Geoff Dyer – The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand

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Review by Wayne Swanson 

Is trying to explain Garry Winogrand’s photographs an interesting challenge or a fool’s errand? After all, Winogrand repeatedly rebuffed attempts to philosophize about his work with statements like “You’re talking about meaning. I want to talk about the pictures.”

Nevertheless, Geoff Dyer gives it a shot in this big book of essays and photos. Dyer is a gifted writer of fiction and criticism whose previous book on photography is the acclaimed The Ongoing Moment. He was offered the opportunity to explore Winogrand’s vast archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ, and to come up with, well, whatever caught his fancy.

The result is a book that follows the format of John Szarkowski’s classics Atget and Looking at Photographs. Dyer takes 100 images (plus a few extras) from all stages of Winogrand’s career and writes short essays about each of them — one image and one essay per spread. This is not a “best of” book, or a comprehensive survey of Winogrand’s work. Rather, it’s Dyer’s idiosyncratic musings on a selection of Winogrand’s idiosyncratic imagery. Many images aren’t well-known, yet the cast of characters and settings are familiar.

Dyer is an engaging writer, and he marshals his extensive knowledge of art, literature, cinema, philosophy, and aesthetics to riff on each photograph. It’s fun, thought-provoking, and enlightening at times. But other times he seems to be reaching, finding symbolism and hidden meanings where they may not really exist.

Winogrand, who notoriously photographed constantly and left behind thousands of rolls of undeveloped or unprinted film, once said “When I’m photographing, I don’t see photographs. I see faces. I see this. I see that. I don’t see photographs until I see photographs.” Yet Dyer sometimes catalogs everything in an image as if it were part of a grand design. And his musings about the meaning of a given photograph can go a bit far. Maybe the early street shot of a group of women clutching their hands tightly to their bodies captures a “pre-feminist moment,” but maybe the women were just cold.

That’s not to diminish Dyer’s understanding of Winogrand and his work. He effectively classifies Winogrand’s trademark interests and recurring themes — crowds on the street, people waiting, people lined up a row, people in cars, interesting females, zoos (animal and human), and more. Dyer’s fascination in The Ongoing Moment with scenes that have been captured by great photographers throughout history is present here as well.

His commentaries effectively chart the creative arc of Winogrand’s career, drawing attention to themes that would recur and evolve. He finds sadness in Winogrand’s final images. They contain the trademark creative chaos, but seem incomplete, as if Winogrand were searching for a next step, but had not yet found it before his untimely death at the age of 56.

Characterizing the book as the “philosophy” of Winogrand may be a stretch. But Dyer offers some compelling nuggets about the essence of his work. Like “bear in mind the perpetual lesson of Winogrand. Something is happening over there, beyond the frame, something else worth looking at and potentially worth photographing.” And “Winogrand kept reminding audiences that a photograph is not the same as the stuff in a photograph. In other words, he kept emphasizing it wasn’t about what to look for but how to look. His pictures would offer an education in seeing.”

The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand is a book to digest in small bites. Then you can really appreciate Dyer’s subtle humor, wide-ranging aesthetic sense, and quirky insights. But wear your boots, because it can get a bit deep at times.

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The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, Geoff Dyer

Author: Geoff Dyer, born Cheltenham, England, resides Los Angeles, CA

Publisher: University of Texas Press (Austin, TX, USA, copyright 2018)

Introduction and essays, Geoff Dyer

Text: English

Cloth-covered hardcover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, four-color lithography, notes and list of plates, 10 x 12 inches, 240 pages, 22 color photos, 90 black-and-white photos, printed in Germany

Photobook designer: Erin Mayes

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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