“Women Are Beautiful”, the book

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).

The "Women Are Beautiful" copy at the AIB, Boston

“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.

A compared analysis of Vivian Maier’s Work (Part 4)

Part1: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/09/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-1/

Part2: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-2/

Part3: https://jophilippe.wordpress.com/2011/01/12/a-compared-analysis-of-vivian-maiers-work-part-3/

Part 4: Vivian Maier and the “modern”: Harry Callahan, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander

A “modern” approach to street photography, starting from the late 50’s often involves a “peripheral vision”, that is literally opening the frame and capturing much of what’s all around, instead of focusing on / detaching a main subject-matter (albeit its juxtaposed motifs). The result is the suggestion of multiple and sometimes opposite energies and directions and every so often the introduction of tension(s) and visual dissonances. Many old rules are broken. One could make a comparison with tonal music as opposed to polytonality/polymodality (and by the way it is interesting to note that jazz music went through a similar evolution at the very same period with musicians such as Miles Davis, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Jimmy Giuffree …)

Examples of these new conceptions are the ‘Providence’ photograph from Callahan.

Harry Callahan, Providence, 1968

… and this famous photograph below from Winogrand.

Garry Winogrand - Dealey Plaza, Dallas, 1964

These new conceptions requires most of the time to frame into an horizontal aspect ratio (as opposed to square format and portrait format) which sounds rather logical because the world and its energies are largely organized horizontally. But actually there is a new, less rigid sense of frame in photograph which is being developed here, together with the use of lenses of wider angle than used before. And although it is sometimes wrongly perceived as lousy, casual (“snapshot”), there is a concern with filling the frame with as much information as possible (as Winogrand put it) often organized in complex and multi-layered manner (Friedlander), as opposed to narrow down and straighten the perspectives around a simple subject-matter.

Lee Friedlander - Texas, 1966

Also from a rather psychological point of view a more ironical and detached way to look at the world around is achieved. Even the portrait pictures (straight portraits or more environmental one) would benefit from the horizontal aspect.

Lee Friedlander - Self Portrait, 1966

Exception to horizontal framing are for example the vertical shots that Winogrand did, especially of women. But in that case the combination of very wide angle and tilt would make it fit into this new aesthetic.

Photograph by Garry Winogrand

Another consequence of this approach is the decline of empathy in street photography and a higher detachment. The photographers seem to be engaged on a broader visual level rather than simply on one or two individuals detached from the background. Empathy leaves place to a disconnected, elusive, and sometimes a “cartoonesque” or an aggressive vision of the world (Garry Winogrand), or a “slower”, colder and more abstract one (Callahan, Friedlander).

This point is important when it comes to political and sociological themes evoked in photographs since the (western) world (especially America) then went through major changes and events (Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam war, the Feminist Movement…). But the most seminal figures of this new wave of photography would choose not to deal very seriously (i.e. politically) with all that, as opposed to a more radical form of photojournalism which was developing. Hence the controversy (and misunderstanding) around images such as Winogrand’s iconic mixed couple carrying chimps which is unsettling in the context of the rising of political correctness. And both Winogrand and Friedlander were heavily criticized for so-called “reactionary vision” in their women images and nudes. But as a matter of fact they were seemingly interested with the sheer visual aspect of photography first and foremost rather than by making political or sociological statements. “I photograph to see how things look like photographed”… at this point the divorce with photojournalism is complete and other major “straight”-photographers of the forthcoming generation such as Eggleston and Shore would likewise elude the political and sociological content from their work.

William Eggleston - Mississippi, 1969

I think that Maier’s work does not set well into this new approach and instead remains remote thereof. Especially her sense of framing seem to have been inspired by more classical concerns, and it is likely that her use of square format was for her a showstopper to embrace these conceptions (not meaning that using that square crop was a no-go itself – see Friedlander use of it). Also she seems to have favored a closer proximity with subject matter and been concerned about faithful and detailed description, as opposed to a more elusive vision.

Fig 1. Photograph by Vivian Maier

Fig 1 (above) and fig 2. (below), two photograhs from Maier that I find have a “Winogrand vibe” in it. Fig 2. is very interesting, involving some “uncertainty” and is derogatory to Maier’s usually rigorous and balanced framing. How many of that sort did she shot ?

Fig 2. Photograph by Vivian Maier

… Could be that she focused more on her acquired strength and was more willing to refine her skills. Anyhow the evolution of her work from the 60’s and onward is still a bit of a mystery. Especially since there is very few work done with 35mm published so far to figure out if she successfully made a shift in her stylistic approach – or at least if she intended to make a shift. Some clues about that can be found in this recent interview with John Maloof but what we learn is not very promising (or maybe it is ?)

 

Fig 3. Harry Callahan - Atlanta, 1984

Did Vivian Maier had the “Atlanta” picture from Callahan (fig 3. above)  in mind when she shot this one below (fig 4. below) ? But it is likely that the one from Maier is much older.. Anyway I am not sure that those two images  are very comparable otherwise than just its main subject matter, the red spotted dress. The background and light condition seem to play as much as a prominent role in Callahan’s composition whereas Maier seemed to have been drawn by the hand gesture in the first place.

Fig 4. Photograph by Vivian Maier

 

Of course that does not mean that she was kind of outdated at one point. She was not, that does not make sense. But it is worth to mention that her style does not achieve a  comprehensive coverage of street-photography. This is worth to be mentioned at a time when one can read here and here many hyperbolic statements about Vivian Maier.


 

2 more Google street view re-photo of Garry Winogrand…

Both shots were done in NYC.

First shot was done E 72th and easy to spot.

© Estate of Garry Winogrand

Contemporary Google street view

 

Second shot was done 3rd Ave / E 48th and features Todd Papageorge:

© Estate of Garry Winogrand

Contemporary Google street view

2 Google street view re-photo of Garry Winogrand

Here are 2 other Google-street-view re-capture of Garry Winogrand shots.

First one is in New-York and is located on 5th avenue /46th street and was shot looking northward.

New-York, c.1971 © Estate of Garry Winogrand

Google street view

Next time I go to NYC I’ll do a “real” reshot if I can find the time.

***

Second one is in Chicago featuring the old theater which makes it easy to spot

Chicago, c.1971-72 © Estate of Garry Winogrand

Contemporary Google street view

Google street view re-photo Garry Winogrand Hollywood/Vine

Just for the record here is a Google street-view capture that approximately matches the famous Hollywood/Vine shot by Garry Winogrand:

 

© Estate of Garry Winogrand

Hollywood, c.1969 © Estate of Garry Winogrand

 

 

Hollywood/Vine as shot by Goggle street view 200x

 

 

Invoking the Ghost of Winogrand

I’ve been lurking on that thread lately and actually there are a couple of interesting things been said. I too dig that picture from Garry Winogrand very much, I believe it sums up what is Winogrand’s style in some way, to put it simply, not unlike the Hollywood Wine shot.

I have to confess that I tried myself to cut my teeth on the same “motif”, and I ended up with some interesting variations:

#1. Six women (well, including two young girls), but no man (there is the guy with his hand on his head in the BKG, I think he is mimicking the girl on right). The very problem here is that one woman is not on the bench (here is the variation idea) and focuses too much attention, that of the viewer (especially male viewers) and that of the other people in the shot. The Winogrand shot is more multidirectional for that matter. Also the background is very cluttered here. Not a bad shot anyway though it is a bit voyeuristic, but eh… Women Are Beautiful

#2. “Get closer”, that is Capa who said it. But it does not work very well here IMO, there is no convincing geometry in the shot, the energy is somewhat cramped. And the guy on right is making eye contact with me. Pfff….

#3. The opposite of “Get closer”. And you get a more diffuse and less aggressive shot. The overall set-up together with the big space between the two ‘couples’ (each being emphasized with a tree behind) gives the shot a more ‘social / documentary’ vibe. I like this one.

#4. The complicated stuff… Not one but two benches. And people in different orientation. That is the multidimensional idea of the Winogrand shot and IMO a not-so-stupid idea of variation, especially here with the two girls kind of gossiping and the two males very… male.

#5. Not all benches are straight. There are round benches too… But finally is a problem here because you can’t “close” the shot in a convincing way (Winogrand did it so brilliantly by cutting out the two men in both sides of his framing).

#6. Let’s try in the metro… A good set up, with not-so-bad background, good possibility of symmetry, you are at the level of the subject eye (hipshot not allowed) … What is needed now (and lacks here) is great body language, that makes the Winogrand shot priceless.

#7. Why not in portrait mode ?

#8. Another idea is to have a time marker in the shot. You can’t count too much on fashion because they are recurring every ten years or so (except the hair style of the 80’s). The most reliable time marker are cars. But a laptop (here) is good also. In about 5 years or so nobody will go outside with such a bulky stuff.

#9. The “family shot” variation. Here I bought an ice-cream to my two sons and told them to sit on the bench with the girls. Very convenient if you are afraid to shoot anonymous people with a wide angle.

#10. It is time to ask ourselves a crucial question about that Winogrand re-shot. Why women ? … so here I removed the six girls and we are left with two guys.

#11. Here I had THE background for a Winogrand re-shot. But that couple has had the wrong idea to occupy the bench…

#12. The ‘singularity’ variation.

#13. The nihilist variation. Unless this one is the ethereal and romantic variation.

#14. Finally I was lucky enough to have the same six girls from the Winogrand shot together again on a bench, 46years later. The body language and interaction is not the same, but there is an obvious nostalgia here.