Early in 1984 I was living in Louisville, Kentucky and at the end of a business career. I decided to become a photographer. Growing up, most of the pictures I saw on a regular basis that were not news or advertising were in LIFE and National Geographic magazines; these were the sort of photographs I aspired to make. Recognizing my lack of knowledge, I hit the library and worked my way through the 771 (Techniques & Materials) and 779 (Photographs) sections, reading some, skimming others and absorbing the work of photographers’ monographs.
As I got to the end of the alphabetically-ordered stacks, I first came across the work of Garry Winogrand. The sharp observation, ironic humor and social commentary of “The Animals” I certainly enjoyed. It was “Public Relations,” though, that really hit me. I was shocked – tilted perspective, no obvious or formal grace and composition, backlit, hard light; what was this stuff? The social event photos were harsh, critical,sharply lit by “bang-’em in-the-eyeballs” flash.
I recognized many of the people in the photographs, important (or at least famous) in their day. Here was Senator Jacob Javits, smiling as he spoke to someone, but the ‘someone’ dominated the photo: the back of his bald head glowing like a great egg. Why didn’t Winogrand move around and photograph them from the front? I wondered.
Centennial Ball, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1969 (Photograph by Garry Winogrand)*
Another was a photograph at a Museum of Modern Art reception for the great artist Alexander Calder. Here is Calder, the ostensible star of the event, sitting utterly alone looking dazed in the midst of a crowd of people all talking to each other as if he were not there. Why would anyone want to see this photograph of him?
Opening, Alexander Calder Exhibition, Museum of Modern Art, New York 1969 (Photograph by Garry Winogrand)*
More importantly to me, struggling to learn my craft and eke out a living in public relations photography, there was another crucial question: Who would have paid for these pictures that made so many of their subjects look terrible? (Not having read Tod Papageorge’s cogent, insightful introduction to the book, I didn’t realize that Winogrand had received a Guggenheim grant to document “the effect of media on events.” He didn’t have anyone to please but himself.) I put the book back in the stacks and moved on
Over the next few years, most of my bread-and-butter work was public-relations based, photographing corporate and arts-related events. Usually my work involved photographing assorted prominent Louisvillians making speeches, presenting plaques or checks, shaking hands or chatting at cocktail receptions. The assignment was to document these with everyone looking pleasant and smiling, or serious and purposeful, but always in a positive and flattering light. But sometimes I saw other photos on the contact sheets: interesting little moments or uncomfortable expressions, showing the foibles and vanities of the participants. So while taking the photographs for which I was being paid, I began to keep an eye out for the little indecisive moments at an awards presentation or before a luncheon speaker.
The first time I consciously observed this was early in 1986. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti was in town giving a recital under the auspices of Kentucky Opera. At a reception for the big donors to the Opera, the patrons were more interesting to photograph as they jockeyed for attention and social advantage. Pavarotti himself was polite but had suffered through hundreds of such events. My clients were not interested in my printing these unflattering photos but over time there were a lot of them.
As I’ve said in an earlier interview, moving a lot while growing up has often made me feel an outsider, with a skepticism about those actively seeking the limelight and public approbation, or who wish simply to be noticed. I began to show up at nearly any public event in town to document it. These could range from Presidential candidates’ political speeches during election years to building dedications, outdoor concerts and neighborhood festivals. Without a shot list from a paying client, I photographed anything that caught my eye and again, the awkward moments tended to become the subject.
In the Spring of 1986 I became one of the three official photographers for the Kentucky Derby Festival, which I continued to do for 12 years. After two or three years, a certain “I’ve seen this all one too many times” cynicism set in.
By 1991, I produced the exhibition “Spectators” at Louisville’s Zephyr Gallery. Soon after that, I put “Big Hair & True Love” together and it was shown in 1994. The latter was especially harsh, critical and judgmental.
Time passed, I moved to London. There in 2001 I was invited to join in-public.com, the international Street Photography collective. My colleagues would talk about Garry Winogrand and how much his work had meant to them. I returned to his work after not having paid attention to it since those early days in the Library 16 years before.
I was amazed. Even though I hadn’t looked at them in a very long time, those photographs had made a powerful impression, albeit a negative one at the time. Life had completely altered my view of “Public Relations.” Similar things had appeared before my lens and flash, albeit on the smaller stage of Louisville: artificial celebrations, attention seeking, vulgarity, mob emotion, vanity, pomposity. As I looked at these photographs again I understood them, what Winogrand was seeing and what he was saying. I recognized, though separated by 20 years, a kindred spirit on a parallel photographic track.
*The photographs by Garry Winogrand are taken from Public Relations, 2nd Edition, 2004, published by The Museum of Modern Art, New York.