Nobody I talk to under the age of 40 knows the work of Neil Winokur. This seems odd in light of the 68-year-old photographer’s achievements: His work has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to name a few. MoMA included him in its important 1991 exhibition Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort. In 1994 the Smithsonian published a monograph of his pictures, titled Everyday Things. By objective standards, he is an important artist. So why does a Google image search of his name retrieve only a narrow selection of the hundreds of photographs Neil has exhibited over the course of his career?
I will admit that, until a photography-critic friend mentioned Neil to me a couple of months ago, I had not heard of him either. Why was his work not covered in my college photo-history classes? Most artists with his credentials go on to found cult-like educational institutes or build extravagant palazzos. They do attention-getting things like performing with Lady Gaga or Jay-Z.
When I went to visit Neil at the quiet Manhattan apartment where he lives with his wife, their twins, and their two cats, the reasons I hadn’t seen him in recent headlines became clear to me. He’s not that kind of artist. This is a grounded man who is incredibly dedicated to his family. He has worked as a used-book buyer at New York’s Strand bookstore for the past four decades, and so of course his house is filled with books.
Neil’s work proposes that it is possible to depict a culture through its most ordinary objects. A native New Yorker, he applied this logic to his hometown for the 1999 series New York. He lured the viewer into these starkly graphic tableaux with a color wheel of luminously atmospheric backgrounds, giving each object a great deal of importance. “Andy Warhol said that everybody has 15 minutes of fame,” Neil told me. “I do still lifes because I think these objects should get theirs.” These objects are products of our society, so they can be held up as mirrors to it. As Neil puts it, “I try to photograph objects that are archetypal, objects that have a meaning to society beyond themselves. An American flag, a glass of water. I did a toilet, and it sold out almost immediately.”
Images courtesy of Janet Borden, Inc.