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.
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|
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|
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|
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|
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: http://www.sfmoma.org/exhib_events/exhibitions/452#ixzz2NHIHUBRd San Francisco Museum of Modern Art