Folio — From the July 2015 issue

Travel Day

Photographs of airports by twenty photographers, with an essay by Geoff Dyer

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The evolution of the fashions of commercial flight likewise reflects the tension between tradition and modernity. Pilots dress conservatively, in a style very obviously derived from a naval heritage. This has remained reassuringly unchanged. But the outfits of flight attendants tell a different story. As envisaged in the films of the Sixties, air travel and space travel shared a wardrobe, though there was a chicken-and-egg quality to the relationship. Airlines wanted their employees to look futuristic, so the designs were informed by fictive visions of that future — but those visions were themselves extrapolations from existing fashion.

As for the passengers . . . well, at JFK a couple of years ago I bumped into a very smartly dressed Phillip Lopate (born 1943), who explained that he belonged to a generation that dressed up when they took a flight. Winogrand captures this fluid collision of the casual (a woman in curlers!) with the kind of uncomfortable elegance that must have seemed essential for boarding a zeppelin. Being Winogrand, being the man who titled a book Women Are Beautiful, he is also alert to glimpses of romantic potential that are doomed, in this zone of constant comings and goings, to be no more than fleeting — and that cry out, as a consequence, to be permanently preserved on film.

“Houston, 1969,” by Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco “New York, 1968,” by Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts

“Houston, 1969,” by Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco “New York, 1968,” by Garry Winogrand © The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum, transfer from the National Endowment for the Arts

In other words, Winogrand found in airports the very same dramas that he stalked obsessively in the streets of Manhattan. The difference is that the movements, gestures, and interactions were altered by a space designed specifically to create certain situations (being separated from or reunited with a loved one) and to facilitate coping with all the consequences of those situations: lost luggage, missed connections, etc. As such, his pictures are replete with frustration, disappointments, and boredom. A display board, for example, lists one flight after another as delay equipment.

When Robert Doisneau came to England he was disappointed by what he found — or failed to find. On the Continent, he said, when people missed a train they threw up their arms and made a fuss. In England, they sat down. Winogrand didn’t need the gestural operatics that Doisneau missed. Along with everything else he was one of the great photographers of people sitting; he captured them stranded in some void as if that were the defining experience of their life.

In Winogrand’s time, the experience of delayed flights, though inconvenient and infuriating, had yet to acquire the cumulative tedium — the terminal lack of velocity — with which we are all now overfamiliar. Delay, boredom, and frustration had not been permanently imprinted on the idea of travel. In Winogrand’s pictures both excitement and dread still hang in the balance. And he was on hand to take the second most joyous picture of someone stepping off a plane. The first, of course, is the wonderful — and ultimately heartbreaking — image by Slava Veder of Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Stirm being greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base, in California, on March 17, 1973, after spending five years in captivity as a POW in Vietnam. That was an exceptional and newsworthy event. But when Winogrand saw the fellow with the beaming face holding a sign that said welcome to california jane, he captured the eternal promise of flight and of the American West in a single moment. I’m amazed the picture hasn’t been blown up and installed permanently at LAX.

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