Through the decades in which women marched for liberation from secretarial jobs, sexual monogamy and bras, Garry Winogrand walked the streets, his palm-sized camera in hand, photographing women. He caught them with their guard down, their knees too high for their too short skirts, their necklines gaping open to bare nearly too much cleavage. But scandal and paparazzi zing were far from the motives of a man who said over and over that he just liked the way women moved.
The Denver Art Museum (DAM) has assembled 50 photos from its permanent collection of Winogrand images — about half of what it has in its archives and a fraction of the photos Winogrand took on the subject — for the exhibit Garry Winogrand: Women are Beautiful. There are no studio lights and no makeup. It’s real women in real clothes, “just honest photos of people going about their daily lives,” says Eric Paddock, DAM curator of photography.
Winogrand, born 1928 in the Bronx, shot photos up until his death in 1984, primarily in city streets and parks. He made thousands and thousands of images — the Center for Creative Photography, which houses a large portion of his collection, estimates it has more than 20,000 Winogrand prints. New York City was his backdrop for most of his lifetime. And women, for decades, were his preoccupation. So much so that he stacked up enough work on women to publish the book Women Are Beautiful in 1975.
“Whenever I’ve seen an attractive woman, I’ve done my best to photograph her,” Winogrand wrote in the book’s introduction. “I don’t know if all the women in the photographs are beautiful, but I do know that the women are beautiful in the photographs.”
He shot with wide-angle lenses on a small Leica camera used so heavily that the metal plating is worn, and he filled his pockets after a day on the streets with rolls of black and white film. At his death, he left thousands of images undeveloped and unprinted. Winogrand called the label “street photographer” stupid, but posthumously, that’s how he’s often characterized.
“He tended to work really fast,” Paddock says. “He’d raise the camera and take a picture and it looked like he was just swatting a fly. It was that fast.”
The term “voyeur” almost has to come into play in photos of this nature: women lost in thought on buses, carrying their bags through crowded streets, pedaling a bicycle barefoot down a street or origami-folded into a phone booth. He’s peeking in on private lives and private moments.
In most cases, the women in his photos probably didn’t know they were being photographed. In some, they stare directly into the camera. In one, “Laughing woman with ice cream cone” (Winogrand’s titles were almost always pedantic descriptors), his reflection is visible in the storefront glass just behind her, and it’s possible he prodded out that laugh she’s in the middle of, her head thrown back.
The bulk of the photos in Women Are Beautiful are drawn from the era when the women’s movement was becoming more militant. They include the “Summer of Love” and document changes in the way women dress.
“Let’s face it, he’s a middle-aged male responding to that in a fairly predictable way,” Paddock says, “but he’s making photographs that aren’t predictable at all.”
The best expression of Winogrand’s motives for photographing the everyday lives of American women comes from his application for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship for creative arts, which he received in 1964.
“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,” he stated. “Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines (our press). They all deal in illusions and fantasies. 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.”
He traveled for five months to 17 states on that grant.
“These aren’t pictures of vanity.
These are pictures of self-absorption and really being who they are,” Paddock says of Women Are Beautiful. “They’re just in themselves and they’re not performing for the camera.”
Winogrand’s photographs reaffirm that women really are beautiful, on accident and on purpose, when they know someone is looking and when they believe no one is.