PETER LINDBERGH/GARRY WINOGRAND: WOMEN ON STREET
NRW Forum, Duesseldord, Germany
The Illegible Man, by Werner Spies
“Women on Street” – the works presented in this exhibition and catalogue are the result of “street photography.” Two entirely different, indeed incompatible approaches collide here. The scenes and vantage points that determine the images can be traced back to one of the most fascinating phenomena of the nineteenth century, the flâneur. Isn’t this figure the rightful patron of street photography? He entered the scene during the period of the discovery and rapid spread of private photography. The activity – or rather, passivity – of the flâneur depended on the city, the urban environment. Everything else remained basically foreign to him. The sight of the wares in display windows, isolated and divorced from their context, triggered a poetization of the modern world, fashion and fleetingness that was conducted most radically by Baudelaire and the Impressionists. The point was no longer a methodical involvement with the visible world and its utility. One has the impression that with the flâneur, idly strolling through streets and squares, the Enlightenment began to dim and the systematic knowledge pursued by Diderot in his work on an inventory of the world, the Encyclopedia, grew unimportant. The eye became subordinate to experience; rather than taking stock and trying to understand, it began to nervously wander and succumb to the charm of the accidental and ephemeral.
This derivation from the flâneur is obvious in the case of Garry Winogrand and Peter Lindbergh. For them, too, the street serves as a forum for discoveries and encounters. They tend to lend reality a poetic aspect.
There is no admixture of evil in their imagery. Yet how different are the results that confront one another in the present selection. Winogrand’s works diverge in a key sense from what Lindbergh shows us. In order to grasp this difference, we might compare it to two approaches found in literature. In Lindbergh’s case the parallel would be with Edgar Allan Poe’s tale The Man of the Crowd, and in Winogrand’s one of the most famous and frightening passages in André Breton’s Second Manifesto of Surrealism. In fact I can think of nothing better than Poe’s story to describe the expectations and moods triggered by Lindbergh’s photographs. He retains women’s enigmatic character, their beauty and sensuousness. The point, for him, is pristineness. Even though he photographs on the street in this case, the street is not his subject.
Disorder, improvisation do not jibe with his continual search for the classical, the canon, the flawless beauty of the female body. This is why his approach has no place for chance. The ideal he envisages depends on calculation. This search will never come to an end, because Lindbergh knows that he will never be able to penetrate to the essence of the women he portrays. A superb statement by Antonin Artaud that seems to take up the sceptical judgement of Poe’s Man of the Crowd underscores the impossibility of ever being able to recognize and judge a person from outside: “The human face has been speaking and breathing for thousands of years, and yet you have the impression that it still has not begun to say what it really is and what it knows.” Artaud emphasizes this by adding that no image is truly capable of capturing the expression of a face. Poe compares it to a book and attempts to penetrate the illegibility of a man he follows through the streets. He ends his fruitless investigation by concluding, “He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds. The worst heart of the world is a grosser book than the Hortulus Animae, and perhaps it is but one of the great mercies of God that es lässt sich nicht lesen.” With this final sentence Poe returns to the beginning of the story, where we read, “It was well said of a certain German book that ‘es lässt sich nicht lesen’ - it does not permit itself to be read. There are some secrets which do not permit themselves to be told.”
This, written in the middle of the nineteenth century, is a crucial denial of the possibility of psychological penetration and understanding the enigma of the Other. Poe respects what he cannot know, and praises this impenetrable mystery as “one of the great mercies of God”. Baudelaire, who translated Poe’s tale into French, noted a short time later, in the prose poem “Les foules,” published in the collection Le Spleen de Paris, that it was not given to everyone to immerse themselves in the crowd. It was a high art that not everyone mastered. Only someone could indulge in this spree who from childhood had shown a taste for dressing up and masquerade, a hate of sedentariness and a passion for travel.
>“A photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how the camera saw a piece of time and space” - Garry Winogrand
The yield of the two photographers could hardly be more different. Street photography as de ned and practiced by Garry Winogrand, one of the early pioneers of the genre, is nourished by unpredictable moments encountered in the course of everyday experience. This is why people collide in his pictures, bodies overlap, and physical proximity forces people to communicate with each other. We know that he left countless images behind, a number that runs to the several millions. And he was able to develop only a small fraction of his negatives and view them on contact prints. His works have nothing planned or staged about them. Nor do they cleave to any evident narrative structure. This prompts one to associate Winogrand’s strategy, his praise of chance, with Breton’s demand, “L’acte surréaliste le plus simple consiste, revolvers aux poings, à descendre dans la rue et à tirer au hasard, tant qu’on peut, dans la foule.” What is behind this haphazard clicking of the shutter release that brings to mind Breton’s challenge to re a revolver blindly into a crowd? Could this suggest anything but going on a hectic, breathless hunt for pictures simply in order not to miss the one magic moment? In Winogrand’s precipitous piling of image upon image we find no evidence of a preference for nor allergy against any aspect of the visible world and its human population. Everything is worthy of record. His approach rules out preferences and premeditation. What a difference from that gourmet of horrors, the Weegee of Naked City, attracted only by night, accidents and crimes, or from Diane Arbus, who mercilessly foregrounded freaks and eccentrics in order to test the limits of empathy and human life.
>“What’s so striking about black and white photography is how it helps a sense of reality to come through.” - Peter Lindbergh
Yet for all his play with chance, the pictures Winogrand published in photo books or selected for exhibitions reveal a definable emotion. Behind his hunger for imagery we detect someone who, like the Surrealists around Breton, expected redemption not from reason but from an epiphany. This is why he walked with camera at the ready from second to second, looking for sudden revelations. The hectic way he shot everything that came into view reflects a hope that the mass of transitory events he collected would contain the definitive, right, and overpowering image. Winogrand was out to glean an unrepeatable, finalized moment from the rush of time. This is the reason his pictures have no planned or premeditated look.
In the publication devoted to Winogrand and Lindbergh as two representatives of street photography in the current exhibition, we find little that is comparable. We enter the difficult terrain of pseudo-similarity. In both cases, women stand in the foreground, usually beautiful young women. Their movements and poses are intended largely to convey sensuousness. Yet Lindbergh’s catwalk differs from his fellow photographer’s in a crucial point. It has as good as nothing in common with street photography as narrowly de ned. Although his works emerged from fashion shootings on the street, every accidental trait that would catch an idle flâneur’s eye seems to have been expunged from them. The focus is on a fragile moment in life. Awareness of the decline and finality of appearances lies like a melancholy shadow over all of Lindbergh’s images. His fashion photographs take him to the core of the depressive mood of the models and their fear of ageing and their endless grooming. Thanks to his metier, which feeds on a never-ending series of fresh bodies, he knows what transience means and where fascination ends. This reminds me of a statement by the painter Richard Lindner, the cynical and disillusioned observer of his times, who once told me, “Un- like Europeans, people in the U.S. do not admire the legs of an eighty-year-old Minstinguett.”
As even a first look at the photos Lindbergh has selected for “Women” reveals, he sets great store in continuity and planning. His pictures are posed, obviously prepared. They follow a script. This is evident from the main protagonist, who is entirely aware of her role. She establishes no contact with the passersby she encounters. And this, as in Poe’s tale, reflects an understanding of the essence of the human enigma. Nothing in Lindbergh’s fashion photographs is permitted to escape his will and intentions. This is incompatible with Winogrand’s approach. His continual dissatisfaction and inability to meet expectations with any single image. becomes transfixing, leads us from picture to picture, challenges us to give them subtitles, invent a plot. Lindbergh, on the other hand, lurks everywhere, you might say, along with the aura of loneliness that surrounds his women. His women? No, it soon becomes obvious that his concern is with a single woman. We find her again in image after image. This is the source of the classicism of the movements and poses Lindbergh captures. In this regard, too, the artist moves miles away from the street and the promiscuity of the crowd.
At the focus of the story stands a slender, elegant blonde with her hair put up. She tends to wear a sweater and dark pants suit with pinstripes, or a buttoned-up or uttering ankle-length coat, a leather jacket, sweatpants, or, finally, a brashly patterned dress that compared to her other, stringent attire, has the look of a masquerade. She never speaks to anyone, smiles at anyone; at most she occasionally holds a cell phone to her ear. Her facial expression is reserved, suggesting no interest in dialogue. Nor does she seem to wear jewellery, or carry a bag. Her expression basically remains unchanged, except for the rare suggestion of a smile; as a rule we are treated to an introverted thoughtfulness, a suggestion of being lost. Or the star of a Lindbergh story sits on a park bench holding a cigarette and registering, apparently dispassionately, the presence of a small, white child watched over by a black nanny.
When several passersby appear in the picture, they form a backdrop for the woman who is alone and wants to remain alone. Nowhere do people grow closer. The woman communicates with no one and withdraws completely from the happenings around her. She reacts to nothing and no one. Her facial expression is a blank. Everything proclaims the impossibility of making contact with others. We look at these pictures and enter mysterious territory. As familiar and close Lindbergh’s woman might seem, she remains enigmatic. There is no more pertinent illustration of Baudelaire’s incredible statement: “La femme est l’être qui projette la plus grande ombre ou la plus grande lumière dans nos rêves” (Woman casts the deepest shadow and the brightest light in our dream). There is a mixture of disdain, shyness and pride in this attitude to the world. A detachment that brings Degas to mind. His women, too, make no eye contact with us. His photographs are pictures taken by a man obsessed. We see the yield of a stalker who cannot let his victims be. This forces us too into the role of voyeur. A woman about whom we know nothing appears, fascinates us, and from image to image we grow more afraid she will disappear. We feel like Poe in his Man of the Crowd. We are given a book to read and cannot help but admit, “Es lässt sich nicht lesen.”
Translation from German by J.W. Gabriel