Garry Winogrand: “The Central Photographer of his Generation”
By Jason Edward Kaufman
Garry Winogrand may be one of the greatest street photographers of the 20th century, but the retrospective now at The Metropolitan Museum of Art is the first in his native city since 1988. In fact, other than a 2001 exhibition that traveled from the University of Arizona to Spain, there has not been a major career survey in a quarter century. Why have museums neglected the Bronx-born cameraman?
The late John Szarkowski, who curated the 1988 Museum of Modern Art survey, called Winogrand “the central photographer of his generation,” citing the “true, clear, and tangible” record he left of post-War America. From the 1950s through the upheavals of the 1960s, Winogrand (1928-84) worked mainly in Manhattan, then in 1973 took a teaching job in Austin and five years later moved to Los Angeles, where he continued his incessant portrayal of every stratum of society in the United States.
His democratic panoply included businessmen, politicians, soldiers, hippies, anti-war demonstrators, shoppers, athletes, lovers, and homeless persons – anyone that caught his eye as he strolled the streets, parks, airports, restaurants, amusement parks, zoos, parades, state fairs, rodeos, beauty pageants, the beach, political conventions, society parties and cemeteries. “His pictures feature real people and a society in the grip of near chaos,” writes co-curator Sandra S. Phillips in the catalogue of the current show (published by the exhibition’s organizer, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and Yale University Press).
While no one can dispute that Winogrand’s range was comprehensive of American culture in the late 20th century, his style flouted the conventions of art photography. Many of his images seem badly composed with tilting ground planes and subjects off center. His pictures — predominantly black-and-white — evidently were taken hurriedly, some shot literally from the hip (to catch the subject unaware or to shoot surreptitiously), as though he just wanted to get the target into his field of vision and recorded.
Reviewing the 1988 show I complained that many of his works looked like rejects, the sort of pictures a professional would discard. The wide-angle lens Winogrand favored packs a great deal of information into the frame, but his compositions often lack traditional structure and spatial coherence. I believe that is the reason curators have shunned him. Photography connoisseurs and museum visitors were reluctant to see Winogrand’s casual style as art. “One has the feeling,” I wrote, “that what little charm his pictures have derives excessively from the psycho-social dimension engendered by their human subjects, and not enough from the merits of either their technical excellence or pictorial organization.” Now I recognize what Szarkowski discerned: that Winogrand practiced an entirely new approach to the medium.
Unlike the precisely structured works of Atget, Walker Evans and Cartier-Bresson, Winogrand was a street photographer who along with Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander became an early exponent of what has been called “the snapshot aesthetic,” an approach that abandoned the values of composition and fine printing that had characterized art photography, photojournalism and advertising work to that point. Though he sometimes took agency and photojournalistic assignments, Winogrand allowed spontaneity and intuition more than calculation and control to govern his photography. The goal was to capture the texture of American life seen en passant, bearing witness to casual events and happenstance in roughhewn images that contradict nearly every convention of the medium.
Nevertheless, the results can be exhilarating, particularly when they embody Winogrand’s wry sense of the national political mood and his rather forlorn outlook. Consider his 1967 shot in Central Park Zoo depicting an elegantly dressed black man and blonde woman, each holding a chimpanzee wearing a snowsuit. Though it is not clear if the couple are deliberately making a statement, the image cannot be seen as other than a mockery of the notion of miscegenation at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in many states. Similarly, a 1963 image of a de-horned rhinoceros returning the gaze of an African American man ineluctably resonates with the civil rights struggle wracking the country.
He often equated man and beast, as in a 1964 underwater shot of a woman swimming alongside a piglet, a 1975 shot of a beady-eyed round-faced Texan boy who looks like his sheep’s sibling, and a 1962 picture of a Lothario eyeing his girlfriend at the zoo as a wolf approaches in the cage behind them. It may be telling that perhaps his most compassionate portrait is not of a person, but an aging orangutan lazing sleepily in his pen.
One of his most surreal images is a 1957 scene in which an infant totters out from a dark garage toward a forbidding New Mexico desert. A shot in a Los Angeles appliance store in the early sixties shows kids on the floor glued to the television set, foreshadowing the media vortex into which America was plunging.
Winogrand exposed more than twenty thousand rolls of film, very few of which were edited, printed or even developed in his lifetime. When he died from gall bladder cancer at 56 he had not looked at a quarter million of his images, more than a third of which were developed posthumously. Guest curator Leo Rubinfien examined most of the 20,000 contact sheets housed at the Center for Creative Photography at University of Arizona, Tuscon, and with co-curators Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough selected more than 160 that appear among the catalogue’s 401 plates. Of the 175 photos in the exhibition, 56 are posthumous images.
MoMA’s 1988 show also included posthumous prints, but the practice remains controversial. If the photographer did not select the pictures himself, can they be considered his finished works? Some photographers painstakingly edit and manipulate their works, but Winogrand is a special case. He did not crop or edit his photographs, and he often left it to others to select and sequence them for books and exhibitions. And he left more than a quarter of his photographs unedited. “It was better to bring out the work and let it live or die on its own merits than to let it lie in a box,” Ms. O’Toole explained to the New York Times.
The results are mixed. A portrait of a man standing in the fog on the tarmac of a California naval station in 1979, and drive-by shot of a woman lying disheveled on a Los Angeles street in the early 1980s have the energy and attention to incidental curiosity of images Winogrand himself chose to highlight. But most of the posthumous prints are weak and undistinguished by comparison. Perhaps the disparity provides evidence that Winogrand did have a distinct aesthetic vision that enabled him to cull art from the profusion of images he compulsively made. But I have to agree with Szarkowski’s assessment of the late work as desultory and flawed. Nonetheless they remain intriguing documents of the period, a coda to a career that future generations will value as a unique and expansive panorama of the end of the American century.
“Garry Winogrand” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 21, then travels to the Jeu de Paume, Paris, and Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid.
This article appeared in Artphaire (online), Sept. 4, 2014.