Arrivals and Departures: The Airport Pictures of Garry Winogrand

….if you are like me as you look at these pictures, you pay more attention to the way passengers, their relatives, and friends inhabit these vast public spaces with a kind of emotional abandon. They laugh and flirt and cry. They remind us of actors onstage, showing emotions that are like our own, but somehow more acutely felt and beautifully expressed. Even their boredom is fully nuanced. And they act as if flying were an adventure, like saying goodbye to a relative at the gate were the saddest thing they could imagine. – Alex Harris

I hate flying. I avoid if at all possible. It’s not a debilitating phobia or anything. Once I’m up in the air I’m generally calm and all is fine. One way I try to alleviate my anxiety is to arrive at the airport several hours before my flight. Why? Because I’m fascinated by airports and their strange energy. The sense of flux is palpable. The airport is a gateway, an intermediary stop before arriving someplace you really want to go; a visit home, a vacation, the bed a significant other, to Europe or Asia for the first time. On the other side of the coin, it’s also a place filled with dread; the long lines, weary business travelers, families traveling because of tragedy, the overwhelming security.

I always enjoy walking around so I can see as much as possible, observing all the people coming and going, trying to read their emotions, creating stories about their destinations and reasons for going to them. The airport bar might be my favorite spot to sit around and people watch. Some travelers probably spend too much time at them, others are stuck there so they might as well drink. I need a few beers because of the dread and anxiety I feel about flying. It’s always a strange setting. People seem more willing to talk to strangers than your average bar, which makes sense since you’ll likely never see each other again. I know there are books and films about airports but I’m not really interested in fictional interpretations. Each time I go to the airport, I create a new personal fiction.

Apparently Garry Winogrand hated to fly as well, thankfully for us he alleviated his anxiety by making photographs and not by sipping beers and daydreaming. When I first became interested in street photography, Winogrand’s work naturally arrived on my radar rather quickly. After I bought ‘Figments in the Real World’ I became fascinated with his airport photographs. Sure, his New York street work was good but there was a different vibe to his airport photographs. I quickly went out and bought ‘Arrivals and Departures’ and from that point, it’s been my favorite body of work by Winogrand.

Unfortunately Winogrand died before he could edit his airport photographs. It would have been interesting to see what he would have come up with. Although, I’m not sure it would have been better than what Lee Friedlander and Alex Harris put together in Arrivals and Departures. I do wonder how Winogrand would have edited his work if he’d lived longer. Maybe he’d refute his early books in favor of new, more sophisticated edits? It seems like his mind was always working towards something, always moving forward.

The book has some of those recognizable Winogrand type photos. You’ll know them when you see them but what I find interesting are the photos where Winogrand is a bit back from the action and incorporates the architecture of the airport into the composition. There’s also a perfect mix of coming and going, inside and outside. The pace of the edit keeps you moving around which adds a bit of a frenetic feel. It creates a perfect vibe for the photographs. In a sense, paging through the book feels like pacing through the airport.

I always feel that Winogrand is chuckling at the good ole United States. It feels as if he’s in awe of these humans that call themselves Americans. I think he was probably a proud but not overly patriotic guy. I’m speculating naturally and that’s part of the fun of looking at photographs. What was this guy thinking? Why was he making THESE PHOTOS in THOSE PLACES?

Winogrand loved being out in public and I think that America from 50s to 80s is right where Winogrand wanted to be. Maybe one reason I find the airport pictures so compelling is that I sense in them Winogrand’s desire to perhaps leave America and go somewhere else and see something new. There’s a sense of energetic possibility flowing through these photos that for me adds a layer of optimism which is refreshing. It’s also very possible that Winogrand made all of these photos in airports just to kill time. We’ll never know but I’m glad that we have Friedlander and Harris’ edit.

You can get Arrivals and Departures on Amazon

  • georg pagenstedt

    As you say … fortunately he hated to fly and left us his great pictures. Thanks for this nice to read article.

  • edhawco

    I have a similar fascination with airports. One of the things that make Winogrand’s airport work so interesting is the impossibility of repeating it, due to the “overwhelming security” (which I would amend to “overwhelming show of security”).