Though he would loathe the distinction, Garry Winogrand was one of the great “street” photographers to have emerged in the late 1950s. He was championed by John Szarkowski at the Museum of Modern Art, but oddly his reputation has faded over the past few decades. I think that photographers such as myself from certain generation know of his work, but his name seems to have been slightly forgotten amongst a younger audience. Which is a shame considering how popular the genre of street photography is today. Going back over his work, especially those created during the height of his powers in the early 1960s, would be an enlightening experience for any young photographer unfamiliar with his body of work. Admittedly, some of Winogrand’s work has not aged well. Especially his series titled “Women Are Beautiful.” This specific work feels very different when viewed from a contemporary standpoint compared to the times when they were originally created; one could argue against this kind of “photographic male chauvinism.” For some context, I highly recommend viewing the documentary film which came out last year “Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable” by Sasha Waters Freyer.
There is one photograph in particular by Garry Winogrand that has stayed firmly in the back of my mind since I most likely first gazed upon it as a young photo major in college. Growing up in New Jersey, I had a somewhat narrow view of the world for sure and my impression or imagination of what the rest of the world or even the rest of the United States might look like was shaped primarily via television, movies and especially, photography. The image that I am focusing on today by Winogrand was taken in Albuquerque, New Mexico In 1957. Little did I know when I looked at that photo for the first time that I would eventually find myself living in New Mexico. That photo really shaped what I thought this place might look like, having never visited it.
So looking at this photograph what do we see? The outer edge of some tract home. A garage door is open. In the darkness a child stands in the back, while right at the threshold of the garage, lit by bright sunlight is an infant… walking out into the world… arms partially outstretched. The driveway is sectioned cement. An oil stain appears about a third of the way down and closer in the foreground is a small tricycle on its side. As we looked to the other half of the photograph, we see barren desert stretching off to a mountainous horizon. Storm clouds appear over the mountains, and a white letter “U” is seen against the mountain (most likely representing the University of New Mexico.) The desert scrub that extends up to where this house sits is punctuated in the lower corner of the photograph by a small shrub… possibly a cactus or some other native desert plant.
There are many things I find compelling about this photograph, regardless of the fact that I live a few miles away from where it was taken. It was shot in 1957, the times were the height of Eisenhower era, post-WWII boom. The middle class was continue to expand, and the west (or in this case, southwest) was experiencing a population burst, thanks in large part to the expanding interstate highway system, the ubiquitous automobile and the availability of cheap land to fill up with suburban housing. This is all apparent in this photo by Winogrand. What I find though, against a manufactured backdrop of optimism, there is a dark sense of foreboding emanating from this scene. The storm cloud, of course, brings a degree of menace to the environment. There are other clues. The tricycle on its side, a hazard to a driver, perhaps. A potential cause of injury for the boy in the background? The two children are unattended. Perhaps not a shocking then as it would most likely be to contemporary parents, but odd that a stranger with a camera could roll up and shoot this photo. What else could a passing stranger be capable of here? And this house… on the edge of a development, with nothing but open desert at its side. What potential threats linger just a few feet away from this house? As many of us who live in the desert know, it is a dangerous place. It would be too easy for a child to wander off, get lost, fall into a dry river bed, stumble into a thorny plant, or perhaps encounter an animal or a reptile that could easily inflict harm.
The fact that this house appears to sit at the far edge of humanity is quite striking to my eyes, as I know the part of the city where the house is located. In the 60 plus years since the image was created, huge amounts of development have occurred in Albuquerque, and the entire area of the city where this house sits is unrecognizable from how we see it here. The majesty of the Sandia Mountains shown off in the distance would be completely obscured if one were attempting to recreate this photo today. While, in the other direction on the outer edges of Albuquerque West Side, one could find, I’m sure, the 21st Century equivalent of the scene Winogrand stumbled upon back in 1957.
Out of curiosity, I decide to try to find this location for myself. And thanks to some internet sleuth work, I did indeed find it (thank you Google Maps.) On a non-descript side street in the Northeast Heights of Albuquerque, sits the original house from the photo. It still has some of its characteristic details, most specifically the concrete driveway, the front windows along the left side of the image, and the telltale beam along the right side of the garage (though the house numbers are long gone, the front curb has the numbers 1208 spray painted on it.) As you can see, the sweeping view of the mountains is gone now, blocked by a neighboring house, although there is a tiny bit of the range still visible just beyond the backyard fencing. I experienced a kind of self-induced déjà vu while standing in front of the house. I was waiting for someone to walk by and acknowledge the significance of the location. Alas, only the midday sun and a slight springtime breeze provided whatever pinch of reality the location was able to muster.