Laughter and passion

Garry Winogrand, New York City, New York, 1972

To find out what New York looked like in the 1950s or ’60s or up until his death in 1984, there are worse places to turn than Garry Winogrand’s pictures. A prolific photographer who not only recorded everyday life on the streets of America – and New York in particular  – but also got into many significant events of the day, Winogrand photographed the world around him as a way of understanding it, taking many thousands more pictures than he could ever hope to process. Indeed, at the time of his death he has something like 2,500 rolls of film waiting to be processed and even more processed but not yet contact printed. That’s hundreds of thousands of pictures. And those are just the ones he hadn’t really got round to looking at properly.

So, what of the actual pictures? Clearly they’re plentiful, but what are they actually like?

El Morocco, 1955

These are the days of Mad Men and lots of Winogrand’s pictures document the style of the times, but the pictures are interesting more for the expressions than the clothes. There is a passion on view that comes, I think, not just from the photographed but also from the photographer. It’s Winogrand’s obsessive recording and editing that presents us with public laughter and passion. People are caught in unguarded moments – laughing, dancing, talking – often apparently oblivious of Winogrand’s camera.

World Fair, 1964

Though many of the pictures feel familiar – there are situations we recognise from life and times and places we recognise from film and television – there are also pictures that feel bafflingly unfamiliar. The rodeo horse in Fort Worth seems to be laughing every bit as hard as the woman in New York City. We can only imagine the what the people hanging out at Coney Island are doing under the pier at night.

Forth Worth, 1974

It is of course the nature of street photography – and much of Winogrand’s work can be seen as such – that narratives are suggested. In much the same way as we people watch in public places, imagining we can somehow fill in details about the lives of those around us based on our own prejudices and preconceptions and random snippets of overheard conversation – clearly not an exact science – we scour pictures like these to reinforce whatever opinions we may have of their maker and to look for hints about the lives of their subjects.

Coney Island, 1952

Winogrand’s subject matter was wide-ranging. He photographed dancers at nightclubs, politicians at rallies, strangers on the street and pretty much any other aspect of American life he could. Accordingly, his work forms a fairly comprehensive picture of mid-Twentieth Century life in America, telling stories both familiar and incomprehensible. That’s not really what engages me most though. Ultimately, it’s the way the passion seems to burst through the photographic surface. And of course the way that some of the pictures just make me laugh.

Untitled, 1950s

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