We Will Always Miss the Old New York

Posted on May 17, 2013


Image“There’s no such thing as street photography.”[1]– celebrated street photographer Garry Winogrand

Artists often refuse to acknowledge their output as art, so this sentiment, while paradoxical, is perhaps forgivable, until you actually look at Garry Winogrand’s photographs of the New York City streets. Each photograph is a powerful expression, too affecting and too curious not to be considered art. Winogrand’s big personality and reluctant pessimism are the audience of each piece. His perspective is quintessentially New York, a view of the city as only one of its own could see it. Winogrand spent a lifetime as an observer, and his observations left him with nothing but more questions. His infinite curiosity of people separated him from the layperson: most people are too overwhelmed by New York City to notice the infinite subtleties of its citizens. His is the only street photography I have ever seen that seems to ask questions rather than answer them. Famously, he furiously snapped multiple shots on his 35mm camera, one quickly after another, often without holding the camera to his eye, and almost always before his subject took notice. The results, almost miraculously, are incredible shots that often “scatter several small but remarkable dramas throughout a single frame.”[2] After Winogrand’s death, a friend of his, mourning the loss of both an acquaintance and an artist, noted how strange the city felt, “because his whole cast of characters is here – I’ve seen them all up 6th Avenue. What are they doing out?”[3] The streets of New York were the elaborate stage, and  Winogrand was director and choreographer.

Garry Winogrand and I are not from the same New York. His, the city of the late 1960s, was buzzing with anti-Vietnam War sentiment and the anti-establishment music of Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground. A tangible feeling of deep cynicism and distrust for government loomed over the biggest and most intellectual American city. This was a culture of doubt, and Winogrand had certainly felt its influence. Unable to relate to the American consumerist culture in a post-nuclear, Cold War world, his 1963 application for the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship included this statement: “I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and what we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have become cheap and petty.”[4] The manifestation of this deep cynicism is what makes Winogrand the essential American street photographer of the ’60s and early ’70s. His street photographs are an extension of his inner conflict, and, though still images, they contain momentum.

As Fran Lebowitz discusses in her introduction to The Man in the Crowd, Winogrand was a man of the Bronx: “From the Bronx is not quite from Kansas but then again, it’s not quite to Oz. This is a very specific perspective. Winogrand is from New York, but not of New York.”[5] Winogrand and I are of two different versions of the same city, but our perspectives are similar. Though I was raised just twenty miles from the Holland Tunnel, the New York City experiences of my youth were infrequent, usually trips with my mother or father to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Radio City Music Hall that inevitably ended with a classic New York slice or Hong Kong cakes from Chinatown (Witnessing great art should always precede consuming delicious food.). But the city was an entirely separate entity from my hometown; I certainly did not grow up there, and it always felt far away. In 2008, I moved across the two rivers to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a move that initially terrified my mother (until I took her for a walk around the charming, changing neighborhood). She saw for herself that Williamsburg had become safer and more inhabitable than parts of Manhattan, and that I was not the only twenty-five year old kid crazy enough to move there. And after four years of writing my own New York City story while reluctantly watching my neighborhood become more commercialized and more sterile, I think I get where Winogrand was coming from.

Though a difficult task for such a prolific photographer, the following three untitled photographs from The Man in the Crowd seem to provide adequate analysis of Garry Winogrand’s New York street photography, his curiosity, and his unique perspective. The first is of four older ladies on the Upper West Side, comfortably walking in step with each other. But it is also of the large, white garbage bags beside them, tossed to the curb and awaiting pickup. The bags and the ladies share equal billing, and it is almost as if they are the same size and shape. The photograph appears to be taken without placing the camera to his eye, as was often his style, quickly and deliberately before his (living) subjects could notice. The result, intended or not, is an off-kilter, angled photograph, highlighted by the parallel lines of the dramatic crack in the sidewalk and the sign in the background. None of the women make eye contact with the lens. They are engaged in a lively conversation, walking naturally and comfortably, the two in the center arm in arm. This is their neighborhood, and it has been perhaps all of their lives. They know where they are going. On the surface, Winogrand is offering a bit of nostalgia as represented by these lifelong New Yorkers. How many times must they have made this walk together to appear so confident?

ImageBehind them is the sign for The Franconia, which a quick Google search reveals to be a (still standing) condominium building on West 72nd Street, between Columbus and Central Park West. This means that the trees in the background line the western perimeter of Central Park. This also means that these women are potentially residents of one of the most highly coveted, wealthiest neighborhoods in most expensive city in the U.S. So perhaps they represent old money, and capitalism, and the culture of consumption with which Garry Winogrand could not identify. To me, the positioning of these women besides the upright, anonymous garbage bags is a statement of indifference to status and elitism. Granted, these women do not look stuck-up or elitist, and perhaps they were all lovely people, but Winogrand as principled artist and native of the glamour-less Bronx saw an opportunity to say, “Here are four elderly women walking down West 72nd, passing a faceless set of white garbage bags. What differences are there between them? Are there any?” The questions derived from Winogrand’s work are its greatest appeal. And thus, the two subjects share equal billing in this photograph. Brilliantly, an unattended dog, defecating in front of the garbage bags, represents the surprising third subject of this piece. The dog also offers a great bit of foreshadowing, as in the moment the photograph is taken he is still out of any of the women’s sightlines. I wonder if any of them noticed?

While the second photograph I chose is also in New York City, its subjects are clearly not New Yorkers. There are eight people fully visible in the photograph. The six to the left, four young girls and their parents, a listless, blonde and blue-eyed family of tourists; the two to the right, certainly not of the same family, dark-haired and standing behind the protective patriarch. They all stand on the steps of an old cathedral, perhaps St. Patrick’s. The girls to the left are in various poses, the body language of the littlest two suggesting apprehension. The older girls look bored, waiting for Dad to figure out where they are going next. The mother appears worried, out of her element; she places her fingers to her face as if in deep thought. It seems obvious that she is the one who dressed the girls so nicely on their day out in the big city. The father, recognizing that their trip is losing momentum, cranes his neck downwards, staring at the map’s infinite streets and landmarks.

ImageAs I see it, Winogrand is making a simple statement about keeping up appearances: You can do everything right. A family from Middle America plans an exciting trip to New York City, everyone’s first time. But from the moment they stepped out of a cab and on to the streets of Manhattan, they have been lost. New York has a tendency to swallow its inexperienced visitors whole, never allowing them to see anything of interest if they are not looking for it. I cringe when a first timer tells me of their exciting trip to the city, showing me their pictures taken underneath the Wall Street bull. I wish that they had talked to a New Yorker before the trip. They actually might have seen some things.

A last word on the four smallest people in the photograph: they are all looking in the same direction, their expressions all quite similar. While working in tourist-heavy Union Square, with its street performers and constant protesters, I saw this look on the faces of tourist children countless times. They are scared. Winogrand said about the sometimes-ominous nature of his work, “I function out of terror.”[6]  We are left to imagine what has caught their collective eye, likely something they have never seen before, the lovely mystery of this photograph.

The final photograph is absolutely the most challenging. On a basic level, an attractive young couple kisses in a doorway as a chubby girl stares at the camera. The girl being kissed also makes eye contact with the lens, and she both smirks and holds a lit cigarette. The boy is far more interested in her than she will ever be in him. But the other girl is the star, the absolute center of the frame. What is she thinking? She does not look happy. Well, she is too close to the couple not to be associated with them, so it is possible that she is annoyed that her friends are making out in a doorway again. Or her look is a response to Winogrand, finally caught in the act, asking, “Who said you could take our picture?” Either way, there was something about this scene that Garry Winogrand just could not ignore.

They are definitely neighborhood kids, perhaps sneaking around the corner from their parents’ homes to smoke cigarettes and cause trouble. Maybe they grew up together, and the second girl is having trouble adjusting to her role as third wheel. The two girls’ contrasting expressions seem to make a statement about body consciousness. I would imagine, particularly if the larger girl is directing her obvious anger at Winogrand, that she does not enjoy being photographed. Maybe her expression says, “Who said you could take my picture? How about you wait for me to get out of your glamour shot?” On the other hand, the slender, attractive girl is all at once being passionately kissed, smirking, and smoking. Hers is the most confident gaze I could possibly imagine. She is the leader of the group. The boys (clearly) want to be with her, and the girls would give a finger to be her.

ImageWhat I love most about this scene is that I can relate to everyone involved,  Winogrand included. I have been all of these people before. I have been far more interested in someone than they are in me; I have been far less interested, too. I have admired a friend so much that I will wait on a rainy street while they kiss in a doorway. I have had mixed feelings about these waits. And like Winogrand, I have observed the human connections of New York City and become fascinated by them. The relationship between these four people is palpable. That there is a bigger story from a photograph of some kids on the street is the magic of his photography. It’s representative of a New York truism. Run into a Starbucks bathroom and by the time you get back outside you will have missed a thousand interesting things just on the surrounding block. Winogrand’s street photography is only limited by the fact that it is photography. Its biggest draw is the desire to know what happened before and what came next.

“I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at the 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”[7] – Garry Winogrand

In the 2010 Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris, a deeply nostalgic American writer is magically transported to 1920s Paris and mingles with the great artists he so romanticizes. He meets a woman there who, despite having the honor of being Pablo Picasso’s muse, pines for the Belle Epoque era of the 1890s. It is a sentiment of inevitability that Allen so gracefully captures: we treasure the past, take the present for granted, and resist the future. Alas, I did not move to the New York I so loved as a kid. Nor was it the graffiti-covered city of the late 1970s and ’80s that I longed for but never saw in person. The difference was in the people. People, in general, I suppose, but this feeling of newness and a subsequent disconnect was heightened in the city. Nobody looks up anymore. A smartphone is an extension of every hand. I too, of course, have been guilty of such behavior. But I have also willfully left the phone at home and spent a Sunday in the park with just a book and a newspaper.

I know I am not saying anything new, but this collective disengagement is especially problematic to the street photographer. And this is perhaps the main reason why I love Garry Winogrand’s photography so much. His are photographs of a New York City, and particularly of New Yorkers, that I find irresistibly exciting. Fran Lebowitz, writing in the late 1990s, described the people of modern New York this way: “Everything they want, they must have with them at all times. Little telephones, tiny computers, giant appointment books dividing their valuable time by the ridiculous quarter-hour.”[8] Winogrand’s New York streets, on the other hand, contained “people dressed like adults carrying adult objects.” But, as is evident from his work, Winogrand was nostalgic too.

Like I said, Garry Winogrand and I are not from the same New York. The New York City of the early 2010s has been disinfected. The former punk club CBGB is a high-fashion clothing store. The Union Square hippies go on Facebook to plan their meetings at Whole Foods. The pool at McCarren Park, once a great music venue in Brooklyn (we watched shows from a massive empty pool!), is now an actual multimillion-dollar swimming facility. Gritty Williamsburg, romanticized as the epicenter of hip counterculture, is expecting the J. Crew to open next fall. The places that make New York arguably the most exciting city in the world seem to be replaced by a Starbucks or a Tim Hortons every month.

But my New York is not entirely different. Irrepressible as ever, New York is not finished being New York. Excellent bands such as LCD Soundsystem and Vampire Weekend carry the musical torch admirably, while the Occupy Wall Street movement reminds us that the oft marginalized far left still have creative and effective methods to express their distrust for corporations and the government that sits in their pocket. And, though the shiny new Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site is near completion, the city retains its collective tension in the decade since the terrorist attacks of 2001. Ultimately, Lebowitz opines that Winogrand would not have enjoyed photographing the streets of today’s New York. I sincerely disagree. I think he would have been relieved that New York City is still here. Winogrand would still have a lot of questions to ask through his photographs. We will always miss the old New York, but someday, as the history of our shared relationship with nostalgia tells us, some streetwise outer borough kid is going to miss the New York City of today.

[1]Jeffrey Fraenkel, Ben Lifson, and Garry Winogrand. The Man in the Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand. San Francisco: Fraenkel Gallery in Association with D.A.P./Distributed Art, 1999.

[2] (Fraenkel et al. 1999): 11.

[3] (Fraenkel et al. 1999): 161.

[4] (Fraenkel et al. 1999): 154.

[5] (Fraenkel et al. 1999): 13.

[6] (Fraenkel et al. 1999): 154.

[7] (Fraenkel et al. 1999): 16.

[8] (Fraenkel et al. 1999): 14.