All images included in this post were made in L.A. by Mark Steinmetz, be sure to click on the images for details.
Remembering Garry Winogrand
I entered the Yale School of Art straight from college and left after my first semester. I was 21. At Yale, Richard Benson had explained to me how to expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights, and Tod Papageorge had given a brilliant slide talk on Cartier-Bresson; I figured that was all I needed to know. I was restless, curious about America beyond New England, and had a strong interest in the movie industry; I also had heard that Garry Winogrand was somewhere out there in Los Angeles so in the summer of 1983 I headed west.
When I got to LA I moved into a roach-infested studio in the Miracle Mile district and set up a darkroom in the 5’ x 5’ nook that separated the bathroom from the only other room. As far as I could tell, after poking around a bit, nobody in LA had even the slightest interest in what is considered to be straight photography. Someone told me, erroneously it turned out, that Garry had left town so the scene didn’t seem at all promising. (Later on, I would meet Jeffrey Scales and Anthony Hernandez, so there were at least a couple of other straight photographers besides myself and Garry. There might have been a few more I didn’t know about.) It didn’t take long before I ran into Garry. The first time was at the counter of Samy’s Camera – he was there with his printer, Tom Consilvio. I said hello and that was pretty much that. Then I came across Garry over and over in a short period of time in both likely and unlikely places. If you have any familiarity with the sprawling nature of LA, you would see how improbable those encounters were. One day our paths crossed at the county fair way out in Pomona and since we realized we lived close to one another (in LA terms), Garry suggested that we drive to the fair together the next time.
Garry drove a small energy efficient white Toyota. He had some sort of cumbersome theft prevention contraption that he would latch to the steering wheel though I seriously doubted any thief would make the effort to go after his unvoluptuous car. My car was a Fiat, which was mischievously and irresponsibly leaking massive amounts of oil. Garry preferred going in my car so that he could photograph out the window. Once driving down Sunset Boulevard he took a picture with his 28mm lens across six lanes of traffic of a woman on the sidewalk – “aah…and she was smiling,” he said as he returned his Leica to his lap. I can’t find the citation but I think somewhere Szarkowski described Garry’s later work as “involving increasingly unequal contests of chance.”
One morning I met Garry at the Farmer’s Market at 3rd and Fairfax. He was going to show me his darkroom, which was nearby. His face was covered with little bits of kleenex or maybe toilet paper put in place to stop the bleeding from shaving. “A normal occurrence,” he said. As I remember, Garry usually wore the same dark blue work clothes. I thought he looked good but he never put much emphasis on his appearance. He had no time to waste on what he called “nonsense” and spoke of not going to a dinner party later one night because “bullshitters” were going to be there. He was a one-man anti-complacency league. Once he said, with his voice sort of trailing off, “The world is full of seductions…” He was telling me not to fall for those seductions: success with the world is easy; success with the self (through photography) is difficult. On one outing, I didn’t know what to do with a banana peel I was clutching in my hand and, looking around, there were no trash cans anywhere – it was getting to be a little absurd; he said, “Just chuck it over the fence.” So I did. His cheerful, practical manner and advice probably helped me shave off years of worrying how to be. In private, he didn’t speak so much about photography.
Garry was really funny. He actively used his mind in coming up with improbable jokes. On some drive to somewhere he told me that Woody Allen was one of his pet peeves, that he had friends in New York who were much funnier than Woody. I countered with my personal pet peeve of Australian movies (at that time, America was being inundated with Australian movies and they were receiving over the top praise). After a beat, he turned to me with a smile and said, “You see, Woody Allen doesn’t know he’s an Australian.” He was not like anyone else I had met yet he felt familiar. We thought alike.
Garry mentioned good days he had photographing, rolls he put aside because he knew he had something special on them, good work that hadn’t surfaced yet from Texas. “Tip of the iceberg,” he said about the work of his that had been published or exhibited up to that date. At a public talk, he mentioned Picasso and how Picasso had always been changing and challenging himself (and how that was a good thing). He spoke admiringly of Kertész, whom he said was able to make pictures out of nothing. He would say that if something looked like a picture he wouldn’t photograph it. At the end of a long day, I said I wanted to continue to photograph at dusk and he said, “aah…low contrast…” as if that were a tantalizing possibility. He had a motor drive on his Leica and took two rolls as we walked through a vast parking lot in the twilight. My take on his later work was that Garry was trying to keep his work unfamiliar; he was trying to come up with a new kind of picture, one that hadn’t existed before.
On a Sunday in January, 1984, I persuaded Garry to go with me to photograph at the LA Zoo. As I remember, we had a full day of shooting that went on till the light faded. On our way out, Garry spotted Bernadette Peters, the movie and Broadway actress, who was visiting the zoo with her boyfriend. Garry had photographed her before on the set of John Huston’s movie, Annie. She and her boyfriend were dressed in identical jeans, identical (leather?) jackets. Strikingly, they both had the same hairstyle – I don’t know how you would describe their hair - drooping, poodle-like. She threw her head back and shrieked with laughter in reaction to Garry taking their picture. When he sank into the seat of my car, he said, “Boy, you don’t know how tired you are till you sit down.” In February, I called him up to say I had decided to leave town and move back east (I had been struggling with money, a relationship, and in general with finding my footing in LA). His voice sounded terrible on the phone, very weak, and I had no idea what was going on with him – it was shocking. He wished me “the best of luck.” The following month, a couple weeks before my 23rd birthday, I was at my parents’ house in Connecticut and my mother brought me the NY Times. Without saying a word, she pointed to Garry’s obituary. There had been a cancer growing inside of him during the time that I had known him but he hadn’t taken notice of it.