JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition containing a total of 174 black and white photographs, alternately framed in black/white and matted, and hung against grey walls (in several shades, with red and yellow accents) in a series of 5 connected rooms and the adjacent exterior hallways on the second floor of the museum. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1950 and 1983. The exhibit includes both vintage prints and posthumous prints (the latter sized 11×14 for easier identification). The show also includes 5 glass cases, containing contact sheets, family photographs, letters, magazines, Guggenheim applications/recommendations, and other ephemera, as well as 3 videos (interviews with Winogrand).
The show is divided into three broad sections (10 prints are shown on the outside walls and are not included in any section):
- Down From the Bronx: 72 prints
- A Student of America: 56 prints
- Boom and Bust: 36 prints
The exhibition was jointly organized by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and National Gallery of Art, and curated by Leo Rubinfien, Erin O’Toole (SFMOMA) and Sarah Greenough (NGA). A catalog of the exhibition was published in 2013 by SFMOMA (here) and Yale University Press (here) and is available from the Met bookshop for $85 (here). (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Garry Winogrand’s last retrospective exhibit came in 1988 at the Museum of Modern Art, just four short years after his death in 1984. Curated by John Szarkowski, it was a crisply organized, subject matter driven show – it divided Winogrand’s prolific photographic output into familiar categories, and built up his career as a step-by-step progression of these successful bodies of work. Aside from Szarkowski’s unequivocal dismissal of the photographer’s late work, the back cover of the catalog makes clear where the curator stood on Winogrand. It is blank, save for a short quote, calling Winogrand “the central photographer of his generation.”
Some twenty five years later, we’ve reached a point where we are long overdue for a thoughtful reevaluation of Winogrand; his downstream influence on countless photographers (those labeled “street photographers” and not) has been massive, so we owe it to ourselves to critically reexamine his art and rethink his evolving place in the pantheon. Part of the delay in reconsidering his legacy has been a result of his now legendary undeveloped/unproofed rolls of film (some 6600 or more in boxes at his death) and his prodigious end of life output. This expansive elephant in the room has made it nearly impossible to move forward – should we include this work or not? And if so, how should we sort, edit, or understand it, given that he hadn’t bothered to? Do we really believe posthumous prints are a valid method for considering the images? The answers here aren’t easy, and reasonable people will (and do) disagree on the right path forward.
Curators Leo Rubinfien, Erin O’Toole (of SFMOMA) and Sarah Greenough (of the NGA) waded into this morass and agreed to do the necessary pick work to attempt to unravel the tangled mess. Film was developed (from both Winogrand’s early years and his later ones), contact sheets were made and unboxed, and thousands of images and proof sheets were reviewed, leveraging Winogrand’s own cryptic markings on some that were unearthed and applying fresh eyes to others. The resulting selections (as new, slightly larger prints, so as to be easily distinguished from the vintage ones) were then fed back into the already established artistic narrative around Winogrand, filling in gaps and extending the story, particularly in the last decade of his life.
What is quietly astonishing about their results and conclusions is how truly transformative they are in terms of the thinking about Winogrand’s art. Of course, this retrospective is wrapped in the same trappings of institutional acceptance as Szarkowski’s 1988 show was – the top tier traveling venues, the thick exhibition catalog, the often brilliant scholarly essays (particularly by Rubinfien in this case), and many of the same now iconic images. But the approach to interpreting the photographs is so radically different that putting the two exhibition catalogues side by side is a fascinating exercise in exploring just how much dominant curatorial perspectives can evolve in just a few decades. Perhaps it is old wine in a new bottle, but the pressure points of the new analysis turn Szarkowski’s approach nearly on its head.
The root of the scholarly realignment comes in returning to Winogrand’s personality and making central his motivations for making photographs. The lightning strike discovery (or rediscovery, as everyone actually knew it already but hadn’t entirely internalized it), and the underlying foundation for the structure of this retrospective, was that Winogrand was truly a pure shooter. Making photographs out in the street was his primary way of living – he knew no other. Listen to his interviews and his famous quotes – he didn’t care about the editing process, or printing his own pictures, or designing the books, or any of the rest of it all; he was happy to delegate that to someone (nearly anyone) else. He just needed the constant jolt (and challenge) that comes from seeing photographically (particularly in the pressure filled circumstances of the street), and so increasingly as the years passed, that’s just what he did. In a certain way, the crux of the argument here is that all across his life, Winogrand was unwavering in his core need to make pictures; his moods changed, the country changed, his subjects changed, and his photographs changed as a result, but his raw sui generis energy never ebbed. Many might argue that this approach was an abdication of his responsibilities as an artist (and as a result, his pictures are somehow invalidated), but Winogrand didn’t see it that way.
So unlike the Szarkowski retrospective, this Met show (a misnomer I realize, given that the exhibit was organized by SFMOMA and the National Gallery) is not primarily “about” rare prints, or organized projects, or bodies of work, or books, or even individual masterpiece photographs – in short, it is very little about the structure of Winogrand’s photographic efforts or the patterns found in those pictures, because that’s not what he was most interested in. It does very little (almost nothing) to feature famous images or to single out works of particular significance (instead giving all the images the same footing), nor does it overtly educate us about technical or aesthetic issues of tilted camera angles, complex multi-layered compositions, or “snapshot” aesthetics. It doesn’t organize itself around these typical milestones and high points.
What this show is instead “about” is the clash of environment (broadly defined) and vision, and the combination of influences that came together and surrounded Winogrand between roughly 1950 and 1980. From its organization and layout to its picture choices, the show is saying that if we layer the chronological timelines of Winogrand’s personal life (the three marriages, the Guggenheims, the travels), the evolving history of American photography (the demise of the picture magazines, Robert Frank’s The Americans, the artistic paths of Arbus and Friedlander, etc.), and the volatile history of American society across those three decades, we get an interrelated environment that the manic shooting, visual genius of Garry Winogrand was dropped into; the implied conclusion is that the photographs that came out the other side (and their subject matter, style, and tone) were all a direct reflection of and response to these competing forces. It’s an artist meets world and (predictably) sparks fly story, and the show is generally organized as a continuous flow of Winogrand’s shooting, rather than as a series of discrete sections.
The sweeping arc of this retrospective begins in the early 1950s in New York, where Winogrand made pictures that captured some of the post-World War II optimism and newfound prosperity that was pulsing through the streets. Cigar chomping men in suits, women in bouffant hairdos and white gloves, big cars, laughing in diners, horseplay at the beach, celebrations in Times Square, campaign rallies, his photographs have a loose, dynamic positivism, even when they touch on inequalities and societal frictions. Even in these early images, Winogrand’s signature style starts to emerge – layered compositions with multiple people/focal points, combinations of gestures and glances, contrasts and contradictions brought together in a wide single frame.
The 1960s were a confluence of many rivers for Winogrand, and that swirling chaos led to some of his best photographs. Between the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassination of JFK, the civil rights movement, and later the war in Vietnam, the tamped down primness of the 1950s was slowly undermined by significant social upheaval, widespread skepticism, uneasy tension, and burgeoning anxiety. In his personal life, things were undeniably rocky and changeable – his marriage to his first wife Adrienne was falling apart, ultimately ending in divorce in 1966, and his second marriage (to Judy Teller) in 1967 ended by 1970. And professionally, he had his first solo gallery show and published his first book, was both rejected and ultimately accepted for Guggenheim fellowships, and started to travel more widely across the country, extending his lens beyond the confines of New York, exploring the flourishing national growth from Houston to Los Angeles.
While the Szarkowski retrospective divided this tumultuous period into neat packages of like subject matter, this show opts for relaxed clusters and dividing walls that purposefully mix up the flow and chronology; there is no one right way to see the pictures in order, and the second room consciously overlaps the later New York work with that from around the country, interleaving animals, women, Central Park, and other well known pictures with airports, car culture, and suburban ennui from Winogrand’s trips West. While this approach is hard to get your arms around, in a certain way that’s the point; it ultimately has the effect of collapsing the imagery all into one unified if ungainly portrait of America, with Winogrand’s deteriorating attitude bringing unstable moments of alienation, divisiveness, despondency, and harshness increasingly to the forefront. By the end of the decade, the sense of splintering was palpable, with burning garbage cans, beggars, wounded vets, and angry protests coming together with desolate highways, weary faces, and lost opportunities. The pictures that were gathered into Public Relations are the apex (or nadir depending on your point of view) of this thinking, the spectacle of politics, art openings, and staged press conferences seen with surreal irony and ridiculousness.
By the early 1970s, Winogrand was out of New York, into his third marriage/family, moving to and from teaching positions around the country, and finding his way in the exhausted, disillusioned, scandal ridden Nixon and post-Nixon years. Subjects that had once provided enthusiasm or elusive beauty (parades, parties, carnivals, even crowded streets) no longer held anything for Winogrand but withering broken ugliness, despair replacing hope in the collective American psyche. The graceful buoyancy of his earlier pictures, with all of their complicated rhythms and interlocked layers, seems to have fallen apart, his eye still searching for overlooked and unseen visual truths, but honing in on the darker traumatized underbelly of what was left in the rubble of American culture. By the 1980s, his voracious shooting was almost entirely grim, paring back his shifting compositional motion to bring single individuals into central focus, most of whom seemed to be carrying the weight of the world on unsteady shoulders.
Much of what is on view in the last Boom or Bust section of the show was never seen or approved by Winogrand, so the curators are absolutely out in the hinterlands in terms of carving a narrative out of this massive cache of late work. Seen as a stand alone, separate project and as represented by the choices here (or those in the earlier Szarkowski retrospective), I’m not convinced that the work of the last years of Winogrand’s life is anywhere near his best. Even if these selections are indeed the cream skimmed off the much larger bowl of milk, much of the imagery has lost the inventive playful spark that made his mid-career work so vital and engaging; these pictures are more obvious and less ambiguous, with less room for open ended interpretation. That they are nearly universally joyless isn’t their failure, it’s that they are dully insistent rather than curious and effervescent. But then again, maybe that was the spirit of the times, at least from his vantage point.
The curators have cleverly considered this reality, and by reconfiguring the rest of Winogrand’s career into the larger chronological flow I’ve already outlined, the late photographs can be included for the sake of completeness but don’t have to stand the scrutiny of being a separate sanctified body of work. We instead see them as the end point of the continuum, the final low point in a long, winding American path from the optimistic promise of the 1950s to the moral bankruptcy of the 1970s. That Winogrand never even looked at the pictures is somehow fitting; he was probably discouraged by them when he took them, but just kept on shooting, because that’s who we has and that’s what was in front of his camera. It’s a deft form of curatorial jujitsu – by recalibrating how we see the arc of Winogrand’s life in photography, the controversial late work becomes a logical (and defensible) coda rather than a flashpoint.
So the question that remains is do we, as an informed viewing public, agree with this recharacterization of Garry Winogrand as an inveterate, insatiable, obsessive shooter, who because of the way his life played out, became an unflinching, and arguably unique, mirror for the changes in American society over the span of several decades? As academic theories go, it’s a far cry from the straightforward, directed path of the usual artist who took some pictures, made a book, took some more, made another, and built a successful career brick by brick, actively imposing a creative worldview on his/her surroundings. This “shooter” hypothesis implies a level of reactivity that I’m not entirely comfortable with. If we’re going to grant Winogrand rare champion status in the history of photography, it can’t be because he had the motor drive running all the time and captured the essence of America as a byproduct of sheer relentless momentum. We rightly celebrate him for his strengths in the streets, for his uncanny ability to consistently pull perceptive, complex elegance out of sidewalk anarchy. Hanging his achievements on his compulsiveness rather than his eye seems misplaced.
But I’ll admit that I am also seduced by the idea of finally letting the artist have it the way he wanted it. If we take him at his many words (a dangerous game I realize), I’d like to think this accommodating retrospective would have pleased him, as it strips away all the unnecessary framework others have saddled him with over the years and generally lets the photographs speak for themselves as a complete, stream of consciousness whole, rather than as a series of defined peaks. Yes, it feels unwieldy and a bit unmanaged as exhibits go, but that accurately reflects that environment in which he found himself; whether or not we agree with the approach the curators have taken, it’s hard not to palpably feel both Winogrand’s joy and his distress as the years and pictures click by. What the approach sacrifices at the detail level (in exploring explicitly how he allowed complex scenes to both scatter and coalesce for example), it gains in triumphant broad strokes, tying together disparate single incidents and moments (some now iconic, some less well known) into a deluge of shared American history. It’s Winogrand revised and expanded, and allowed to run more freely than ever before.
With the interpretative addition of Winogrand’s unpublished material here in this new retrospective and the revisions in the larger Winogrand narrative they have provoked, we have almost a perfect case study in historical revisionism, especially when considered against the alternate, more traditional trajectory of the 1988 MoMA show. While I realize there are many who vehemently feel the late material should not be considered at all, having seen the meticulous curatorial efforts of Rubinfien, O’Toole, and Greenough with my own eyes, I think they have cut the Gordian knot that was plaguing our complete understanding of Winogrand and have positively moved the discussion forward. While this exhibit may not be perfect, and there is likely more to learn with further study, I believe this retrospective more accurately reflects what Garry Winogrand ought to represent in photographic history than what we saw in the previous summary 25 years ago. We’re starting to allow ourselves to see and digest everything he did, however flawed and imperfect, and that analysis is reinforcing the conclusion that the broad continuum of Winogrand’s photographs tell the volatile, personal story of America like no others.
Collector’s POV: As this is a museum show, there of course no posted prices. Winogrand’s prints and portfolios are routinely available in the secondary markets, with single image prices ranging from roughly $1000 to nearly $60000 and multi-image groups/portfolios often ranging into six figures.