From the moment, in 1839, that cameras became easily portable, photographers took them on the road and recorded what they saw for the folks back home. Travel photography was one of the medium’s most popular early manifestations, whetting the public’s appetite for landscapes and street scenes of faraway places and the oddly dressed people who lived in them. That appetite—fueled by widely distributed postcards and stereo views, as well as books, newspapers, and magazines—raged unabated for much of the late 1800s. But this taste for the exotic dissipated quickly once cameras became cheap, simple to operate, and readily available at the turn of the century, and people discovered the simple pleasures in their own backyard. Forget the Parthenon and the Nuba villages—the snapshot itself was marvelous; its spontaneity, ephemerality, and imperfections provided not just diversion but a whole new, vastly influential photographic vocabulary.
Travel photography, as practiced by artists like Felice Beato and Carleton Watkins, may have lost its appeal for the masses long before moving pictures relegated it to a permanent backseat. But the urge to hit the road—along with the means and freedom to do so—only accelerated, and the photographers who gave in to it came to define the social landscape. With all the pioneering journeys now fading into history, and the wilderness eroded by industry and suburban sprawl, photographers could rediscover territory that even the people living on it had ceased to see. America was especially ripe for this sort of rediscovery, and Walker Evans, who saw it at its bleakest and most vulnerable during the Depression, knew it didn’t need pretty, arty pictures. The shots he brought back from his trips across the country weren’t unsympathetic, but they were so tough and undeniably matter-of-fact that they swept away any confusion about who we were and what we’d been through. That confusion had returned and redoubled by the time Robert Frank crossed the country in the late ’50s and produced another redefining body of work in 1959’s The Americans. Frank’s vision of America felt chillingly dead-on, but it was far from matter-of-fact. Though many of his pictures have the quirky composition and on-the-fly looseness of snapshots, their seeming effortlessness is supremely artful, and their atmosphere of anxiety, oblivion, and thwarted yearning is at once a revelation and an invention.
Frank approached his subject with a filmmaker’s eye, looking for narrative, no matter how elusive or fragile, and we respond to these far-from-decisive moments by filling in the backstory. Conflated in the pages of The Americans, these narratives seemed to be about a country on the verge of a nervous breakdown, its beauty nearly eclipsed by its darkness. Every photographer since Frank has had to contend with this vision, but few took it on as directly as Garry Winogrand did when he left New York in June of 1964 and set off to photograph America. He’d secured a Guggenheim grant for his cross-country trip with a proposal that clearly outlined his struggle:
“I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. . . . I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper. This is my project.”
Winogrand, who acknowledged both Evans and Frank as key influences, had already established himself with witty, agile, utterly serendipitous images of the urban street that looked like nothing but snapshots until you tuned in to their instinctive feel for the life of the moment. He was the ultimate hungry eye, voracious in his appetite for faces, figures, and the random choreography of the crowd. In his nearly five months on the road in 1964, he exposed 550 rolls of film, or close to 20,000 shots. The blown-up contact sheets displayed in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1998 Winogrand retrospective were clear evidence that many of those shots were made in an excited flurry while the photographer circled in for the kill. But the photos Winogrand chose to print from this mass of exposures—more than 1000 from the 1964 trip alone—were never tentative and often astonishing. “His best pictures,” Trudy Wilner Stack writes in her essay for Winogrand 1964 (Arena), “are the results of a radically disciplined photographic intelligence charged with animal alertness.”
Wilner Stack, curator of the University of Arizona’s Center for Creative Photography, where Winogrand’s archives are kept, whittled those 1000 existing prints and a slew of color slides down to 190 images for the book and 182 for the knockout show currently at the International Center of Photography. As with any posthumous exhibition, we can only wonder if Winogrand would have made the same selection that Wilner Stack has, particularly when it comes to the color work, none of which he showed in his lifetime and which remained largely unedited at his death in 1984. But both the exhibition and the book are so consistently strong that second-guessing seems quite beside the point. Picture after picture finds Winogrand at his most idiosyncratic and assured.
The work’s incisiveness is all the more surprising because it feels so offhand, almost careless. Nothing much happens in a Winogrand photo; though many are suggestively anecdotal, few feel cinematic or narrative in any way. Instead, like great snapshots, they capture something lovely, evanescent, and vividly present in their subjects: a group of young girls in summer dresses walking along the side of an Arkansas highway, a man diving into a motel pool in Memphis, a woman in a bathing suit tending her front lawn in Los Angeles. Because many of these photos were taken from Winogrand’s car, they’re often framed by its windshield or broad side windows, but they rarely seem framed in the artistic sense. And even if we’re conscious of the photographer at work, Winogrand maintains a rigorous artlessness; his pictures just seem to happen, and keep happening right before our eyes.
Both the show and the book open with a long list of 1964 events, from Beatlemania and the passing of the Civil Rights Act to Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial and the founding of the PLO. None of these things seem to have much effect on the mostly aimless citizens in Winogrand’s photos. Although he photographed the memorials and the tourists in Dealey Plaza and captures George Wallace stepping out of a car at Dallas’s Cotton Bowl Stadium, Winogrand preferred the incidental to the momentous. Yet his pictures never feel flimsy or unimportant, and their depth of feeling can be startling. We don’t really know if Winogrand’s journey reassured him about the integrity and strength of the American character; only a few of the pictures he made on the trip were exhibited while he lived, and never as part of this larger project. But there’s plenty of evidence here that would have allayed his fear that “it just doesn’t matter.” And while he might have despaired that “we have not loved life,” there’s no question that Winogrand did.