TAMPA — You might have noticed him coming toward you on a crowded city sidewalk. He had a round face, a mop of thick, unruly hair, floppy trench coat and shy smile. In a swift gesture someone once described as “fast as any Western gunslinger,” he would move his hands, click something and walk on.
You would have met Garry Winogrand (1928-1984), the stealth photographer who patrolled the streets of New York catching the denizens of the city as they lived, worked and played. Hailed as an important photographer by the Museum of Modern Art and honored three times with a Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography Award, Winogrand made his mark with candid shots that were not careful compositions of urban life. They were almost literally “shot from the hip.”
The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts is exhibiting through Dec. 31 what is perhaps Winogrand’s most controversial body of work, “Women Are Beautiful.” “Controversial” is just one adjective that has been applied to these black-and-white photographs. “Aggressive,” “predatory,” “exploitative” and “sexist” are a few others.
By the time Winogrand’s book Women Are Beautiful came out in 1975, American women were experiencing the power and freedom generated by the feminist movement. They were taking hold of their own lives with a gusto and pleasure their mothers had seldom enjoyed.
Unlike many women depicted in art in earlier epochs, Winogrand’s women are neither saints nor tramps. Instead, they are fully in charge of themselves.
In Winogrand’s candid shot, the woman laughing heartily is enjoying the moment as much as the melting ice cream cone. As for the male gaze, he is reduced to the suited-up, decapitated mannequin behind her.
That’s not to say Winogrand did not resort to male voyeurism. There are many half-revealed breasts, buttocks and splayed legs in his photographs of women riding bikes, sunbathing and spending time in restaurants, parks, streets and parties. Winogrand himself once said his book might have been subtitled “The Observations of a Male Chauvinist Pig.”
But you will find other dimensions of feeling in this exhibition, such as a shot of a woman alone in an elevator and fully lost in her own private thoughts. And don’t forget the young woman who seems to be winding yarn at an outdoor festival of some sort. She is self-possessed and confident in what she is doing.
Winogrand was not without humor. He catches the gaze of two old men who are sitting on a park bench and leering at the young women passing by. As for the feminist revolution, there are few images that capsulize the era better than that of a woman taking the cigarette from her boyfriend’s mouth.
Winogrand, the Bronx-born son of Hungarian and Polish immigrants, spent two years in the U.S. Army before studying at City College of New York, Columbia University and the New School. The school newspaper’s photographer showed him the school’s 24-hour darkroom. That’s when they started their “Midnight-to-Dawn” club, describing their all-night darkroom work.
Winogrand eventually found his vocation as a street photographer. Soon museum curators recognized the talent behind the Leicas he carried (one loaded with black-and-white film and the other loaded with color film). He took thousands of photographs that he never printed.
He was once described as having the gravelly “voice of a Bronx cabbie and the intensity of a pig hunting truffles.”
“Sometimes I feel like … the world is a place I bought a ticket to,” he once said. “It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.”
If you go
“Women Are Beautiful”
The exhibit is on view at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, 400 N Ashley Drive, Tampa, through Dec. 31. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. $10, $8 students, seniors and military, free for members. (813) 221-2222. fmopa.org.