Street life

Photography - Sarah Bancroft on the masterful images of Garry Winogrand

The Man in the Crowd is a selection of Garry Winogrand's street photography taken in the Sixties and dominated by New York, his home city. The images - whether of distracted bystanders, smart-suited businessmen striding out for a meeting, fashionable young men and women on parade, anxious old ladies at a busy intersection - all refuse to rest. These are but moments, glances exchanged between the photographer and subjects, between us and them. But they command our attention, our acknowledgement. This is the chaos of city life; they are in its midst and so, too, are we.

From the age of 20, when Winogrand was first taken into a darkroom, he took photographs almost constantly. The magic of the photographic process that first captivated him became a compulsion. When he died in 1984, seized by cancer at the age of 56, he left a prodigious legacy. Where Walker Evans and Robert Frank had mapped out America in the Thirties and Fifties, Winogrand charted it through the Vietnam years.

John Szarkowski, who was the director of photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art for nearly 30 years, sees Winogrand as "the central photographer of his generation", and one whose pictures "realise a conception of photography that is richer, more complex, and more problematic than any other since the Second World War". However, Winogrand always had the capacity to irritate and divide. Jane Livingston, in her superb 1992 anthology, The New York School, barely mentions him. Some saw his work, which often, as with these street images, plunged into the middle of situations with little apparent care for the consideration and perspective of distance, as no more than a "snapshot aesthetic". One exasperated curator asked during a slide show in the Seventies: "How long did it take you to make that picture, Mr Winogrand?" The photographer turned to the screen, pretended to consider the question, and then replied: "I think it was a 125th of a second."

The sheer volume of Winogrand's output lent some credibility to his critics' views. His records indicate that, in his last five or six years alone, he processed 8,522 rolls of film; he left a staggering backlog of 2,500 rolls undeveloped. But his images show how he doggedly worked to strip life of preconceptions, artistic and philosophical. It was instinct rather than cold method that led Winogrand down a simple path: taking a Leica and wide-angle lens straight to the fray, then "banging away", tilting the camera this way and that, exploring his quarry.

Many of the pictures here are taken on the hoof, as he crossed the road, passed by someone or something that caught his eye. Up close, almost on top of them. An old woman being helped off a curb by a young man, her wrist in plaster under her solid coat, a small Gucci store bag dangling incongruously from her weak grasp. A line of six young women on a bench, hands, heads, bodies intertwined in three separate conversations. Elsewhere, he has noticed a scene a way off and juggles a larger number of elements; the central motif becomes much smaller, its status deliberately uncertain, threatened by the other constituents of the picture, but ultimately held.

Often the photographs are inflected by humour - many are extremely funny, such as the busty "twins", two women dressed in identical white tops and flowery miniskirts, eyed by a line of nonplussed pensioners in the park. Frequently they are sparked by beautiful women, whom Winogrand loved and couldn't resist paying tribute to. But equally commonly they record the unbeautiful, the troubled, the injured, the vulnerable, passing by in the crowd, or passed by, or, if observed, then only by children. The interchange of innocence and experience is fundamental to his work.

Winogrand's iconic Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967, a glamorous couple carrying chimpanzees, and American Legion Convention, Dallas, 1964 send out challenging messages about race and disability. But even in the quieter pictures, his combination of wide-open eyes and the conviction that "there is no special way a photograph should look" ensured that they remained at bottom uneasy and radical.

The older he became, the more he resisted the seduction of strong, interlocking composition. It wasn't that he couldn't do the formal thing - his earlier work, particularly in the Fifties, has a much stronger graphic quality. He chose increasingly to let his pictures play out their own more complicated dramas. As a result, threads of connection string between otherwise disparate people and their environment, conveyed by a bent parking meter leaning across the road or a dog straining on its lead. Drawn into Winogrand's world, we begin to search for these links, for hidden directions, signs and codes, like a protagonist in a Pynchon novel. They may mean something, they may not, but, the point is, we want to look.

It is no coincidence that Winogrand was able to conjure the intimate and private out of the most public of spaces. As a child of ten, he had walked the streets of the Bronx until late at night, seeking refuge from the apartment where his parents "did not put a high priority on privacy". Later, in 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, his anxiety again took him to the streets. Others had photographed there before, and have since, but it is doubtful they will ever find someone so committed to their exploration.

The Man in the Crowd: the uneasy streets of Garry Winogrand is at the Photographers' Gallery, 8 Great Newport Street, London WC2, until 30 July. The accompanying book is published by Fraenkel Gallery/DAP (£36.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs