Saturday, March 16, 2013

Garry Winogrand, Snapshot Artist

A huge retrospective of the late photographer Garry Winogrand has recently opened at SFMOMA, and it's an eye opener on all kinds of levels.

Erin O'Toole, the museum's associate curator of photography, confessed at a press preview that she started the collaborative curating project with trepidation, because she had not been a particular fan of his thematic photo books that were published during Winogrand's lifetime. By the end of the three-year project, which involved developing and combing through hundreds of thousands of previously unseen prints, she had transformed into a devoted admirer.

I entered the exhibit with a similar skeptical attitude, since a lot of black-and-white New York street photography such as the work of Lee Friedlander strikes me as wildly overpraised, but Winogrand's work is exuberant, strange and dark, with a gift for the odd captured moment such as the early 1960s Central Park zoo photo above.

Winogrand above was a good-looking ladies' man from the Bronx who went through three marriages and probably a few other women in his fairly short life, before dying in 1984 of gall bladder cancer in Tijuana at the age of 56. Through from a working-class Jewish background, he quickly connected with the New York art photography scene in the 1950s, and was featured in museum shows and given a series of Guggenheim and NEA grants to document the United States over the decades.

The SFMOMA exhibit, which is traveling on to the National Gallery of Art in D.C., is broken down loosely into three large sections, Down From The Bronx which are his New York City pictures of the 1950s and 1960s, A Student of America depicting the rest of the country during the same period, and From Boom to Bust depicting a predominantly dark view of Texas and California in the 1970s and early 1980s.

The photos, which were always full of messy life, started becoming more desolate and sadder somehow, reminding one of just how scuzzy a lot of America looked in the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the other three curators of the exhibit is the photographer Leo Rubinfein above, who was one of Winogrand's students and friends, and who gave a charming, artspeak-free introduction to Winogrand's work. "The best exhibits I ever saw of Garry's was when he would come into a classroom with a slide projector and 200 images jumbled together from all points in his career and he'd simply take us through his world. That's what we tried to do with this retrospective." Winogrand was less interested in publishing and refining his photos than simply shooting them, so he left behind hundreds of thousands of undeveloped shots. Rubinfein, O'Toole and Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery of Art where the show is traveling next, spent three years sifting through the unexplored work and have included a large selection of unseen photos in the exhibit.

If you happened to live through any of the times or places pictured here, it feels as if you might run into an image of yourself or friends at any corner. The photos have that kind of evocative, time machine quality, along with an unsettling vision of the United States. The show is running through the end of May, and is very much worth checking out.


Nancy Ewart said...

I like Winogard but I LOVE Gordon Parks. My problem is that I viewed the show at SFMOMA after viewing (3 times) the Gordon Parks show at Jenkins Johnson gallery. Parks maybe the photographer for my generation, those of us who were politically engaged. His work opened a door into memory; Winogrand, however brassy and ingaging, didn't touch my heart.

Kit Stolz said...

I'd like to hear about his method -- was he a photographer who just shot miles of film, or did he compose? Or does it matter?

Civic Center said...

Dear Kit: From my understanding, he shot miles of film. And whether it matters or not whether he "composed" is a good question to which I don't have the answer. He probably did a mixture of both.

DbV said...

This year for me has been about discovering American street photographers from the 1950s-70s like Vivian Maier, Barry Shapiro and Garry Winogrand.
I found the SFMoMA retrospective very rewarding. It speaks not only to Winogrand's eye but the role of an editor, given that he was mostly about shooting rather than composing and developing. A number of the best pieces were developed after his death. The text in this show discusses this at length. Vivian Maier also left oodles of undeveloped rolls at the time of her death. It's an interesting question posed by photography, just where the artistry lies between the taking and the making.

Matthew Hubbard said...

The couple with the chimps is stunning. If you lighten the man's skin tone, that's Don and Betty Draper.

Thanks for being That Guy who tells us where the art is once again, Mr. Strickland.