I finally got my hands on a real copy of “Women Are Beautiful” from Garry Winogrand. I did not buy one but found it at the Art Institute of Boston (AIB) library which is located close to Fenway park and not far from where I live. I could not borrow it so I just sat there to browse it and put it back on the shelves. I should add that the AIB library has a strong collection of photo-books, and a small exhibition room (I saw big prints from Meyerowitz on show few weeks ago).
“Women Are Beautiful” by Garry Winogrand was issued in 1975 and has been a commercial failure. It is now out of print and it is really hard to find copies of it. Sometimes you might find some for sale (e.g. on Amazon) but they are very expensive. Not only it is a rare book but also - and partly because of that – it is kind of “cult”, at least in the contemporary Street-Photography circles where Winogrand is one of the most (if not the most) praised SP master. And this specific book is maybe the most emblematic – or should I say instead “problematic” – of his career, as well as the most difficult to find today.
Probably because of that the first thing that stroke me is that it is actually a little physical thing. I don’t know if another (larger) format exists (*) but the one I browsed is about 8×10 inches, with pictures reproductions inside about 5×7. It is rather thin and it has a soft cover. Actually it is very similar from the blurb book I got. For some (obvious) reasons I thought it was bigger, thicker, with a hard cover (*).
(*) note: there is another version of this book with hard cover, dust-jacket and is probably a larger format.
Also it is rather banal in the way it is made. There is the short essay from Helen Gary Bishop, and then the pictures which are untitled. It looks like if it was done quickly with not too much thoughts nor craft put in it. By that I mean there is no effort to make it a “great” photo book and it probably reflects Winogrand low interest to put too much energy in making a book. Also I am not sure who did the editing, can’t remember to read something specific about that.
The pictures themselves I know almost all of them before, but never saw one in print (although I saw couple of them reproduced in other Winogrand books, such as “The Man in the crowd”). The print quality of the book is not outstanding, to say the least, which reinforces the feeling that this is definitely not a “nice” photo-book. You look at it the same way jazz connoisseurs would listen to old recordings of – say – Charlie Parker. You don’t necessarily expect too much quality in the reproduction but instead are after someone or something who/which has something to say.
As I said before most of the image from the book are familiar to me, but looking at these photographs of women in the context of this book in hand is a rather different experience than looking at jpeg files on a monitor. Of course that is true for most photography work but in that specific case I noticed something that maybe is obvious for many but that I missed before: actually most of these photographs have the women breasts as a pivotal element. Sometimes it can be subtle, such as in this photograph where a woman is standing on the sidewalk and is seen from back, holding something in her hand whilst on the left there are dummies inside a garment store with the light falling on the fake breasts. Or it can be straight forward such as in the photograph below.
In a sense “Women are Beautiful” is almost a series of breasts photographs instead, an iteration of woman breasts, but not much in the voyeuristic sense of it. I guess it can be seen like that … or well I wondered if it is just me … but then I read the essay from Helen Bishop and at the end she elaborates about that very fact too, that the women photographed have their presence made obvious and sexual thanks to their breast (something like this, I should have noted the exact words). More specifically it appeared to me that most compositions were build with the nipples pointing somewhere whilst the eyes are directed in another direction, which kind of creates a strange twist. I believe this aspect of the images makes Winogrand work about women peculiar and sets it apart from the average – and utterly cliched – “woman in the street” photograph.
Out of the 84 images from this book there are few that I did not see before. One that really caught my attention represents a woman lying in a park but who is almost completely hidden by dogs. It is one of the very few image from the book where the presence of a woman (and her breast) is not obvious. Interestingly enough it is to the benefit of another subject matter that Winogrand liked to shoot: dogs.