Women Are Beautiful

I suspect I would not have bought a copy of Garry Winogrand‘s ‘Women Are Beautiful‘ if it hadn’t been on sale, reduced from £5.95 to £4.50, as the figures still pencilled inside its front cover confirm. Not that I didn’t admire his work, but at the time I was pretty strapped for cash, a father with a wife and young family to support. You can pick up a copy now for around $400 up, more if you want the hardback.

I’ve since bought various other books by and on Winogrand, but this, his second book still remains my favourite, although at the time it was largely dismissed by the critics, savaged by some feminists and bought by very few. Which is why I got it cheap, and why it is rather expensive now.

I’ve almost got around to writing about it a number of times over the last few months, with several exhibitions of Winogrand’s work, and a giant heavyweight volume on him, 465 pages from SFMoMA/Yale, edited by Leo Rubinfien with essays by Sarah Greenough, Susan Kismaric, Erin O’Toole, Tod Papageorge, and Sandra S. Phillips and 460 pictures which I’ve not quite managed to finish reading, though I’ve spent quite a lot of time looking at the pictures. It’s a nice publication and, if you have room on your bookshelves, worth getting, but I think the considerably slimmer ‘Women Are Beautiful’ with its 85 or so plates probably tells you more about the man and his photography.

As well as a book, Winogrand also sold a number of copies a portfolio of the same name, and I think you can see most or all of the pictures (and the cover) from this at the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.

This same portfolio of 30x40cm black and white prints can also be hired as a show from the collection of Lola Garrido through diChroma photography in Madrid. Currently, as
L’Oeil de la Photographie reminds me, this is on show until 23 March in Moscow. Garrido is quoted there as saying “He’s one of the photographers that has done the most for women’s liberation, The first to photograph women as they really are” although whether that view would have gone down well at the UCR discussion Confessions of a male chauvinist pig at the time of the show Rethinking Winogrand’s Women at the California Museum of Photography last year is open to doubt.

Certainly for me one of the attractions of the work was what seemed to be an incredible directness of vision, a spontaneity and an honesty. It wasn’t work that was fitted easily into the times, when any demonstration of male gaze was subject to denunciation as rabid chauvinism. Even now, to judge from the Rubinfien book and show, this work is difficult and under-represented, as commentators including Tyler Green and Nick Shere have noted.

The work from Women Are Beautiful was also shown last year in Worcester, MA, and you can see a viedo of curator Nancy Burns talking about the show at Worcester Art Museum as well as an article in The Daily Beast, which some might find an appropriate title.  The pictures there are reproduced  courtesy of the Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, where you can see more of his work from the project.

Most of the text in ‘Women Are Beautiful‘ is by Helen Gary Bishop, with a lengthy essay ‘First Person, Feminine‘, followed by a shorter note about her admiration for ‘Winogrand Women‘ who seem confident, “aware of the place they occupy in space and time.” She sees him as “genuingly attracted by the dynamics of the female being” and having “caught the conflict of the feminine creature: the body as object vying with the self as person.”

Winogrand’s own short contribution is to the point, but I think perhaps has some element of self-deception. He writes:

“By the term ‘attractive woman,’ I mean a woman I react to, positively… I do not mean as a man getting to know a woman, but as a photographer photographing… I suspect I respond to their energies, how they stand and move their bodies and faces.”

His was work that inspired me to go out and photograph on the streets too, with rather mixed results. Many but not all of Winogrand’s women were photographed on the streets of New York where I think street photography was perhaps rather easier and more acceptable. But while I can see why he wrote ‘not as a man getting to know a woman‘ I think it is impossible – and would be unnatural – for men (or at least hetero or bi-sexual men) not to see and react to women in a more visceral way than he suggests. Even the purest photographer can’t deny biology.

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