Monday, April 8, 2013

Gary Winogrand – a chauvinist pig?

I had never heard of Gary Winogrand or indeed seen any of his work when I first flicked through the pages of 'Man in the Crowd, The Uneasy Streets of Gary Winogrand' but one thing was clear to me – he liked women. Women of 1960s New York had discovered sexuality and were embracing it and they had Winogrand's attention.

'Women interest me – how they look, yes certainly how they look, and their energy'

It wasn't until after I'd picked up on this recurring subject that I realised he had put together an entire book of images of women called 'Women are Beautiful'. This book is supposedly the only book that Winogrand edited entirely himself. He had originally wanted to call it 'Confessions of a Male Chauvinist Pig' but his publisher didn't approve.

I agree with Winogrand's publisher's decision. In my opinion there is nothing chauvinistic about the way he photographed women. To me he was celebrating their beauty, their energy and the newfound sense of sexuality and empowerment that the 60s had brought them. Winogrand himself said, "I suspect that I respond to their energies, how they stand and move their bodies and faces. But what came first? Was it his love of the female subject or was it that they suited his style as a photographer?

Winogrand, the man in the crowd, was driven by the energy of the New York street. The crowds facilitated his style of shooting. They allowed him to get lost. More often than not, his subjects were unaware that they were subjects and if they did notice, Winogrand's charm gained their momentary trust and allowed him to capture them at their ease. As a women myself, I can only imagine how I'd react if I discovered a complete stranger taking my photo as I walked down Grafton Street trying to mind my own business. I suspect I would either be creeped out or flattered. My guess is Winogrand succeeded in eliciting the latter reaction in his subjects. I'm going to hazard a guess and say that I doubt men of the 60s would have reacted as favorably to the flirtatious winks of Winogrand.

Winogrand's disregard for the importance of composition has been noted repeatedly. When your go-to location is a busy city street and your subject of desire is women rushing from one appointment, be it lunch, hair or business-related to another, this seems a necessary move. When watching a documentary recently on street photographer Bill Cunningham, I could not help but notice the similarities in the shooting methods of both photographers. Both photographers are drawn to the women of New York – busy women with places to be.

When watching both men at work, we can see them almost throwing the camera to their face in an attempt to capture their subject. A mere millisecond-length squint through the viewfinder is enough to ensure their lense is pointed in the right direction. For them, the horizon is mere background noise and the street, a mere backdrop. Both men rarely had a preconceived idea of what they were looking for when they embarked on a day of shooting, but rather, they let the street speak to them. Both too are masters of the type of disguise necessary to go unnoticed when taking a stranger's photo.

Stylish women form the centre of Cunningham's photographic world. He is unfazed by their social status or their rank in the fashion industry. His only interest is what they chose to wear that day. Our eyes are drawn to the bold prints, cuts and overall risque wardrobe choices of Cunningham's women. Composition is not a concern.

Initially I thought Winogrand's women were simply and straightforwardly, beautiful women. However, it seems to me now, that he too was drawn to the clothes they wore and the purpose they could serve in drawing our eye to the particulars of each image that had captured his attention in the first place. More often than not, Winogrand seemed interested in clothes that were perhaps revealing a little too much of the area they were intended to cover...shorts that had ridden up uncomfortably on the wearer, a skirt being stretched across a women's thigh as she walked, the neckline of a top that had moved slightly too far in one direction. 

In one case, it's the way in which a dress is being blown against a woman's body, highlighting her pregnant bump. 

Indeed one may accuse Winogrand of being this self-labelled 'chauvinist pig' but on the other hand, we could look at it as though he was celebrating their beauty and appreciating that moment when the energy of their movement allowed him and us a glimpse at their inherent femininity.  

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