In a photograph taken by Garry Winogrand in 1975, now called Woman with Whistle Around Her Neck, we see an attractive and very fit young woman in a skintight dress. She is clearly braless; the movement of the fabric over her hips makes it difficult to tell if she is wearing anything else under the dress. She is on the arm of a man whose suntan, full mustache, blow-dried bouffant hair, leisure suit, and turtleneck make him almost a parody of the advertising art of the day – he could be selling Marlboros, or a manly aftershave. The pair make their way through a crowded New York park. At the woman’s neck, a whistle such as a lifeguard might use dangles like a pendant from a choker. Why is she wearing such a thing? Is it a form of DIY fashion, or an early version of a rape whistle, emblem of an increasing fear of street crime, as well as the greater sense of vulnerability felt by women in public?
It’s impossible to know – Winogrand snapped the picture quickly, and the tilted framing of the subjects betrays its spontaneity. The woman may never have known she was photographed. The ambiguities of the resulting image sum up many of the tensions that animate the photographs on display in Garry Winogrand: Women Are Beautiful, on view at the Denver Art Museum through September 16, 2012. In these images, the streets (of New York, primarily) are both public and private, an improvisational space in which women, in particular, come dressed to play a part, but are nevertheless wary of who might be watching. Viewers of these pictures have asked where admiration and appreciation end, and voyeurism begins. Suitably enough, in historical terms, most of them were taken in the years when the vibrant street carnival of the sixties was giving way to a sharper, altogether more anxious, division between public and private.
Winogrand, long regarded as one of the most influential of American street photographers, was a “picture-making machine,” in the words of curator Eric Paddock. Winogrand himself once said, in words which appear on one of the gallery walls, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” Assistant Curator Micah Messenheimer notes that the photographer left over 350,000 unseen pictures at his death in 1984, including both undeveloped rolls of film and unedited contact sheets. In 1975, a selection of his street photographs of women were published in a book entitled Women Are Beautiful. The 49 photographs on display here, chosen from 140 Winogrand photographs in the museum’s possession, include pictures that appeared in the book as well as later images.
As with the Woman with Whistle, some of the women in these images probably never knew Winogrand had taken their picture; for example, the mini-skirted Woman in Phone Booth, photographed in 1972, raised leg carelessly on display. Or the Woman at Café Table of 1975, remote behind a plate glass window. As in a painting by Vermeer, she evokes the stillness at the heart of even a fleeting moment. The alternation of round and square tables creates a pleasing visual rhythm in the foreground, while to either side of her a decanter of water and an empty glass subtly catch the light, another Vermeer-like, if accidental, touch. Some women happily engage the photographer’s gaze like the Laughing Woman with Ice Cream Cone, photographed in 1968. Some meet it with a challenge, like the Woman with String of 1975, or simply refuse engagement, like the Woman with Bandana, also of 1975. Often, as with the Woman Riding Bicycle of 1975, it’s impossible to know for sure.
Not coincidentally, these images also provide a fascinating window into the history of fashion and of feminine self-image and self-display. Take the Woman with String, photographed in a New York park. She wears a self-consciously exotic gyspy-ish outfit, the embodiment of counterculture chic, composed of a whitework blouse of Titanic-era vintage, a beaded reticule of similar age, a necklace suggesting tribal handiwork, a fringed shawl, and a striped sash and skirt. She is not obviously made up – her skin keeps its natural tones — but her eyebrows are shaped and groomed, her eyelids and perhaps her mouth artfully painted. Such a costume declares that the wearer has a greater affinity with bohemians, nomads, and the ghosts of the past than with the mainstream society of the present, yet in doing so it demands the attention of the mainstream. The woman’s dancer-like pose, and the mysterious string, suggestive of ancient myth or ritual (Ariadne’s ball of yarn, or the thread spun by the Fates), make her an even more timeless figure.
Alison Lurie, in her book The Language of Clothes, describes fashion in the sixties and early seventies as in many ways a game of dress-up. British writer Angela Carter, writing in 1967, imagined a young girl headed off to a party wearing a Mexican cotton wedding dress, her grandmother’s button boots, her mother’s fox fur, and her old school beret “dug out of the loft because she saw Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde.” Said Carter, “All these eclectic fragments … form a new whole, a dramatization of the individual, a personal style.” This “dramatization of the individual,” the sense of public life as a kind of open-air theater, seems to inform many of Winogrand’s images. Photographer Tod Papageorge, speaking at the Museum of Modern Art in 1988, described Winogrand as one of those “rare poets of the Actual” for whom “the world offers itself as a theater or laboratory of artistic possibility.”
Yet women’s sense of themselves as objects on display to the male gaze vastly predates the sixties, and lingers long afterward. Carter, in her later essays on feminism and fashion, charts the retreat from the late sixties’ brief, bold subversion of traditional feminine self-presentation, the resurrection of traditional signs that ask the male viewer to look, but not to touch, and remind the wearer of her own role as object: “You are aware of every breath you take; you have to walk carefully and totter when you run. Just as the use of cosmetics – all the girls are doing it – makes it impossible to forget your own face. You must always be powdering and lipsticking in a one-to-one narcissistic relationship with yourself.”
In hindsight, Carter notes that even the apparently liberating miniskirt was “a form of systematic exposure that maximized sexual differentiation by sartorial means” (as a closer look at Woman Riding Bicycle will confirm. I’m further intrigued by the contrast between her apparently bare feet and rucked-up miniskirt, and her seemingly demure buttoned top). In the same essay, Carter recalls “an increasingly batty debate” that preoccupied the nuclear-disarmament group she belonged to in the early sixties: should the women wear trousers to protests at which they were likely to be arrested and carried into police vans? If they wore trousers, they risked promoting “a public image of licentious beatnikery,” but in skirts they risked exposure to “some prurient photographer lurking about with a telephoto lens, to snap a flash of knickers or suspendered thigh.”
Discussing this exhibition with museum staff, I found an intriguing gender split, with the women I spoke with suggesting far more awareness of Winogrand and his camera on the part of his female subjects than male viewers assumed. The Woman With Bandana, plainly dressed in a dark shirt and pants, carrying a string market bag, hair covered by the bandana, may have no interest in smiling for Winogrand’s camera at that moment, but her plucked brows and carefully applied make up show that she expects to be the object of the male gaze, and hopes to please, or at least conform. Women in public find themselves in a curious double bind – the most artful presentation is seen as natural (those arched brows and painted lips), while unselfconscious movement — the exposed thighs and crotches of the Woman in Phone Booth or the Woman Riding Bicycle — is likely to be interpreted as knowing display, deliberate provocation. It’s a contradiction inherent in all the fashionably braless breasts on display here. To return to the Woman with Whistle, she’s knowingly placed herself on display, the clingy synthetic fabric of her dress revealing at least as much as it conceals, a prime example of what Carter called “skin anti-skin, mimic nakedness.” Yet her iron grip on her male partner, her averted gaze, and that puzzling whistle suggest a deep-seated anxiety, a fear of the possible consequences of display.
Should we see Winogrand himself as complicit in any of this? Perhaps. But to his credit, the broader context he so often captures allows these complexities to emerge. The composition of the photographs themselves, with their off-kilter angles, and frequent play with windows and reflections, acknowledges the curious interpenetration of public and private. The frank gazes and varied responses of the women themselves, the varying degree of awareness visible when the photographs are viewed as a group, work to raise questions, rather than suppress them. These questions, about the inherently voyeuristic nature of photography, are as old as the medium itself. And I don’t think anyone could find more vivid, varied or intriguing subject matter for that debate than Winogrand’s photographs of women.