Photo Book Review: The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, by Geoff Dyer

WinograndGarry Winogrand was a well-known street photographer who from New York who died in 1984. His work was notably exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in 1967, together with photos by Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, and these three photographers transformed photography.

In this new book (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), author Geoff Dyer selects 100 images by Winogrand and discusses them. For each one, he gives some background, relates them to other photos or films, and contextualizes them in Winogrand’s career, or in the history of photography. But his texts are not dry academic commentary; they are often wry extrapolations about what is happening in the images, inventing characters, imagining what they were doing before, during, and after the photos were shot. Dyer makes up a lot; he creates characters, some that re-appear in other photos; he creates situations; he turns these photos into little bite-sized stories.

Much of what Dyer says – about related photographers – is useful as criticism, but it’s the made-up parts that make this book so interesting. It is not intended to be factual, but rather to be one writer’s imagination of what the photos are about.

Nevertheless, his observations about composition and context are all incisive, and he clearly knows a lot about Winogrand’s work, having had access to a large number of unpublished photos (some included in this book). This is a fascinating journey through the work of a great photographer with an interesting guide who tells fascinating stories.

I’ll note that Dyer is the author of a wonderful book about one of my favorite films, Andrei Tarkovski’s Stalker. His book Zona breaks down the movie into 142 sections for each of the 142 shots in the film.

Here’s a video created by the publisher, with Dyer discussing the book, and showing some of the photos.

And here’s a podcast episode where Dyer discusses the book.

2 thoughts on “Photo Book Review: The Street Philosophy of Garry Winogrand, by Geoff Dyer

  1. I was quite intrigued by Dyer’s Missing of the Somme — an odd combination of an account of his touring of World War I battlefields and reflections on loss. Looking through my notes on the book, I see that he had quite a bit to say about photography during the war:

    “The pictures that have been preserved show isolated or small groups of dead soldiers. They give no sense of death on the scale recorded by a German Field Marshal on the Eastern Front: ‘In the account book of the Great War, the page recording the Russian losses has been ripped out. The figures are unknown. Five million, or eight? We ourselves know not. All we do know is that, at times, fighting the Russians, we had to remove the piles of enemy bodies from before our trenches, so as to get a clear field of fire against new waves of assault.’

    ” … months after the Battle of the Somme had ended, John Masefield wrote how the dead still ‘lay three or four deep and the bluebottles made their faces black’. Photographs of the missing are themselves missing.”

    “In footage and photographs of the war there are horses everywhere. So many of them it is easy to think you are watching an early Western, set in an especially dismal period of the American Civil War.”

    And, towards the end, as a final summary: “I remember John Berger in a lecture suggesting that ours has been the century of departure, of migration, of exodus — of disappearance. ‘The century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.’ If this is so, then the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing casts a shadow into the future, a shadow which extends beyond the dead of the Holocaust, to the Gulag, to the ‘disappeared’ of South America and of Tiananmen.”

    Powerful stuff.

  2. I was quite intrigued by Dyer’s Missing of the Somme — an odd combination of an account of his touring of World War I battlefields and reflections on loss. Looking through my notes on the book, I see that he had quite a bit to say about photography during the war:

    “The pictures that have been preserved show isolated or small groups of dead soldiers. They give no sense of death on the scale recorded by a German Field Marshal on the Eastern Front: ‘In the account book of the Great War, the page recording the Russian losses has been ripped out. The figures are unknown. Five million, or eight? We ourselves know not. All we do know is that, at times, fighting the Russians, we had to remove the piles of enemy bodies from before our trenches, so as to get a clear field of fire against new waves of assault.’

    ” … months after the Battle of the Somme had ended, John Masefield wrote how the dead still ‘lay three or four deep and the bluebottles made their faces black’. Photographs of the missing are themselves missing.”

    “In footage and photographs of the war there are horses everywhere. So many of them it is easy to think you are watching an early Western, set in an especially dismal period of the American Civil War.”

    And, towards the end, as a final summary: “I remember John Berger in a lecture suggesting that ours has been the century of departure, of migration, of exodus — of disappearance. ‘The century of people helplessly seeing others, who were close to them, disappear over the horizon.’ If this is so, then the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing casts a shadow into the future, a shadow which extends beyond the dead of the Holocaust, to the Gulag, to the ‘disappeared’ of South America and of Tiananmen.”

    Powerful stuff.

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