In his second book about photography, British writer Geoff Dyer selects a hundred of the late Garry Winogrand’s photographs. Presented more or less chronologically from the mid ‘50s to the early ‘80s, each photograph sits on one page with Dyer’s ruminations opposite. It all adds up to a large and lavish volume. The pictures vary in quality, but they do a good job of showing Winogrand’s development through different styles, approaches and influences before hitting his stride, eventually declining into less discriminate picture-making before his death in 1984.
There are lots of airport photographs, and photographs of people in phone booths. There are quite a few photographs of people at airports in phone booths, one of which is “like a prophetic glimpse of the future in which one’s race and gender are no longer fixed” (a future which seems to draw ever nearer). And as anyone familiar with Winogrand might expect, there is also a good deal of “the slightly lecherous aspect of his endeavours”, or, put more bluntly, “a lot of women.”
Throughout, Dyer says many clever and interesting things on many subjects, including photographs, humanity, history and feminism. Sometimes he offers great pith: “It’s impossible to say – it’s always impossible to say,” he says about one (and by extension all) photographs. His descriptions are consistently inventive, apt and revealing: the “character lurking by the pillar like a peasant” is just so; the image “too posed, like a still from a gritty remake of Last Year at Marienbad” is exactly that. And Dyer sites his observations in a context of erudition, especially with regards to English literature and American photography.
Very occasionally, Dyer overuses his impressive powers of detailed observation, with forced results. For example, he obsesses about how everything in one photograph resembles elbows, and ignores more general and potentially more interesting avenues, such as that same picture’s menace. Most often, though, Dyer is on the money, and dryly amusing with it. A large chap filling the frame “is made to appear bigger by the smallness of his shorts”. And in a short sequence of work Winogrand made in the UK, Dyer authoritatively explains that we are looking at “an English boozer where people stand outside the boozer, boozing.”
Dyer’s writing has style as well as substance. “This is not the decisive moment but the moment of indecision” is the elegant, unerring reason for the tension in one picture. Once or twice he overdoes the literary references, and he occasionally shows off a bit, as in a forced analogy to cricket, leading to ‘pitch’, which he then double-entendres to mean ‘proposal’. But we can forgive Dyer these minor self-indulgences: he may be one of the foremost writers on photography today – he’ll crop up irregularly prefacing a photographer’s monograph, or a collection of John Berger essays, or as a guest columnist in The Guardian or The New York Times – but he is first and foremost a writer full stop, and a very good one at that.
There are a few ho-hum pictures about which Dyer has some ho-hum comments, such as one of cliffs where he talks about advertising – perhaps a hundred pictures were slightly too many. But these are the exceptions, and most of the photographs and texts are well worthy of their inclusion. And the whole thing is beautifully sequenced, not only textually but pictorially: a man carrying bags is followed by men carrying briefcases, followed by men with luggage, followed by lined-up cases, and so on.
But it is the writing which really shines as Dyer connects pictures across time and space. A tricycle in a London Winogrand is the same tricycle as in a New Mexico Winogrand is the same tricycle as the one on the cover of William Eggleston’s Guide (Winogrand’s New Mexico trike is the best of the trio, by the way). This often illuminating and mostly entertaining cross-referencing is reminiscent of The Ongoing Moment, Dyer’s other book about photography. Let’s hope he gets round to writing a third one soon.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Simon Bowcock
Below, four images by Garry Winogrand are reproduced courtesy of University of Texas Press:
Garry Winogrand, 1960, Los Angeles. Posthumous gelatin silver print from negative, made for Garry Winogrand exhibition, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2013.