LAST CHANCE at SFMOMA: GARRY WINOGRAND's America
he Garry Winogrand retrospective on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art closes this Sunday (June 2). Winogrand, who died in 1984, was one of America’s major photographers, and the show is fascinating. If you haven’t seen it and you’re in the Bay Area, this weekend is your last chance.
Winogrand was not a photographer who operated with preconceived concepts or notions—he didn’t do intentional “series” or organize his work around the idea of an end-product book or show. He was instead obsessed with the captured moment: the particular twist of a person’s expression, a certain gleam in the eyes. As opposed to crafted photographic moments, he felt his job was to get out on the street and find the moments the world was already offering. Tracing the images curator Leo Rubinfien has assembled from the arc of Winogrand’s career—from 1950’s New York through Texas and other stops, ending eventually in 1980’s Los Angeles—one senses in Winogrand’s work an alternate narrative of America itself. His images are not those of televised America, or of the great-events America of history textbooks, but of Americans who, in a country irrevocably changed and changing after World War II, went about the daily business of navigating—or inventing—life.
New York, 1950, Garry Winogrand. (Collection SFMOMA, fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein; ©The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)
Coney Island, New York, ca. 1952, Garry Winogrand. (Collection The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase and gift of Barbara Schwartz in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz; ©The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; digital image ©The Museum of Modern Art/ Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY)
Park Avenue, New York, 1959, Garry Winogrand. (Collection National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Patrons' Permanent Fund; image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; ©The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)
Winogrand’s images of unselfconscious solitude, play, or eccentricity in 1950’s New York give way, as the years pass, to political events increasingly intentionally organized as “photo opportunities,” the pseudo-glamour of public relations events and television society, and the ways in which the increasing power of mass media changed the way we live. Winogrand understood what it meant to shoot organized culture—starting out, he quickly found work as a freelancer for LIFE and Sports Illustrated—but his images of press conferences or politicians often suggest an artist less interested in capturing organized culture than in capturing the awkward, forced, or disorganized moments that occurred as certain kinds or classes of people attempt to organize culture. Many images, especially from early in his career, possess a sociological, documentary power, especially in regards to race and class. In some of Winogrand’s most beautifully unsettling later images, though—the Los Angeles photos, especially—one senses the presence of two lenses: subjects who increasingly dress and live according to aesthetics that might be found attractive by the lens of television or publicity/glamour, and Winogrand’s lens right there, capturing the attempt.
New York, ca. 1960, Garry Winogrand. (Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; ©The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)
Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967, Garry Winogrand. (Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)
Winogrand’s desire to photograph unsuspecting people in a visually striking moment of course causes many critics looking at his work to mention Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moments, though, were often ones in which he captured the athletic—perhaps balletic—instant in his subject: most of us probably think of the nimble fellow leaping over/into the puddle. Winogrand, however, born and raised in The Bronx, considered himself the athlete. When young, he compared the act of photography to basketball and claimed he used similar moves—surprise jump spins, etc.—that allowed him to capture subjects in moments less refined. (The older, less-athletic Winogrand had friends drive him around the streets of Los Angeles so he could shoot from the passenger seat.) Because the act of photographing was inseparable from Winogrand’s daily activity, the show is in a way not only about the arc of his career, but also of his own life. Items like the photos of a drunk couple a young Winogrand submitted to a LIFE magazine contest (he didn’t win, though he would end up working for them anyway), a personal photo taken of him with his wife and children, or a pained letter he wrote his young daughter after he and her mother divorced lend the show a moving biographical resonance.
New York, 1969, Garry Winogrand. (Collection SFMOMA, gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein; ©The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)
Los Angeles, ca. 1980-1983, Garry Winogrand. (Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; ©The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)
t is impossible to talk about Winogrand, however, without also discussing curation—because he appears not to have cared about it. He lived to take photographs; everything else was of less importance. His was a quantity approach, and it resulted in no small quantity: when he died, those in charge of his effects discovered more than 35,000 prints, 22,000 contact sheets, 45,000 color transparencies, and 6,500 rolls of exposed film he hadn’t even processed. That’s close to a million images nobody had even seen, and there are a number of prints in the show at SFMOMA that were unmarked frames discovered on Winogrand’s contact sheets. In a New York Times piece that ran when the show opened, Marvin Heiferman tells the story of James Enyeart, director of the Center for Creative Photography, asking Winogrand which of his images he wanted displayed, and which should be used as study prints. “You know the difference, don’t you? Now it is your job,” is what Winogrand is supposed to have responded, too busy shooting more photos to be bothered. Photography, for Winogrand, was the act of photographing. Curating—extracting themes or narratives from a body of work so that a show or book could be organized, named, publicized, and discussed—appears to have been, for him, something other than photography. “I don’t have anything to say in any picture,” he claimed. “My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.”
Rubinfien, as curator of the SFMOMA show, has therefore performed what must have been in many ways a labor of love. Winogrand may have photographed an unrevealed history of post-war America, but is has been Rubinfien’s task to unearth—and shape—the gorgeous and haunting revelation. As more and more people traveled by air, we see Winogrand attracted to the drama of airports. He seems also to have maintained his interest in the unruly mix—again, unorganized culture—found on the sidewalk, in alleys, or in crowds. He led a cultural double life of sorts. A known figure in Manhattan with supporters at MOMA, he placed photos in national magazines, won national grants, and was perfectly familiar with the people and places that form America’s version of the artistic “academy.” He also seems to have had little time for it—there was too much shooting to do. When considering the math (a million images?) and talent in Winogrand’s work, one suspects there are other slices of American life—whole swaths, perhaps—yet to be pulled from his archives. In other words, though the show at SFMOMA is a powerful retrospective, Winogrand’s images also have a future.
Albequerque, 1957, Garry Winogrand. (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase; ©The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.)
(Note: As if it weren’t enough that the Winogrand show closes June 2, SFMOMA itself will close the same evening, and remain closed until early 2016 as the building undergoes extensive construction and expansion. The Winogrand show will travel to MOMA in New York; SFMOMA will, for the next few years, operate as an entity that hosts or curates shows at various locations around the city. If you love photography or have any fondness for the current building, then: this weekend is it.)
Dan DeWeese is the author of Disorder, a story collection, and You Don’t Love This Man, a novel.