Garry Winogrand, along with Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, defined a new approach to street photography in 1960s and 1970s. A relatively new book, The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand (published in March 2018), presents an inspiring and unusual overview from his life’s work, including many images that have never been seen before, along with his classic iconic photographs and some surprising early color work.
What makes this book extra special are the 100 short essays written by author Geoff Dyer in response to 100 photographs by Winogrand. The structure of the book is modeled on John Szarkowski’s classic books Atget and Looking at Photographs, and it’s a delight to take the time to really study each photograph, and to absorb Dyer’s often-quirky personal reactions and observations for each image. It’s the kind of book that you sit down and read, cover to cover, the first time, and then return to, often, to open the book at random to appreciate just one image and a short essay for inspiration.
The book has been praised for the new insights it offers for people who love Winogrand and street photography. Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, said, “Geoff Dyer is so open to every aspect of art that when he turns his eyes and heart to the photography of Garry Winogrand we get the full benefit of his education, his insight, and the transparency of his prose, and we cherish the fact that his voice lives in our head for a moment to intensify and elucidate—but never explain—why these images mean so much.”
Here is just one example of an image/essay pairing from the book, with Geoff Dyer’s text:
Already, by 1960, Winogrand was taking pictures that didn’t make any sense. Even now, we struggle to get a handle on them, but back then, before the pictures had altered the grammar of photography sufficiently to enable us to get to grips with them …
The amount of information in this photograph is considerable but the ordering of it so minimal—or discreet, at any rate—it’s difficult to know how to process it. How many lives are being actively lived in this picture? What is happening? What are we looking at? For one thing, we’re looking at a manifestation or projection of our own confusion in the form of the guy scratching his head, a gesture that might for him be purely mechanical (an itch?) but which here becomes imbued with psychological and existential weight because he is asking the question we are asking: What is going on here? So the person asking this question becomes the key to the riddle of which he is a central part. This key turns out to be compositional even though, back in 1960, it seemed to many that Winogrand had given composition the elbow—in this instance, quite literally. The elbow is the element on which the whole picture hinges. The head-scratcher’s elbow links arms, as it were, with those of the other walkers—especially the woman in the white dress, behind him and to his left—which leads, in turn, to those of the woman in the black dress, the diagonal straps of which mirror the triangulation of upper and lower arm hinged at the elbow. I don’t want to make too much of this but once you start looking it seems that the cars have somehow sprouted elbows in the form of fins, as have the trees, in the form of branches. And look at the triangular peaked cap of the parking attendant (if that’s what he is) right above the head-rubbing hand.
But something else is important, too. The abundance of information is matched always by the amount withheld. In spite—and because—of everything that’s going on, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on.
So, if you like street photography and Winogrand, you’ll be happy to discover this book for yourself. Highly recommended.
— Jim Casper