Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank, and Suburban America

One of the few semi-disparaging remarks Garry Winogrand’s friends seem to recall him ever making about Robert Frank concerned the geographic focus of The Americans on cities and small towns.

Frank’s travels in the 1950s had coincided with the country’s rapid postwar migratory spiral outward from urban areas. Spurred by government credit, low taxes and cheap water, the end of Depression-era privation and wartime rationing, the growth of the Interstate highway system, and “white flight,” Americans moved en masse to housing developments where they knew almost no one in order to own their own property, with yards and garages, on land that had once been farms or even desert.

Winogrand believed that Frank’s book, awe-inspiring though it was, had not shown this social and architectural transformation. In the words of writer-photographer-curator Leo Rubinfien, Frank had “missed the main story of its time,” namely “the emergence of suburbia.”

This judgment has been repeated often over the years by Winogrand’s admirers, with an implicit suggestion that his judgment of the book was correct and that we might see his career as a completion of The Americans—that he had gone on during the 1960s, ‘70s and early ‘80s to fill in pages of the post-war picture story that Frank’s masterpiece had left blank.

After seeing the Winogrand retrospective, organized by Rubinfien—first, when it opened last spring at SFMOMA and now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art—I have doubts that Winogrand had his sights set on completing such a narrative if that meant investing time in America’s new bedroom communities. Wherever the winds of temporary employment carried him, he didn’t venture with his camera far outside his comfort zone of cities and streets crowded with strangers. To put it another way, if suburbia was the “main” American story of the 1950s and if Frank “missed” it, then Winogrand “missed” it, too, in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Of course, one good reason for thinking of him as a photographer of the American suburbs is his indelible image from 1957 of a tow-headed child in diapers, illuminated by the high desert sun and framed against the dark one-car garage of a modernist ranch house in Albuquerque, NM. Looking at something outside the frame, the little boy (or girl?) isn’t paying attention to a fallen tricycle on the sloping concrete driveway in the foreground, or the ominous storm cloud looming behind the house.

Emblazoned on the cover of MoMA’s catalog for the 1988 retrospective, Winogrand: Figments of the Real World, the photograph has become among his most famous and evokes ‘50s America for some Americans almost better than their own experience.

As Diane Keaton said recently in The New York Times: “Nothing—not even my own memories of my childhood tract home in Santa Ana, Calif., surrounded by the disappearing orange groves—takes me back the way Garry Winogrand can; I think of his photograph of the toddler running out of a garage door towards a toy on the driveway of a forgettable ranch house in the desert.”

The picture was taken during one of Winogrand’s first extended views of America beyond New York City. According to Susan Kismaric’s valuable chronology in Garry Winogrand, the new retrospective catalog, his first cross-country trip (with his first wife Adrienne) dates to 1955 when he was assigned to photograph actress Susan Hayward in Los Angeles. While supporting himself on magazine work during the ‘50s, he worked mainly on the East Coast, with Manhattan as his base of operations. (In the first third of the show, titled “Down from the Bronx,” his birthplace, the locations of only a few photographs are anywhere but the five boroughs.)

In 1957, after the closing of Colliers magazine, one of his main outlets, he was hired by the United States Information Agency to create a portrait of America. He photographed in Kalamazoo, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. and traveled to California, Nevada, and New Mexico. It was then that he took the picture that Keaton and so many baby boomers remember as a distillation of their childhoods.

What’s striking, though, is how anomalous the setting is in Winogrand’s oeuvre. The most distinctive architectural features of suburban subdivisions—the garage, the yard, the driveway, the ranch house, the distance between one’s own piece of property and one’s neighbor’s—are rarely seen in either the 1988 or the 2013 retrospectives.

I could find only two similar pictures in the 1988 catalog: “Near Carmel” (1964), on page 148, is another look into a dark garage. This time it’s for two cars. A Chevrolet is parked inside while a young woman in a print dress holds her groceries, presumably having just completed a shopping trip. A broken-stone stairway leads to the split-level single home. There is a tiny patch of lawn but the foreground, as in 1957 New Mexico, is dominated by a concrete driveway.

Another picture, “Louisville, Kentucky” (1972), on page 229, prominently features a backyard. An African-American bartender in sunglasses stands guard behind a white clothed table, with a calico cat as his only customer. The yard is distinctly private; flowering trees ring the perimeter and flag-stoned patio.

In addition to the New Mexico and Louisville images, the 2013 retrospective includes roughly five more examples where Winogrand was exploring suburban space. In “Chicago” (ca. 1972), Plate 304, a young boy holding a basketball looks at the viewer while stepping off the grassy strip that separates the street from the sidewalk. There is a notable absence of anxiety on the boy’s face and posture, and of congestion in the neighborhood ambiance.

Two 1964 images from Los Angeles—one of a boy who has fallen on the sidewalk in front of a tree planted in the yard of a split level home (Plate 163); and another of a teenage girl looking over her shoulder at the camera while standing on the curb beside a privet hedge (Plate 164)—document Southern California suburbia.

Two other images indirectly refer to a similar expansion around New York City. One photograph from 1959 (Plate 83) is a fleeting glimpse of a Cadillac’s broad prow as this dark, metallic status symbol zooms along a parkway; the second, from 1968, is also shot from a car and shows a six-pack of  people crammed into a VW beetle (Plate 202). Both pictures seem to be about the impact of the automobile on contemporary life,  the speed and power and mobility it gave to owners; and perhaps both are also about the affluent class driving the leafy expressways designed in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s by Robert Moses, who wanted to make it easier for (white) citizens to work in Manhattan and return at night to their new homes on Long Island and in Westchester.

 

In a retrospective numbering more than 400 photographs, however, a dozen pictures of suburbia—and that’s a generous count—is hardly a large ratio. By this calculation, Winogrand does not appear to have been appreciably more interested in the social and spatial dimensions of this emerging theme in American life than Frank was.

Indeed, this sumptuous exhibition confirms what a stubbornly urban animal Winogrand remained throughout his life. In 1964, when he used a Guggenheim Fellowship to take a long road trip across the country, he doesn’t seem to have stopped often in these homogenous communities. There wasn’t enough happening on the streets of suburbia to hold his attention for long. He preferred the crude humanity found at state fairs, sports events, hotel lobbies, and around the beach. When he moved to Texas in 1973, he photographed the brutal shapes of downtowns rather than the flat peripheries of satellite cities.

Even in Los Angeles, his home after 1978, he looked for whatever activity he could find on the sidewalks or from the passenger seat in a car. The last third of the retrospective features many more pictures taken in parks and cemeteries rather than in backyards or living rooms of private homes.

When Winogrand bothered to go indoors, he gravitated to spaces that had been built to accomodate crowds of various size: airports, rodeos, aquariums, elevators, department stores, public restrooms, museum parties, the atria of hotels or apartment complexes, or the corridor of a Greyhound bus. Not for nothing was his 1977 book, published by MoMA, punningly titled Public Relations.

Diane Arbus was much nosier. She didn’t often go into Long Island and Westchester during the 1960s. But when she did, she wasn’t content to be an outsider like Winogrand. In her domestic photographs of an Xmas tree in a Levitttown living room (1966) and her family portrait of a husband, wife and boy in their backyard (1968), you can tell that she has talked her way into these people’s lives, however briefly, so that they were somehow participants (or co-conspirators) by letting her take these pictures.

Winogrand never sought permission, perhaps because he knew that photography as he practiced it couldn’t reveal that much that was embarrassing, or that everyone shouldn’t be embarrassed about. His camera wasn’t after hidden secrets, only open ones. The shame he exposed was public and the blame was all around. No one else during those years matched the tragi-comic gusto he brought to the task of framing life unposed with a camera, a task that his sprawling body of work proved is always more exciting and mistake-prone than simply observing it.

A gregarious soul drawn to places where people gathered to interact, comfortably or not, he photographed strip malls and shopping centers in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Whether this should properly be termed suburbia or just urban sprawl is debatable; what is not is that Robert Frank’s journeys across the U.S. had failed to note these new and emerging forms of shopping and consumption.

The imprint of Frank’s travelogue on both the 1988 and 2013 retrospectives is unmistakable. John Szarkowski was a curator deeply aware of tradition and the ways that new pictures develop from older ones. Knowing that Winogrand worshipped Frank, he may have chosen the New Mexico ranch house picture for the cover of the 1988 catalog because it is related to but different from the road photographs in The Americans. It was proof that Winogrand had not missed the main story of the 1950s.

Consciously or not, Rubinfien’s image selection also demonstrates the huge pictorial debt that Winogrand owed to Frank. I counted at least five instances where the subject of a photograph by the former seemed to be a variation of an earlier one by the latter:

  1. The elevator girl in New York, NY, 1968 (#78 in GW) and the elevator girl in Miami Beach, 1955 (#44 in RF)
  2. The two boys in a men’s room at JFK Airport, NY, 1968 (#118 in GW) and the two men in a men’s room in Memphis, TN, 1955 (#52 in RF)
  3. The trapezoidal shadow of a car on the road in Castle Rock, CO, 1959 (#153 in GW) and the trapezoidal draped car in Long Beach, CA, 1956 (#34 in RF)
  4. The white couple staring down from a motorcycle in Kalamazoo, MI, ca. 1957 (#162 in GW) and the African-American couple staring down from a motorcycle in Indianapolis, IN (#82 in RF)
  5. The white teenage boy on his knees beside a telephone pole topped like a crucifix in Los Angeles, CA, 1980-83 (#380 in GW) and the African-American minister on his knees and holding a crucifix in Baton Rouge, LA 1955 (#47 in RF)

 

Neither photographer, however, viewed America’s suburbs with the intense curiosity and patience, or sensitivity to atmosphere (hostile or sympathetic) shown by the generation that followed them. In the late 1960s-early 1970s William Eggleston, Roger Mertin, Bill Owens, Robert Adams, Lee Friedlander, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, and Joel Sternfeld began to examine, either casually or systematically, the idiosyncrasies of these nowhere-villes and the toll that uncontrolled development was taking on the land.

Those of us who grew up in suburbs of one form or another share guilty feelings about these places and their inhabitants, memories of comfort and entrapment that Frank and Winogrand would never have viscerally understood. You needed to have done your time there to photograph that story.

Read more about: Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank

2 comments

  1. Stuart Alexander /

    I like your essay and I agree that Winogrand gets too much credit for photographing the suburbs. I would just like to point out that there are two photographs by Robert Frank among the panels of Guggenheim project work prints on pp. 169 and 173 in the ‘Looking In’ exhibition catalogue that you cited. More such prints of suburbs exist in the archive at the National Gallery of Art. When looking at the corresponding contact sheets you quickly get the impression that Frank found the suburbs too boring to even find much of anything to photograph there.

  2. Rick Woodward /

    You are quite right, and I thank you for pointing this out. I should have been more specific in saying that “The Americans” doesn’t have photos of the suburbs (except for perhaps that drive-in theater), which doesn’t mean that Frank hadn’t been there. I was going to include the work print in the lower right on page 169 from “Looking In,” which features a car in a driveway but I didn’t think it would have reproduced well (or at all) and I should have mentioned it, in any case. Winogrand wouldn’t have known about this picture, though, and so was right to say that Frank had “missed” that part of the ’50s story in “The Americans.”

    Unlike Winogrand, Frank was a ruthless editor of his own work, and the winnowing process (from contact sheets to work prints to final selection) for “The Americans” went on for well over a year. I’m sure he had his reasons for excluding suburban images. Sarah Greenough’s essay about this process in “Looking In” is definitive: “…he entirely eliminated some subjects he had thought he might explore, such as the suburban landscape people trapped by the detritus of consumer culture, and any literal allusion to the immigrant experience.”

    It’s not, after all, a sociology textbook. But I can’t agree with those who think the book is “perfect.” The publication of all the wonderful outtakes in the NG archives suggests to me that “The Americans” could have been put together in a half-dozen other ways and been just as “perfect.”

    Again, I appreciate your close read and correction.

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