So why did I choose it as my book of the year 2023? Because it exists and I’ve owned it since this year.
Gary Winogrand has undoubtedly helped to change photography and also to liberate it a little. When I look at Winogrand’s photographs, I am constantly reminded of what photography should actually be about: the image itself. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Not perfectly sharp, not perfectly level, not perfectly exposed… but it has to be a picture that shows something.
He always reminds me that it’s not technology that counts, but passion and interest in life. Bringing this into pictures – in whatever form – is also what drives me. Only sometimes it gets out of focus… but then I can open the Winogrand again.
But I still have one question at the end? Was that it? Is Szarkowski’s retrospective really a reasonably complete overview of Gary Winogrand’s work? What about the tens of thousands of pictures that haven’t really been looked at yet? Very little is said about them. So I’ll probably keep looking for the ingenious and controversial Winogrand. Let’s see what else there is to discover… maybe sometimes you have to look the other way 🙂
But now – whether you celebrate it or not – happy holidays and a good start to 2024!