Leonard Quart | Letter From New York: Photographers who were about the work
Letter From New York
NEW YORK — Much of my working life has been spent watching, teaching and writing about films, narrative works as well as documentaries. Recently I looked at two documentaries, both shown at NYC's Film Forum, about two of America's greatest photographers. One was "Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable," directed by Sasha Waters Freyer.
Winogrand's parents were immigrants and he grew up in a predominantly Jewish working-class area of the Bronx, (he preserved a strong Bronx accent) where his father was a leather worker and his mother made neckties for piecemeal work.And it was the energy and street drama of New York that he obsessively, intrusively, and spontaneously photographed for the major portion of his artistic life.
He began as a photojournalist in the 1950s when there were few galleries that exhibited photos, and he worked on assignment for Life and Look illustrating stories. However, encouraged by John Szarkowski, MoMA's powerful head of photography, who became his mentor, Winogrand dropped journalism to become a fine artist developing a distinctive personal vision.
Winogrand was intensely restless, shooting everything he saw with his Leica and trying to be as honest as possible — " calling things as they are" — and leaving 6,500 undeveloped photos when he died. One curator said that he "often worked in a headlong way, preferring to spend another day shooting rather than processing his film or editing his pictures."
There were other street photographers before Winogrand, but none conveyed his sense of immediacy and of personally entering and confronting the packed and detailed world he captured. He had a wonderful eye and was able to make chaos visible in photograph after photograph that depicted life on the streets of New York and, in his last years, of Austin and Los Angeles.
Over 95 percent of Winogrand's photos involved people. He caught the faces and gestures of people walking, talking, and embracing in a variety of emotional states (often anguished ones), and he did not mind being noticed by his subjects. At his best, the movements of his subjects almost seem choreographed. Many of the photographers who appear in the film speak with admiration of Winogrand's capacity to see the world, and ability "to create a new language." Geoff Dyer in his book "The Ongoing Moment" incisively wrote: "There is nowhere for our gaze to rest because, in these pictures, nothing is at rest — least of all Winogrand himself."
Some of his photos misfire, but others are memorable. There are depictions of the culture of the '60s, of the early years of the women's movement, and most often of just everyday people like the striking photo of three young women walking in sunlight down a street toward the camera, while on the left a bent over man in a wheelchair sits in the shadows near a store window, and on the right a number people are sitting on a bench. Nothing prefigured, designed or didactic, but a photo that instinctively and by chance grasps life unfolding in all its complexity and ambiguity.
Winogrand had a difficult personal life, with three marriages and a great deal of angst, some of it about the state of the country (that clearly could be found in his photos). He smoked and drank heavily, and died too early of cancer at 56. The film's interviews with his first wife, who clearly still had feelings for him, conveys how controlling and messy he was as a husband.
For Winogrand it was the work that took precedence. And he had no illusion that his photography did more "than describe light on surface. That's all there is and that's all we ever know about anybody: What we see."
The second film at Film Forum was Gerald Fox's "Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank," about a photographer who had a profound influence on Winogrand. This film is almost entirely constructed of interviews with Frank in his 80s. It was filmed when the now 94-year-old photographer was living near the gentrifying and in his words "yuppie ridden" Bowery, a transformation he had difficulty adjusting to. (Though he still lives there.)
The film is more a deeply moving portrait of the Swiss-born, difficult, anguished, but always authentically himself artist, rather than an exploration of his work. Frank is best known for his 1958 book "The Americans," whose indelible photos of American life first aroused criticism by some who claimed he offered an anti-American screed. But Frank's work was never polemical. The photos were a poetic, open-ended evocation by an artist who captured the country's essence, especially its painful relationship with race.
Frank has also been an experimental filmmaker, most famous for "Pull My Daisy" (made with Alfred Leslie). The memory of seeing this exhilarating improvisational short film in the late '50s still remains with me. The film was written by Jack Kerouac and starred Beat poets Ginsburg and Corso and other artists who were part of New York's Bohemia.
A portion of this film was shot in Nova Scotia where he and his second wife, the vibrant, sweet-natured artist June Leaf, lived in isolation in that striking landscape much of the year since the '70s. Frank never quite achieved peace there, given the family tragedies that he endured, which he openly admitted he felt some responsibility for. But he was left alone there to examine himself and to work as hard as possible.
The work was what was most significant to both Winogrand and Frank. They may have taken on commercial jobs, but they pursued their respective artistic visions without ever betraying their art or themselves.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com
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