PRINT September 1984


GARRY WINOGRAND AND I KNEW each other for almost ten years. We welcomed each other at airports at odd hours of day and night; we ate at each other’s tables, slept under each other’s roofs and smiled on each other’s children. But we never lived in the same city, nor were we ever part of each other’s daily lives for long times at a stretch. I was neither companion nor neighbor nor spectator nor bystander nor student—although at various times I was a bit of one or another of all these. It took me some years, in this world of telephones and airplanes and broken and far-flung relationships, to understand that he was my friend. I understood this largely through his constancy. He was a loyal friend. He always called to let you know he was coming to town. For some, he would not let three weeks go by without their hearing from him. When he came to New York he did his best to assemble his friends over Chinese food, and when the ordinary course of lives made this impossible he called us and saw us one by one. He was one on whom, in the midst of his own tumult and fear, you could count for these things: to contend with himself honestly; know himself rigorously; to display his truth to you candidly; and thus to endow his loyalty to his friends with that even more shining quality of loyalty to himself.

Whatever our relationship to him, whatever our knowledge of him, it is good to remember Garry Winogrand out loud today, because when he was alive he remembered lots of us all the time, often at the top of his voice, which was considerable.

If we were alone in a taxi or at a restaurant or in his living room or mine, chances are that when the conversation ended I had the sense that I had been with a crowd. Through his talk he brought you on stage again and again, set you going according to his sense of what made you work, watched your destinies unfold, heard your sentences come to their conclusions time after time—and still he never had enough of you or felt he had come to the end of you. His appetite for the deeds and doings and sayings of his friends was as enormous as his appetite for most other things in the world: sports, food, Mozart, jokes, digital watches and clocks, ancient and modern heroes from all walks of life. He talked about people so much that we who heard him were persuaded that when we were absent and others were present he talked about us so. To behold such a world as he talked into being was to be refreshed. To be asked to help create it by being drawn into the earthly paradise of his speech was an honor. Who will crave us, who will create us so enormously again? Who will equate us so democratically with so much and so many others of great interest? Interest is a word which to Garry Winogrand’s mind was often the same as value.

I saw him teach once. He refused to put words into his students’ mouths and so had learned to tolerate silence longer than any teacher I have ever watched. But he hated it anywhere else. He never left his apartment or a hotel room he was coming back to without turning on the radio or the TV almost at full blast. He said it was to scare off burglars. I think it was also because he couldn’t bear even the thought of a silent room. No matter how many people were with him when he was talking he always told stories of others simply to hear more voices, to swell the noise.

Among his hundreds of published photographs there are but a few pictures of his family or friends. He went out every day to photograph seeking his relationship, his stance, toward the public world and toward himself as a man within it. By the time I met him he could walk down the street telling a story or carrying on an argument, photographing all the while, paying attention to the spectacle before him and the tumult within him almost without missing a beat.

He always said, “I photograph to see what things look like photographed.” I think he talked to hear what you sounded like talked about. At least, I have met many that he told of, and know some well: each is in some way more precisely drawn and thus more vivid in his speech as I recall it than in the ongoingness of life—like the American originals of his art.

When he talked in public about his photographs he stuck to what he knew. He took every question seriously. He answered jargon with plain words, theory with fact. His answers sounded too honest, too direct, too simple for those who wanted art to be obscure. He was often too mundane, too concrete, sometimes too coarse or burlesqued for those who wanted art or life to be only elevated. He always said “look at the picture,” and “I can’t talk about a photograph I can’t see.” To those who complained that his pictures were about banalities he would reply, “Of course, I photograph life, and life is banal.”

On the last day I saw him he sat with his family and a group of friends in his living room in Los Angeles. We were trying to keep our spirits high, to be entertaining on our own. We weren’t used to it and it showed. Then Garry began to tell stories which we knew we used to tell about him. It was an astonishing moment. Perhaps he talked about us all along in order to take his own measurements.

Now that his voice is still, only we are left to put him into words—and we will try again and again. I delight in imagining that somewhere, someone who never heard of Garry Winogrand nor saw his pictures will tell a story some day about being in New York, visiting the Museum of Modern Art, standing in the old 53rd Street lobby and seeing a big man with a camera in his hand, accompanied by several younger photographers, come through the revolving doors, shoulder his way into the crowd, stretch out his arms and say at the top of his lungs, “We’re here,” as though he were master of the revels. This artist spread his person out like a feast to whomever would partake of it. He made the world vivid and memorable for those who only saw him once—just as he has preserved and revivified everyone, central characters and bystanders alike, in the perfect crowded stillness of his art.

So wide is the swath that Garry Winogrand cut through our land so many times, back and forth and up and down; so many are those who saw him out there, that he is a fact of life, a phenomenon, to be talked about by everyone.

Ben Lifson writes about photography, and teaches its practice and theory at Bard College.

This address was given in a slightly different form at the memorial service for Garry Winogrand at the Society for Ethical Culture in New York City on March 29, 1984.