Garry Winogrand “on the border of failure.”

I began to be interested in Garry Winogrand when I read about how he would tilt his frame. At this time I happened to tilt a lot myself, not being aware of doing so. I early realized that the tilt was for me triggered by the use of wide angle in some typical street situation. And despite tilt sometimes really screwed up the images (it still does quite too often…) my very first thought was “Cool… this guy was tilting so I can do it as well” which was as much a re-comforting as a stupid statement…

One step further was to realize how influential he is, how much of a mighty prophet he is on the realm of contemporary street photography (together with others such as Martin Parr and Joel Meyerowitz). But to which extent his work is really understood in those often too much testosterone-fueled circles seems another story.

“Every photograph is a battle of form versus content. The good ones are on the border of failure.” is what Garry Winogrand would often repeat to his students. (see: “Class Time with Garry Winogrand” )

The thing I begin to learn about Winogrand’s quotes (such as the famous “I photograph to see how things looks like photographed”) is that you should beware – if not distrust – them in the first place. Anyway let’s take this one as it is and let’s try to figure out a little of what it could tell of its author.

It is a bit of a mystery to me whether the idea of “the border of failure” could relate or not to the famous “decisive moment” from Henri Cartier-Bresson. My feeling would be “yes and no”, which is not a very brave answer… To elaborate on that I believe that what Winogrand refers to is not specifically the right moment to achieve a certain geometry (like it is for HCB). If there is “decisive moment” in Winogrand’s work, it has more to do with the “battle of form versus content”. Winogrand is not an architect – unlike HCB. He has more of a stage director and the frame of a photograph is for him a powerful mean to re-stage the reality in front of his eyes.
And sometimes he would manage to do that so powerfully with regards to his own concerns (like in the image reproduced below) that one can have the impression that what he found in the street never really actually happened but instead he made it happen – and I see this point as the very result of being the compulsive shooter he was. In that sense Garry Winogrand is a poor documentary photographer. He often admitted and claimed himself that the pictures were a lie, which could be considered as a form of modesty for he might be aware that his work reflects more of his intimate psyche and how external events would affect or stimulate it, much rather than it is a sharp and truthful outlook on the social transformations he witnessed.

© Estate of Garry Winogrand

Los Angeles 1969 © Estate of Garry Winogrand

This famous photograph from Garry Winogrand taken in 1969 is to me an absolute masterpiece, a concentrate of Winogrand’s vision and a fascinating image. There is tragedy and premonition here. It is like every all-time Winogrand’s favorite performers would came back a last time at the end of the show to salute the public and the director. You have the impotent, three women exposed in an idealistical way (incidentally Winogrand was married 3 times…), there is the young boy looking backward. There is the street sign, the Hollywood glamorous stars on ground… And you have this extraordinary, edgy, surreal light that divides the scene and points exactly towards Winogrand, as to show it was him the real subject here.

Funnily I find that the “border of failure” can also be considered a pun on word, simply referring to the edges of the frame. What makes many photos from Winogrand special is how the edges, the frame, are part of the composition, “how the fact of putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms” to quote the master himself. But more specifically, whereas the frame is an element of stability for many photographers (not unlike it is for painters) it has to be on the contrary an element of instability for Winogrand, a well-suited casket for the often chaotic piece of reality and time captured inside. Furthermore I think it explains in some way why he would tilt the frame so often – though some other more technical and very valid reasons were given for that. The tilt could have to do with both the edges (the frame) and the failure, as if he would want to make sure that he can get as close as possible to it.


There seems to be a growing retrospective interest on Garry Winogrand lately. Lots of stories, essays etc… published on the photo websphere recently. It’s a good thing, that coincides to my personal growing interest for his work – though some others would deserve the same amount of reconsideration as well. Don’t know if it’s a hint of something special in the air on the front of the so-called street photography…

More on Garry Winogrand:


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