Garry Winogrand Shot My Father and I Shot Back!
Original English copy which was translated into German and published in the July 2012 issue of the Swiss magazine Aufbau.
In 1955 my 21-year-old father was taken to the legendary New York nightclub El Morocco by his millionaire uncle. While they were clustered around one of the iconic zebra striped banquettes a performer completed a dramatic pratfall, landing face first right at their feet while balancing a cocktail on his head. Although some of the jaded regulars were surely amused , my uninitiated father was utterly transfixed. And just at that very moment, a young Turk photographer named Garry Winogrand snapped the scene. Looking back, one can be sure Winogrand had little inkling that he would one day be canonized by the medium he had only recently embraced. It is equally probable that my young father could not have supposed that his future son would not only himself become a photographer but also one who would be profoundly influenced by that man with the camera.
More than half a century after my father was immortalized by Winogrand and in anticipation of next year’s retrospective of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I pause to consider this influential artist. He is certainly important within the history of photography, but for me he is also important in defining my own history, and even pre-history if I look back at that serendipitous moment in 1955. My own career has focused on capturing the romp of the rich and famous through New York nightlife, and I like to think that my father’s brush with Winogrand somehow rubbed off and onto my own DNA.
As much as I love the chic photograph capturing my young father transfixed by the metaphor of a surprising future, it was not until the photographer explored the full potential of the New York street during the 1960s that he became a fully formed artist. Moving from pictures of performers and daily life shot for publications, to personal images on the street, the artist’s vision shifted from being slightly romantic and humorous to images full of stylistic discombobulation and emotional irony. This new vision was ideal to explore the era of the Cuban Missile Crisis and was why celebrated curator John Szarkowski called Winogrand the central photographer of his generation.
Although he would make pictures at various locales including zoos, airports, and parties, on the city street is where he was most famously able to utilize and explore unconventional perspectives vis-à-vis the 35mm Leica camera and the wide angle lens. It is this body of work that made Winogrand synonymous with the title “Street Photographer.” He extended a tradition fixed by the French photographers, Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, by integrating the surrealistic aesthetic of those photographers with a new idiom of pictorial space inherent in the radical forms found in mid-century life as well as art. Influenced by Robert Frank’s book The Americans, released in the U.S. in 1959, Winogrand pushed the envelope by exploring the physicality of the photographic act. When he was working on the street, his camera became a direct extension of both his body in motion and the momentary dramas that would be moving towards him. While making pictures in this manner, horizon lines, perspective, and figures all appeared and disintegrated in a way never before captured. At times, the action of taking pictures is as much the subject as any dramatic element before the lens. Winogrand himself famously said “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”
John Szarkowski , former Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, highlighted the importance of Winogrand’s work in a seminal 1967 exhibit titled “New Documents”. The show also included two other photographers that helped define post-WWII America, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. These artists made pictures that moved photographic representation away from the lyrical into new ways of seeing that were more in keeping with the volatile times of the 1960s.
It is interesting to note that all three photographers, like myself, were of Eastern European Jewish descent. Working in the wake of a war that confiscated the freedom of the street and the revelry of everyday experience, these artists recovered what European Jews tragically lost. Winogrand himself was even quoted as saying half jokingly that all the best photographers were Jewish. In his assessment he intimated that perhaps even Atget was of the faith but he must also have been thinking of his hero the Swiss Jewish photographer Robert Frank.
The exhibition opening next March at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will be Winogrand’s first retrospective in 25 years. For this newest appraisal that considers Winogrand’s finished & unfinished work as well as some under-edited earlier film, the SFMoMA has engaged photographer Leo Rubinfien to curate the exhibition. Of special note is an up until now unseen cache of images from the 1960 Democratic National Convention that Rubinfien has discovered. From this historical shoot, only one image from the more than 5,000 exposures is known to have ever been previously printed or published.
Learning of Winogrand’s exploration into the social space of politics at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, I was reminded of my own foray into the political arena, photographing both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions for George Magazine in 1996. Like Winogrand in 1960, I was enthusiastic, hungry, and ambitious but still relatively optimistic about politics. It was Bill Clinton’s reelection year and he was my John F. Kennedy. In fact, JFK Jr. was my editor-in-chief at George. On the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, I remember a loud pop going off. I turned and saw several offspring of Robert F. Kennedy wince briefly in shock. For a split second, I was sent back to the time immediately following the jubilant 1960 election, an era of disbelief marked by assassinations and paranoia. My own world would shift irrevocably after the start of the new millennium. But back at the conventions of 1960 and 1998, both Winogrand and I still viewed the political process as open and full of potential.
In the aftermath of the 1960 Democratic National Convention, Winogrand’s optimism would wane. The photographer stated in his 1963 Guggenheim grant application “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. “ This pessimism, one that I currently share, was in part his reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 . He was able, however, to channel this anger into creating his most accomplished imagery shot in the 1960s and through the 70s.
In 1978, Winogrand moved to Los Angeles, where his shooting became manic in quantity and quality. Whether as an artist he was burnt out or trying to develop a new vision, this ongoing assessment of his late work will be part of Rubinfien’s task in next year’s retrospective at SFMoMA. For me, Winogrand’s later years are the conclusion of an artistic trajectory that brought him from being the romantic young man shooting at El Morocco, to the unique ironist helping to define his generation, to ending up a desperate nihilist unable to focus his vision. Shooting without editing or even developing the film, at the end, his talent became a beautiful impulse completely out of control.
As a photographer following in the footsteps of Garry Winogrand, my own images have been influenced by his keen sense of irony as well as his sophisticated manipulations of the picture plane. I have integrated into my own work his most radical visual invention, tilting the horizon line, and hopefully made it my own. Truth be told though, Winogrand was the master of this revolution , a brilliant perversion that intuitively captured the chaos of a new American era.
Garry Winogand Shot my Father!, Aufbau magazine (Switzerland), July 2012