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Garry Winogrand's American Epic

Winogrand was a photographer of people, from rodeo performers in Texas to socialites in Manhattan to the regulars at Venice Beach. Humanity—or perhaps American humanity—in all its iterations and range of expression, was his subject matter.

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). Coney Island, New York, ca. 1952. Gelatin silver print. 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

In order to enter the Garry Winogrand retrospective that opened last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you exit the main auditorium into the south wing, where you are greeted by a long corridor of Greek art from the sixth through fourth centuries BC. It mostly consists of statues in various poses—some at war, some lost in thought, some proclaiming, some brooding. By the time you reach the Winogrand show on the second floor and begin to survey the work, it may occur to you that the Greek gallery provided something of an anachronistic prologue. Known for his routine of tirelessly walking the streets candidly photographing city life, Winogrand was a photographer of people, from rodeo performers in Texas to socialites in Manhattan to the regulars at Venice Beach. Humanity—or perhaps American humanity—in all its iterations and range of expression, was his subject matter.


Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). New York, 1950. Gelatin silver print. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The Met is the third stop of the exhibition’s tour, originating at San Francisco MoMA. The project began when gallerist Jeffrey Fraenkel asked photographer Leo Rubinfien to help compile a large retrospective book of Winogrand’s work. Rubinfien agreed, but in his own words, “it was immediately clear you needed a museum.” So Rubinfien approached San Francisco MoMA Curator of Photography Sandy Phillips, who jumped at the idea of doing an exhibition, in which Rubinfien, who is not a curator by trade, would act as such. This iteration at the Met was reduced from the original SF MoMA show by Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Department of Photographs at the Met. It is the first Winogrand retrospective in 25 years, a virtual eternity for an artist of Winogrand’s renown, let alone an artist no longer living.

Although Winogrand’s work was published and exhibited in fairly tight, topical categories during his life (The AnimalsWomen Are Beautiful, Public Relations), Rubinfien decided to group Winogrand’s work by time and, to an extent, place, irrespective of theme, for the retrospective:

“The best presentations I ever saw of Winogrand’s work during his life were the slideshows he gave at universities and museums. When he did it this way it produced a result that was totally unlike what you got from those books, and the result, closer to anything else, was like Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, where Whitman gives you these lists, and as the lists unfold, you get the whole of America. Here’s the businessman, and here’s the sailor, and here’s the sexy model, and here’s the lost child, and here’s the ape in the zoo, and here’s the fireman, and you’d feel like the whole country was unfolding in front of you in this American epic.”


Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). El Morocco, New York, 1955. Gelatin silver print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, 1992 (1992.5107). © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The show is broken down into three sections. The first, “Down from the Bronx (1950–71)” covers the early and middle phases of Winogrand’s career, specifically the photographs taken in New York, and refers to Winogrand’s short but symbolic voyage from his hometown of the Bronx to photograph in Manhattan, his main working location. The first picture on the left as one enters this first section depicts a young sailor, bag in hand, walking completely alone yet purposefully down a long stretch of road, the hazy night punctuated by bright streetlights; the photograph has an ominous, dramatic quality to it that Winogrand would become famous for. It’s hard not to imagine, in context of the show, that the sailor is meant to symbolize Winogrand beginning his own voyage, traveling alone into Manhattan to shoot, armed with only his camera bag. However, this photograph stands as an exception to the bustling New York City scenes that compose this first section—airports, zoos, Coney Island, and gatherings of all kinds. What’s immediately clear is that Winogrand was not simply interested in photographing people, but really people in places where things were happening.


Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1957. Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

This idea is reinforced as you move into the second section, “A Student of America (1950–1971),” covering Winogrand’s work during the same time period in other American cities, mainly in California and the Southwest. The title comes from a quote directly from Winogrand, who provided many notable lines over the course of his life: “You could say I’m a student of photography, and I am, but really I’m a student of America.” Indeed, Winogrand’s subjects reflect a range of characters and scenes that are strikingly American—a man welcoming a younger woman home with a homemade sign in an airport; a toddler emerging from a darkened garage, tricycle strewn about the driveway; an older man sitting on a lawn chair under a sun umbrella looking directly into the camera as sprinklers go off behind him. But the work has an undeniably sociopolitical tilt to it as well. In one photograph, three stylish women walk down the street in Los Angeles, lit so miraculously that they appear in something of a late afternoon spotlight. It might take the casual viewer a few moments to notice that there is a beggar slumping forward in a wheelchair to the ladies’ right, and a small child who strains his neck to look across at him on a bench opposite. They’re all in the picture, it’s just a matter of where you look, and certainly what you look at first. According to the picture’s accompanying placard, when asked about the photograph’s meaning, Winogrand responded, “It’s the light. Look at the light!” This sort of response was vintage Winogrand. While photographers a half generation older—Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, et al.—used photography as a means of demonstrating the redemptive qualities of humanity post-World War II, Winogrand photographed for the sake of photographing—neither he, nor his pictures, needed any larger justification for themselves. In another quote, displayed on the wall of the exhibition, Winogrand claimed, “I photograph to find out what things will look like photographed.”


Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). Los Angeles, California, 1969. Gelatin silver print. Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

But, given pictures like the one of the ladies and the beggar in Los Angeles, this explanation simply doesn’t seem good enough, especially when trying to make sense of Winogrand’s oeuvre. It wasn’t satisfying for Rubinfien either:

“It seemed to me one had no business doing this project if one did not as part of it seek to address the issue of meaning, maybe you’d address it badly, maybe you’d address it well, but you could no longer use the kind of evasive expressions Winogrand and [Lee] Friedlander and [Diane] Arbus used. The justifications don’t work in the present day.”

When I met with Rubinfien, a close friend of Winogrand’s, in his office on the top floor of his triplex, amidst the buildings of the New York City skyline, he spoke about Winogrand with the same mix of reverence, affection, and wistfulness that many of the photographers who knew and were deeply influenced by Winogrand display. At one point, he warmly recounted a story in which he sat in on one of Winogrand’s classes when he was teaching in Texas in 1974. Analyzing a Kertesz photograph, Winogrand declared, “This is a picture of a man looking at his own death.” Clearly, that sort of meaning is not literally in the picture—it must be read into the picture. To Rubinfien, this moment proved that, despite his non-committal, riddle-like answers to questions about the raison d’être of photography, Winogrand understood the profound meaning that could be communicated in a photograph:


“There is a point at which the literal world we see becomes transformed into a symbolic world. They are not objects in the world, but things with meanings beyond themselves. You’ve gone from describing the physical to the metaphysical. And that’s what the meaning in it is. Things in photographs are pregnant with meaning. It’s not enough to say, ‘He [Winogrand] showed what the world looked like in 1967 or 1968.’ His work is much greater than that because of all its resonances.”

Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). Fort Worth, 1974. Gelatin silver print. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Doris and Donald Fisher, and Marion E. Greene. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

The third and final section of the exhibition, “Boom and Bust (1971–1984),” covers the period of Winogrand’s career when he left New York for teaching positions in Chicago and Austin. This, according to Rubinfien, is when Winogrand’s work drastically changed. The ecstasy of human interaction in his earlier photographs gives way to a bleakness—in terms of both tone and light—that implies a disillusionment. Of course, this sentiment mirrors the general cultural malaise the nation fell into after the social and political turmoil of the 1960s, which generated much of the energy evident in Winogrand’s earlier work. But a deeper look at the photographer’s life and career yields a more complex explanation of this period.


Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Randi and Bob Fisher. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Winogrand died suddenly in 1984, leaving behind a host of unseen film—contact sheets he made but didn’t edit thoroughly, film he processed but never made into contact sheets, and film he never processed at all, most of it produced in the later stages of his career. And since he had devoted his time to photographing rather than processing and developing, there was an enormous number of these pictures. More than half of his life’s work, in fact. The first Winogrand retrospective, organized by legendary MoMA curator John Szarkowski, had written off most of this undiscovered work as inferior, but Rubinfien wanted to reinvestigate the late work, searching for meaning. To do so, he reviewed some 22,000 contact sheets and commissioned the printing of selected photographs, which notably appear for the first time in the show. Although Rubinfien contends that strong photographs are fewer and farther between during this period, he believes the work is no less significant, and provides some sort of closure to the career of an artist whose life ended before he had a chance to bring his work to a conclusion. Up until “Boom and Bust,” the narrative of the exhibition is, like its subject matter, distinctly and familiarly American—a young, brash man from humble beginnings goes it alone in the big city and makes a name for himself, then travels west to uncharted territory, encountering vibrant fragments of society at every stop. But in the last section one gets the sense that Winogrand has learned something troubling as a self-proclaimed student of America that he could not contain. The scenes no longer burst with a joyful kineticism; now, they either appear on the brink of peril or seem to linger in a haze—a man in a suit and cowboy hat snarling as he charges forward at a cattle auction; a horse rearing up onto its hind legs as its handler ducks for cover at a rodeo; a long shot of Los Angeles depicting two smokestacks rising over the ocean. The chaos and the foreboding quality of his photographs are still there, but the organic beauty and the vitality is not.

The last photograph of the exhibition, posthumously contacted, is a medium-distance shot of a mixed group of people seemingly waiting at bus stop, taken out the windshield of a car. The photograph is noticeably detached: distinguishable features are hard to make out, to the point that some appear to blend into the hill behind them, and people are not moving or shouting or laughing, they’re simply waiting. The viewer might even strain to look for a clue to reveal some greater activity, but there isn’t one. Compared with Winogrand’s earlier work, where it is difficult to imagine how he even got so close to the people he photographed, here it almost seems like he’s spying. Once one moves through the entire exhibition, Winogrand’s obvious distancing of himself, literally and metaphorically, from the society he was once so fascinated by, is heartwrenching. But this sort of disenchantment is just as fundamentally American as the rest of Winogrand’s work. And if he ever admitted to having a message, that might have been it.

Giancarlo T. Roma is a Brooklyn-based writer and musician. Follow him on Twitter.