Garry Winogrand

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (March 9 - June 2, 2013)

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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This is the first retrospective of Winogrand’s photographs in 25 years. Jointly organized by SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art, it’s a fabulous show with more than 300 images, a hundred of which are being shown for the first time.

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) was a brilliant photographer whose social commentary focused on the inequality in American life. He traveled the streets of New York, Texas and Los Angeles taking quick photographs using his 35 mm Leica camera with a pre-focused wide-angle lens.

Winogrand favored black and white unposed images of people— rich and poor, joyful and despairing — and often contrasted them in the same photograph. He had the prescient skill of capturing the candid and honest expressions of his subjects. His uncompromising pictures have tilted horizons and atypical details. His early influences included Henri Cartier-Bresson and the New York Photo League. Although considered “the central photographer of his generation,” Winogrand is generally less well known than his peers Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus.

Winogrand’s heart was in finding and taking photographs, as opposed to proofing, editing, processing and completing them, not to mention preparing for a retrospective museum show. When the prolific Winogrand suddenly died at age fifty-six, he left more than 6,000 rolls of film that were either unprocessed or, having been processed, were still un-proofed. That amounts to approximately one quarter of a million photographs that Winogrand never saw. These rolls have since been painstakingly developed and selected. It took more than three years to put this exhibition together.

Entering the exhibit, one sees “New York” (1950), in which a sailor crosses a bridge. It’s left to the viewer to interpret the meaning. As I see it, the sailor looks strong and confident in the streetlights. Perhaps, after his war experience, he has nothing to fear from New York.

A helpful organization divides the exhibit into three sections. The first, “Down from the Bronx,” captures the essence of Winogrand’s work in New York City from 1950 to 1971. During these years, Winogrand’s magazine work dried up, as Life, Look and Collier’s were replaced by television. The artist then had the opportunity to shoot subjects of his choice.

Many pictures are gritty, crowded New York street scenes, in which Winogrand found something of interest at play. It could be an expression, an attitude or a scene of joy or sadness. For example, in the simple, yet poignant “New York” (1968), a black beggar is handed money from a white man (although we only see the latter’s arm).

The “Student of America” section begins in March 1964, when Winogrand won a Guggenheim fellowship. He set out for Texas and California. His interests were the open spaces and the tacky and tawdry peculiarities of the West. In his well-known picture, “Dealey Plaza, Dallas” (1964) Winogrand shows us the 10-month switch from Dealey Plaza as the site of John Kennedy’s assassination to a cheap, almost ghoulish tourist stop. Other photographs, Los Angeles’ Forest Lawn cemetery, Mickey Mouse hats, bouffant hairdos and the Texas State Fair capture the growing prosperity and oddness of the West.

Winogrand continued to shoot pictures in New York during the 1960s and ’70s, including peace marches and confrontations as well as photographs of celebrities and political figures such as Muhammad Ali, Richard Nixon, Drew Barrymore, Norman Mailer and George Wallace.

The final section, “Boom or Bust,” contains examples of Winogrand’s work taken in various locations from 1976 to his death in 1983. Its theme is the malaise of the 1970s. Winogrand didn’t get to see many of the pictures in this section, as they were not developed during his lifetime. “Venice Beach, Los Angeles” (1980-1983) with three girls in oversized sunglasses is an example of Winogrand’s ability to illustrate American life as he saw it.

Winogrand has been described as “De Tocqueville with a camera,” a compliment he richly deserves. This epic exhibition is the first opportunity to see all the stages of Winogrand’s career at one time. It’s just great.

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