From the Bronx to Dealey Plaza, Garry Winogrand pounded the streets of America every day of his life photographing reluctant subjects – and he left behind 6,500 undeveloped films when he died. A powerful new retrospective makes sense of the torrent of imagery by the prolific American master
“When I’m photographing I see life. That’s what I deal with,” Garry Winogrand once said. Life, for him, was the energy of the street in all its unruly momentum. In the 1960s and 70s, he defined street photography as an attitude as well as a style – and it has laboured in his shadow ever since, so definitive are his photographs of New York.
Thirty years after his untimely death in 1984, aged 56, Winogrand’s legend endures: the instinctive genius of American photography whose disinterest in technique was matched by an obsessive devotion to shooting on the street all day, every day. Towards the end of his life, photographing became a kind of mania – he left behind 6,500 rolls of unprocessed film.
As this retrospective at Jeu de Paume in Paris shows, the challenge of containing the photographer’s frantic vision is a singular one, not least because, as curator Leo Rubinfien points out, he “often worked in a headlong way, preferring to spend another day shooting rather than processing his film or editing his pictures”. Perhaps because of his seeming disregard for his own archive, Winogrand has been, as Rubinfien puts it, “the most sparsely studied and least understood of his peers, who included Diane Arbus, Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander.”
Not only that, but Winogrand’s energy is so overpowering and his vision so democratic and wide-ranging that the curious visitor may find it hard to find a way into his work. This chronological show, which arrives from the Met in New York, is an instructive place to start insofar as it retraces and illuminates Winogrand’s headlong creative journey without taming his restless spirit.
It begins – where else? – on the streets of 1950s New York or, to be precise, the crowded sidewalks between midtown and Central Park, which give off the aura of a city still stuck in an earlier, tougher time. This section, titled Down From the Bronx, includes two very early, atypically spartan images of lone pedestrians wandering deserted snowy streets. Soon, though, we see the beginnings of a style – a stern woman shot up-close on a bustling street, a cigarette clutched between her lips. She may be unaware of Winogrand’s presence, but the two other passersby are not. They cast coldly suspicious eyes at his intrusive lens.
This single image signals much of what is to come. The intimacy, the awkward expression of the central subject and the accusatory stares of passersby are the results of a naturally bullish approach – a working-class Bronx attitude – and they recur throughout his life’s work. While his contemporary, Joel Meyerowitz, stalked the streets of New York trying to be invisible, Winogrand did not mind being noticed. Revealingly, though, many of his reluctant subjects only seem to register his presence at the very moment he presses the shutter. In one of his best-known images, a chubby girl stares at him curiously, while another, older girl catches him out of the corner of her eye as she is being snogged by her boyfriend. As is often the case with Winogrand’s photographs, you long to find out what happened next.
There’s a similar moment when a dapper Italian-looking gent strides towards Winogrand’s camera, hand upturned and an expression that says “What gives?” And in one famous shot from 1959, a monkey glares at his camera from the rear of an open-top car, while the couple in the front seats seem more concerned with the creature’s angry reaction than with the intruder who provoked it. You cannot help but feel the monkey was on to something – a stranger coming this close does not usually have one’s best intentions at heart. Winogrand, though, was not a cruel photographer in the way Arbus was or, more pertinently, Bruce Gilden can be. Arbus, in fact, nailed it when she described Winogrand as “an instinctive, nearly primitive ironist, so totally without malice, so unflinching, even cheerful ...”.
His subjects tend to stare back at his camera sadly or in a slightly bewildered fashion. Around them, the world tilts – the horizon line is seldom level – but there is always what might be called a Winograndian logic to his compositions, an instinctive grasp of the geometry of a good photograph. His interest was the rhythm of the streets and the people who created it. There is a melancholy visual poetry in all these anonymous passing souls with their sad, strained, beleaguered or beautiful faces as they go about their daily business. Again and again, Winogrand captured photographs within photographs, smaller narratives within the bigger picture. A row of animated people on a park bench could easily be broken down into three distinct images about intimacy, fatigue and human curiosity. As it is, though, it is pure Winogrand: a metaphor for city life with all its snatched moments of quiet relief amid the constant distraction.
The second section of the show, named after Winogrand’s description of himself as A Student of America, ranges from California to Texas. If anything, his eye becomes more bemused by the America he encounters in all its contradictions. He photographed the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 1960, lurking on the fringes of the main events to capture spectator reactions. In one mischievous image, the young John F Kennedy is just another face in a group of more animated faces gathered around him.
Four years later, Winogrand homes in on the hawkers peddling postcards of Kennedy’s assassination site on the streets of Dealey Plaza in Dallas. By then, his photographs had become (by his own restless standards) more reflective, even still. In another image taken in Dallas, a latter-day cowboy seems to float in the air above a pavement, sombre and out of time. On a New York street, a beautiful woman in a black coat and a white poloneck looks, at first glance, like a nun. Carrying a single white flower, she strides forward, looking either anguished or elated. The energy has shifted in these images and people seem more cut off from each other, more insular and self-absorbed.
The bleak tone continues into the final section, Boom and Bust, in which Winogrand photographed once more in Texas and Los Angeles where, as an unreconstructed son of the Bronx, he surely felt a stranger. It is harder to engage emotionally with these later pictures, but cumulatively, they denote a darker state of mind – Winogrand’s as well as America’s. Many were selected posthumously and they attest to his tangible sense of disenchantment with America and, perhaps, with photography. In one intriguing image, a woman lies prone outside a fast-food restaurant on an LA street as a Porsche rolls by and people dine inside, seemingly oblivious. It could be a still from a noir film or a real accident. There is an unsettling heartlessness here that is, in Winogrand’s eyes, profoundly American.
“I look at the pictures I have done up to now,” he once wrote, “and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves ...” That aimlessness he sensed in America is all too palpable in Winogrand’s later work, and it seems to have infected him, too, profoundly altering his way of seeing even as he continued to photograph the world around him with a new urgency. He died in March 1984, one month after being diagnosed with cancer. This consistently illuminating retrospective makes beautiful sense of an unruly life and the torrent of images it produced.
• Garry Winogrand is until 8 February 2015. Details: +33 (0)1 47 03 12 50. Venue: Jeu de Paume, Paris.
Friday 8 March 2013
The GarryWinogrand retrospective is on view at the Jeu de Paume, Paris (October 14, 2014 through January 25, 2015); and the Fundacion MAPFRE, Madrid (March 3 through May 10, 2015).
When Garry Winogrand died in 1984, the celebrated street photographer left behind close to 6,500 rolls of undeveloped film. Now his old friend and student Leo Rubinfien, along with Erin O'Toole, a curator at San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art, and Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art, have mined this trove to produce the first major Winogrand retrospective in almost three decades. The touring exhibit—which kicked off at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in March 2013—and accompanying catalog consist of more than 400 images derived largely from Winogrand's later days roaming the streets of Los Angeles with his Leicas. While he may be best known for his New York City scenes, these photos prove that Winogrand's wry eye could unpack the social complexities of Cold War America no matter where he prowled.
I went to check out the exhibit with San Francisco street photography legend Ted Pushinsky, who had casually mentioned he knew Winogrand toward the end of his life. (He shot the photo up above.) And as we took it all in, Pushinsky told me about their hangouts down in LA. It was a lot to take in. The massive exhibit borders on overwhelming, which is fitting given how prolific Winogrand was. It traces his career in something of a linear fashion, in three sections: Down From the Bronx (earlier work shot primarily while he was living in New York), A Student of America (his work from the mid-'60s through the '70s, from all over America), and finally Boom and Bust (mostly shot in Southern California, and much of which has never been viewed). Hanging on the walls, intermingled with his photos, are Winogrand's original contact sheets, pieces of this three Guggenheim Fellowship applications, letters to his daughters, and other personal artifacts. The phone book-size catalog gives photography fiends even more to chew on.
New York, 1950
Ted Pushinsky: I met Garry at the San Francisco Art Institute around 1980. He was giving a lecture, speaking about his work, giving a slideshow. Definitely speaking off the cuff. I went up to introduce myself. I wasn't necessarily an admirer of his work, but there was a photo in The Family of Man that meant a lot to me. I knew he took it. We had a mutual friend, so that was a basis for him saying, "Next time you're in LA, come visit." At the time I was writing screenplays, so I was back and forth in LA.
Democratic National Convention, Los Angeles, 1960
Los Angeles, 1964
Mother Jones: You mention that you weren't necessarily an admirer. So what prompted you to contact him in Los Angeles?
TP: Garry was a photographer of some stature whose work I got to know. Having the opportunity to spend some time with him, I was hoping some of what he knew would rub off on me. Going down to LA, I had the opportunity to walk the streets with him and see what drove him.
MJ: At this point in his life, in the early '80s, just a few years before he died, Garry was well known for having people drive him around LA while he shot out the passenger window. I imagine you drove him a bit?
TP: I did the driving, yeah. I was staying in Santa Monica. I'd meet Garry at the Farmer's Market, have some breakfast, get in my car and drive to Venice. We'd walk the streets of Venice, sometimes Hollywood. As Garry told me, "I don't go on the freeways, I hang out the window and shoot." I respected that. No big deal for me.
Los Angeles, 1964
John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, 1968
New York, circa 1969
MJ: So do you feel like anything rubbed off on you?
TP: Perhaps a work ethic. Not anything in the way of teaching a way of seeing. I feel like I developed that myself. But Garry worked hard. He got up and started shooting. I get up and maybe read the newspaper. He shot an awful lot. It made me think, maybe I'm missing out if I'm not shooting.
MJ: Was there anything in the exhibit you recognized from when you were shooting with him?
TP: No, but what was great was seeing that picture from The Family of Man. It's a couple in the surf at Coney Island. That was part of the basis of me wanting to meet Garry. Because my parents had met in Coney Island and there's this photo of a couple shot from behind. I used to fantasize that it was my parents and it was shot by this guy named Garry Winogrand. And it turned out Garry went to the same high school as my father. Seeing that photograph was really great, in the Back to the Bronx section of the show.
Fort Worth, Texas, 1974
Fort Worth, Texas, 1975
MJ: You mentioned feeling a bit overwhelmed by the exhibit. I shared that feeling. Do you think there was too much?
TP: No. It was a great exhibit, like the [Diane] Arbus and [Robert] Frank exhibits. It requires two or three trips to the museum—to spend two or three hours in two rooms and come back to spend some more time.
MJ: Is Winogrand's work worthy of a massive retrospective like this?
TP: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. He had a way of seeing unlike anybody else. The retrospective gives us the opportunity to see things that nobody had ever seen before. It was great.
Point Magu Naval Air Station, California, circa 1979
Los Angeles, circa 1980–83
MJ: And what about his later work? John Szarkowski, the former director of photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art who put together the last large Winogrand exhibit in the late '80s, was quite dismissive of it, and that's partially what led Leo Rubinfien to revisit it in this exhibit. Does the later work hold up to his earlier work that he's better known for?
TP: Absolutely. I was impressed by it. It was funny hearing Leo Rubinfien talking about Szarkowski not liking the work. I was surprised by that. I was was wondering what I would see. I though it was just as strong.
MJ: Do you think that's because, as Leo mentioned, with the later work it might take going through 25 or 50 contact sheets to get one image that held up to the older work?
TP: Not at all. It wasn't Garry that went through those 50 contact sheets. Garry might have found nothing worth printing at all. He might have found 30 worth putting up on the wall. It only had to do with Garry because he shot it. They did a great job though. Every picture was strong. There could have been more.
MJ: I've read criticism of people going back over his work, picking photos that he didn't see. And they noted that in the exhibit—they mentioned which images Garry had marked on the contact sheets and which ones he hadn't marked as selections to print.
TP: I saw that. I don't think there's a problem with that, unless he specified in his will as some artists do, "Throw away everything. Burn it all!" Then you hate the fact that maybe they burnt the Kafka manuscript that you didn't get a chance to read. We were privileged to get to have someone do that for us.
MJ: When you would hang out with Garry, would you just drive him, or were you shooting alongside him?
TP: Oh, no. We would drive to a destination, usually the boardwalk in Venice or the Santa Monica pier. We would walk along together. I have some photographs of him shooting. I would try not to shoot what he's shooting, but he's shooting everything, so it's hard not to.