Monday, March 11, 2013

Gary Winogrand at SFMOMA

 When Gary Winogrand died at age 56 of gall bladder cancer, he was considered one of the greatest documentary photographers of his era. A native New Yorker, he walked the length and breadth of America's streets, taking what seemed to be casual snapshots of people going about their daily business.

Garry Winogrand (14 January 1928, New York City – 19 March 1984, Tijuana, Mexico) was a street photographer known for his portrayal of America in the mid-20th century. John Szarkowski called him the central photographer of his generation.

But the bulk of his work was unknown. That is not to say he was unknown or unappreciated. By the time of his death in 1984, he had a Guggenheim fellowship, was featured in Edward Steichen's classic "Family of Man" exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and later figured prominently in two major photography shows, also at MoMA, curated by Steichen's successor John Szarkowski, one of Winogrand's early champions.

New York. 1962
In 1964, with the support of the first of three Guggenheim fellowships, he traveled for four months to fourteen states and recorded an America in transition. By photographing people indirectly through car windshields, he caught an American in uneasy transition between eras.

At the time, Winogrand tapped into the tumultuous zeitgeist of the 1960's, an era soon to come to a roiling boil. He applied for his grant in the early 60s, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, when nuclear war suddenly had become a terrifying possibility.

In his grant application Winogrand complained that the mass media "all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn't matter, we have not loved life.  I look at the pictures I have done up to now," he wrote in 1963, "and they make me feel that who we are and what we feel and what is to become of us just doesn't matter. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and further."

Coney Island, 1952
But the bulk of his output, his enormous output, was unknown. At his death, Winogrand left behind 2500 undeveloped rolls of 36-exposure 35mm film (mostly Tri-X), 6,500 rolls of film that had been developed but not contact-printed–not to mention 300 apparently untouched, unedited 35mm contact sheets.

Guest curator Leo Rubinfien, an old friend and student, 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 treasure trove to produce the first major Winogrand retrospective in almost three decades. The show took the three curators three years to put together, because those 6,500 undeveloped rolls were bolstered by 4,100 rolls that Winogrand had processed but not transferred to contact sheets, for a total of nearly 400,000 unknown images.

LA, Venice Beach. 1980-84
The touring exhibit which opened at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art this week, 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 had an astute eye for images that illuminated America's increasingly troubled society.

Winogrand gives us no answers. But he wasn't looking for answers. "The fact that photographs — they’re mute, they don’t have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether the hat’s being held or is it being put on her head or taken off her head. From the photograph, you don’t know that. A piece of time and space is well described. But not what is happening." (interview with Bill Moyers, WNET, 1982)

One thing is clear - the era of "Mad Men" was much more perplexing and unhappy than the world deified on TV by Don Draper and his chauvinist, cigarette puffing cohorts.

The massive exhibit is overwhelming, which is fitting given how prolific Winogrand was. The show is organized in a loosely linear fashion: "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 final summation, if one can make a final summary of such a prolific photographer, was encapsulated by John Szarkowski, in his book on Winogrand, “Fragments from the Real World.” (MoMA, 1984).

New York. Opera. 1952
 "When we consider the heedless daring of his successes and his failures we become impatient with tidy answers to easy questions, and with the neat competence of much of what now passes for ambitious photography. Winogrand has given us a body of work that provides a new clue to what photography might become, a body of work that remains dense, troubling, unfinished, and profoundly challenging. The significance of that work will be thought by some to reside in matters of style or technique or philosophical posture. There is no original harm in this misunderstanding, and useful work may come of it, but it will have little to do with the work of Garry Winogrand, whose ambition was not to make good pictures, but through photography to know life."

All images courtesy of SFMOMA: Barry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

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