Martin Williams, a jazz critic of stern and, some would say, dogmatic standards, could never be persuaded that the late recordings of Billie Holiday were worthy of her talent.
We were friends in the 1980s and over coffee or dinner I would argue the merits of the albums “Lady in Satin” or “Carnegie Hill Concert, 1956” and of individual songs—“Don’t Explain,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “I’m a Fool to Want You,” “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Fine and Mellow,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”—she recorded in the last four years of her life.
Listeners could hear by then that liver and heart disease had weakened the timbre and range of her voice, never expansive even in her youth. The pathos of those performances in the late ‘50s derived from her mustering what fragile gifts she had left—for off-the-beat phrasing, cool understatement, plaintive vulnerability, cynical wisdom—as she was reunited with bands that included old friends or lovers, such as Lester Young. If the words were at times slurred and the tempos slower, that only enhanced her heroism as a singer. Or so I argued.
Williams was unmoved by my advocacy. The art of jazz to his thinking was about vigor, elegant order, the secure execution of improvised musical thought, one artist building on another’s innovations. In her twenties and thirties Holiday performed a lot of material she sang in her final years, and he judged the earlier versions superior—no contest. The morbid romance of debilitation had no appeal for his classical temper.
The last ten years of Garry Winogrand’s life (1928-1984) marked a decline as precipitous as Holiday’s. He didn’t have her drug or legal problems, but his personal and professional lives were a shambles after he left New York for good in 1973, and his photography after that was never the same. The critical consensus since the 1988 retrospective is that in his final years in Los Angeles, due to a combination of factors, he had stopped functioning at the high level he had demonstrated in the 1960s and early ‘70s, as if he no longer cared to stay in shape.
This painful verdict was handed down by the show’s curator, MoMA’s John Szarkowski. He felt especially aggrieved (and responsible) because not only had he regularly supported Winogrand, hailing him as the “central photographer of his generation,” he had also committed the museum’s resources to examining the roughly 330,000 frames that Winogrand had exposed but left unedited (or undeveloped) at his death. Szarkowski helped to clean up a vast posthumous mess based on faith in his friend’s talent, and that belief had not been rewarded. Far too much of what he labeled “The Unfinished Work” was in his words “willful, pointless, self-indulgent.”
Here is the analogy he used in the catalog essay: “It seems to me that at the end Winogrand was a creative impulse out of control, and on some days a habit without an impulse, one who continued to work, after a fashion like an overheated engine that will not stop even after the key has been turned off.”
The principle motive behind the new 2013 retrospective, according to its guest curator, Leo Rubinfien, was the chance to reevaluate this enormous mass of images. Were they as sloppily composed as Szarkowski had proclaimed? Rubinfien was suspicious of this dismissive judgment when he began the project and by the end was ready to offer a far more positive verdict. Indeed, at the SFMoMA opening last year he declared that “the last work is as powerfully felt, as remorselessly expressed as all that <Winogrand> expressed in his prime.”
He seems to have found an opening in one of the few non-disparaging remarks about these pictures in Szarkowski’s 1988 essay. There he had granted that the scale of Winogrand’s “immoderation” was “in sum deeply interesting” and floated the possibility that in Los Angeles he might have been “trying to prepare a clean slate, the ground for a new beginning.”
Rubinfien, who has examined more of the post-1973 work than anyone alive, believes that Winogrand in his last years was indeed imagining a new trail for himself. Here is his formal summary of that new style: “Visually simpler than what he produced in the decade just passed, it generally presents fewer people, less movement, less gesture, and after 1978 or so, tends even to avoid events. The photographs from Los Angeles often stare intently at a single distressed, bereft, or inward-looking solitary and reject the choreographic as firmly as if he now thought it a fraud.”
Winogrand therefore in his last years was not lazy or careless but dissatisfied with his celebrated self: Been there, done that. Hoping to shoot in a way that reflected the landscapes he was inhabiting in Texas and southern California, flatter and less compacted than New York City’s, he was deliberately turning away from the contrapuntal style that he had practiced until then and for which he was justly famous. Instead of looking for busy, fractured scenes, he was doing triage on his old style and testing whether he could make a compelling picture with a minimal number of elements.
The arguments in the catalog for the quality of the last work are eloquent. Here is what Rubinfien sees in those photographs: “Large parts of Houston, Dallas, and Los Angeles are empty parking lot, unused speculator’s land, trash strewn highway frontage, or weedy, sunbaked sidewalk, and in his late work Winogrand began to explore how the bleakness of such locations could be expressive. He found new effects in the way the raw and boundless light of the West can swell to fill a vacant space with what seems to be human feeling. He also became acutely sensitive to the distance between himself and a remote subject, his pictures speaking not just for the fact that the person in a photograph was far away but of the photographer’s own isolation and longing.”
But one problem with Rubinfien’s generous reading of the late work—as directed and purposeful, not aimless and dissolute—is that Winogrand didn’t examine the results. Had he actually been excitedly road-testing a new style, wouldn’t he want to know where he was going, i.e. if he was charting an undiscovered country for photography and himself or headed into a brick wall? Every artist should be self-critical and aware of leaning too much on familiar motifs. But you can’t move forward or clear ground by remaining willfully ignorant about where you are and what you’re doing.
Another problem in elevating the late work to the status of the earlier, “finished” bodies of pictures is that Winogrand’s success rate had fallen, steadily as he aged and then drastically by the end. Rubinfien admitted as much in his opening lecture at SFMOMA . “In 1962 a single roll of film might have two or three strong pictures,” he said. “In 1982 fifty rolls of film might not yield a single one.”
The math is stupefying: 1,800 frames, none of them with any pictorial zest. (My admiration for Rubinfien’s diligence in organizing this show is exceeded only by my sympathy.)
If Winogrand were indeed searching for a new style that would reflect his Western environment and not just erratically pointing and clicking, he sure took his time. It is as though in these years he were perversely out to prove the worst that his stupidest critics thought of him, that any dope with a camera could shoot as much as he did, and make pictures just as good.
To back up his belief that Winogrand’s late work was not a betrayal but a continuation of his mature approach, Rubinfien found it necessary to break with Szarkowki’s more compartmentalized presentation. The 1988 retrospective and catalog was separated into nine chapters, by period (“Eisenhower Years,” “The Sixties, Etc.”), by place (“The Street,” “The Zoo,” “On the Road,” “The Ft. Worth Stock Show and Rodeo,” “Airport”) and by subject (“Women”) The last chapter was labeled “Unfinished Work.” From the hundreds of thousands of unedited negatives sifted through by Winogrand’s friends Tod Papageorge and Thomas Roma, Szarkowski chose only 25 images that met his standards for the catalog.
Rubinfien sees Winogrand’s achievement chronologically, grouping the pictures into three rough time periods and themes: “Down from the Bronx” (1950-1960); “A Student of America” (1960-1972) and “Boom and Bust” (1973-1983). By smoothing out Szarkowski’s choppiness—and reducing the nine, somewhat arbitrary divisions to three—he is better able to present Winogrand in the raw, as an artist with an insatiable hunger to devour the crazy reality of America, feeding his restless mind’s eye through his wide-angle lens.
Instead of a career in sharp decline, he prefers to see one of “unrelenting intensity,” the unedited sprawl of the final work being the culmination of his mature approach, not its reductio ad absurdam. Rubinfien has loaded 104 images into “Boom and Bust,” which incorporates the more finished Ft. Worth and Dallas projects along with the wanderings in southern California.
If only Winogrand’s pictures in the last 10 years of his life were as graceful as Rubinfien’s words, I might be persuaded by this thesis.
Indeed, I was, when I first saw the last third of the exhibition in his New York apartment in the summer of 2012. The edit that Rubinfien showed me on his laptop computer was grim and entropic. The progression of lonely, battered people staggering through those frames is like watching a death march, time running down for the country and for Winogrand.
The next time I reviewed this last third, however, installed at SFMOMA last year, I was no longer convinced. My reaction then, having just walked through the first two thirds of the show, was that the pictures were repetitive and slack compared to the sardonic exuberance of his early work in New York. I was seeing the same motifs I had seen earlier–the man in the crowd, the women with hair framing their young faces (in frizzy masses or windblown wisps), old guys stooped or fallen, life on the margins–but not photographed as well. He seemed to be spinning his wheels. Szarkowski’s harsh opinion seemed to me the right one.
Rubinfien has shaped the last third of the show into what might be called a U.S. presidential arc, from the resignation of Nixon to the election of Reagan. One of the first pictures in this last section is of a couple descending a staircase at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C.; and one of the last pictures is of a Porsche on a Los Angeles boulevard, the driver seemingly oblivious to a woman prone by the side of the road.
Szarkowski’s essay had noted an abundance of expensive sports cars in pictures from the Los Angeles years, but he chose none for the 1988 catalog. To Rubinfien the large number of them suggests Winogrand was trying to say something about the times. There is no caption that reads “by the 1980s vulgar, rich Americans had learned to ignore the desperation of the poor,” but that meaning may be inferred.
The catalog essay is careful not to ascribe political motives to Winogrand, a hedonistic anarchist who probably didn’t care from year to year who was in the White House. (He didn’t vote and often didn’t pay his taxes.)
But throughout the text Rubinfien links Winogrand’s career to contemporary events, sometimes awkwardly so. “In 1969, Winogrand could still look upon the Met’s jubilee with equal misgiving and gaiety, but by 1971 the Melvillean in him was overtaking the Whitmanian. New York was close to bankrupt now; its sleek, idealistic mayor would soon leave his post in tears, as Richard Nixon would leave his in shame. The grotesque slouched into Winogrand’s work wholesale (plates 256, 294), and what was worse, the unsightliness of many of the people there seemed willful. Earlier on, it had been unconscious (plate 10), but now it spoke of one more mutiny the sixties had unleashed (plates 307, 317).”
Winogrand’s penchant for the grotesque, like Fellini’s, was longstanding and is as evident by the early 1960s as at any time later. With a character as elusive and single-minded as he, plotting periods of his work against a timeline of American history can be a mug’s game. The photographs of the 1960 presidential campaign, of post-JFK assassination Dallas, of anti-war demonstrations indicate that Winogrand was as contemptuous of Kennedy and LBJ as he was of Nixon and Reagan. All politicians were idiots and liars.
Rubinfien’s attempt to frame the post-1971 work as a reflection of a “malaise in the country” doesn’t square with political reality of those years either. They may have been miserable for Winogrand, but for women or for gay men and women the ‘70s were more liberating than the ‘60s. (Rick Perlstein’s fascinating new book, The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, covers the same years as the last third of Rubinfien’s show and suggests that generalizations about the period are not easily drawn.)
My own sense is that Winogrand in the late ‘70s felt trapped by the 35 mm., black-and-white, wide-angle lens format in which he had been shooting for more than 25 years. His colleagues Lee Friedlander and Thomas Roma had not confined themselves to one kind of camera. The revival of large-format and medium-format photography in the U.S. and Europe by a younger generation distinguishes the art world of the 1970s from the 1960s. As Szarkowski noted in his essay, Winogrand had gone so far as to buy an 8×10.
Color by then, with the William Eggleston exhibition at MoMA in 1976, had become legitimate. In her essay for the catalog, Sandra Phillips discusses Winogrand’s flirtations with this radical alternative to processing the world. He was clearly intrigued by the technology. A selection of his color slides was included in the 1967 New Documents exhibition at MoMA until the projector broke. Mitch Epstein, a student of Winogrand’s at Cooper Union in 1972-73, remembers Eggleston’s pictures being projected and the class eventually evolving into one almost entirely about seeing in color.
But tantalized though he was by these possibilities, Winogrand couldn’t commit to any of them. As is often the case with men used to having their own way, to doing whatever they like whenever they like, he had deeply ingrained personal habits. With so much else in constant turmoil, from his finances to his responsibilities as parent and husband, the fact that he knew when he woke up exactly what he would doing every day must have provided a measure of solace. Learning to make color prints or operate an 8×10 camera was not something he could have handled at that late middle-aged stage of life.
“The hope and buoyancy of middle-class life in postwar America is half of the emotional heart of Winogrand’s work,” Rubinfien has written. “The other half is a sense of undoing. The tension between these qualities gives his work its distinct character.”
I couldn’t help thinking that Rubinfien, in his ardent defense of the last work, was contending with Szarkowski as I once contended with Williams about Billie Holiday. The sentimental wish is that the final thoughts of a musician, writer, or artist distill everything they’ve learned before, that the imminent deadline gives art an ethereal resolution or a strange urgency.
But less common than Beethoven and Keats and Van Gogh, are cases like Hemingway, whose last novels read like parodies of his masterpieces, or Holiday, doing the best with diminished powers, or Winogrand.
I can’t share Rubinfien’s view that the late work “is as powerfully felt, as remorselessly expressed as all that <Winogrand> expressed in his prime.” Nor do I think that the photographs in this show indicate he was ever especially hopeful about America, that he grew disillusioned in the ‘70s, or that he ever thought (even subconsciously) in terms like “middle class” when looking through his viewfinder.
For me the emotional chord he strikes is less about the specifics of the time in which he lived and more about one photographer’s huge appetite for life, in all its laughable imperfections and cruel disappointments.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have anything but the highest respect for Rubinfien’s valiant—and in some ways—persuasive revision of a great artist’s life. His catalog essay and others here that he supervised will be the bedrock for scholarship from now on. His proposal that Winogrand was at heart “a student of America,” whose career was an almost undifferentiated whirlwind of activity, without a true beginning or end, and no center—one photographer, one nation, indivisible—is as compelling as Szarkowski’s paternal discriminations.
Who isn’t grateful to have the chance to see again a cache of pictures previously condemned as a failure? Let’s hope it won’t take another twenty-five years to see them again.