Catalog of the exhibition edited by Leo Rubinfien, with contributions by Sarah Greenough, Susan Kismaric, Erin O’Toole, Tod Papageorge, and Sandra S. Phillips
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art/Yale University Press, 464 pp. $85.00; $50.00 (paper)
Which artist made the fullest and most engaging picture of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century? In the still-and-mute division of the visual arts, I’d nominate two photographers: Lee Friedlander, whose ceaselessly enchanting exploration of the American social landscape is now in its sixth decade, and his older contemporary Garry Winogrand, who died of cancer in 1984 at the age of only fifty-six but whose take on the American social scene from the 1950s through the 1970s is unsurpassed in range and vitality.
Friedlander and Winogrand were freelance photographers in New York in the 1950s, when picture magazines such as Life and Look were at their zenith, not long before TV began to kill them off. The upbeat aesthetic of the magazines ruled even at the Museum of Modern Art, where Edward Steichen’s feel-good extravaganza of 1955 “The Family of Man” was like a giant walk-in layout from Life. (Winogrand, one of 273 photographers represented in the show, later observed with typical acuity that its chief effect was to make black-and-white editorial photography attractive to advertising.) If magazine editors were indifferent or even hostile to original sensibilities, photography in New York nonetheless was fertile with energy. It was perhaps the last great episode in the medium’s long history of blossoming into art while no one noticed.
The main interest was the city’s streets—and parks, cafeterias, zoos, museums, beaches, stadiums, and airports. The longest-running show with the most varied cast on Broadway wasn’t in any of the theaters but on the sidewalk outside. If Winogrand on occasion needed special permission to enter nightclubs, political gatherings, swank parties, and the like, he was still seeking more of the same prey found in the streets. His pictures of the 1950s, some made on assignment, some on his own, are blunt, unaffected, and full of verve, like the boxers, performers, and regular Joes they describe.
By 1960 Winogrand was working more for ad agencies than for magazines but he was increasingly bored with both, and his personal work began to evolve in a distinct and original direction. His artistic maturity didn’t just emerge from the streetwise vernacular; it was provoked and propelled by the work of Walker Evans and Robert Frank—that is, by a highly sophisticated if then still-underground tradition. Winogrand once remarked to me that “Walker Evans did not exist for the ASMP”—the American Society of Magazine Photographers. (The irony is that Evans was hidden in plain sight on the staff of Fortune, while his great work of the 1930s languished in oblivion.) An eloquent champion of that underground tradition soon arrived in the form of Steichen’s successor at MoMA, John Szarkowski, who in 1963 reasserted the museum’s obligation to independent artists with an exhibition titled “Five Unrelated Photographers,” one of whom was Winogrand. Four years later “New Documents” grouped Winogrand, Friedlander, and Diane Arbus—very different artists who shared impatience with the tired imperative that photographs of the social world must strive to improve it. Their aim, wrote Szarkowski, was “not…to reform life, but to know it.”
Three Winogrand shows followed at MoMA, each accompanied by a book: “The Animals” in 1969 (zoo photographs of the early 1960s, selected by Szarkowski); “Public Relations” in 1977 (photographs of demonstrations, parties, and other group events, selected by the photographer Tod Papageorge); and a posthumous survey organized by Szarkowski in 1988, with a catalog titled Winogrand: Figments from the Real World.
“Garry Winogrand,” the first retrospective in twenty-five years, is an ambitious reconsideration of Winogrand’s unruly art, organized by guest curator Leo Rubinfien with Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery of Art and Erin O’Toole of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. That San Francisco was the original venue of a show that will go on to four other cities was no surprise; SFMOMA has helped to make its city one of the world’s most hospitable to the art of photography.
Photography inescapably but surreptitiously transforms what it describes. If you want your picture to look the way the scene in front of you feels, you are likely to be disappointed, and no matter how the picture turns out everyone else is likely to assume that the camera simply copied what was there. But along with probable failure there is the rare chance of backdoor success: a fortuitous scene that never existed but carries the authority of reality copied by the camera.
All good photographers know this intuitively. I doubt that those who also know it as a proposition thereby gain a creative advantage, but for Winogrand it was at once a captivating intellectual puzzle and a catalyst to his best, most original work. That work, made in the 1960s and 1970s, marks the high point of the formal evolution of a small-camera tradition reaching back to the late nineteenth century. Like Aleksandr Rodchenko, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, and countless others, he used a 35mm Leica. Comfortably held in one hand, it permits up to thirty-six exposures in rapid succession before the roll of film must be replaced. Photographing with such a camera in a busy street is a physical art of acrobatic anticipation whose stakes rise with the number of moving figures in the picture. Winogrand was justly celebrated for his ability to emerge with pictures that coherently arrange half a dozen or more sharply rendered characters.
It is easy to misconstrue that ability as a talent for capturing reality, whereas precisely what thrilled Winogrand was the difference between reality and the descriptively rich pictures he derived from it. A 1964 shot (not in the exhibition) at the Texas State Fair is enlivened by an improbable symmetry formed by the curled tongue of an affectionate cow and the brim of the wrangler’s hat—or rather, by the shapes they make in the picture, and in the picture alone.1 Had Winogrand been standing a bit to the left or right, the serendipitous symmetry would never have materialized. There is no conflict between the nominal subject and the pictorial pun, which simply adds brio to the intimacy between beast and man (or as Winogrand would have insisted, between the two animals).
To measure Winogrand’s creative leap of the 1960s, Szarkowski adopted as a baseline a beguiling series of pictures made in 1955 at New York’s El Morocco nightclub, with its zebra banquettes, polished celebrities, guys and dolls. He wrote:
If a time machine could have brought those scenes and actors back to Winogrand a decade later he would have made different pictures. The people in the earlier pictures—free agents with their own agendas, improvising their own one-liners—would have become players in a more complex drama, serving roles within a larger design of which they are unaware.
Such a design inhabits a photograph made by Winogrand at the opening of an Alexander Calder show at MoMA in 1969,2 which Papageorge parsed as follows:
The frame is tilted and the old man’s slightly lolling head seems to attract and bear the entire weight of the photograph. Around him we can trace a perfect arrangement—people splayed across the picture plane, gesturing, smiling, talking—a suspended cartwheel of form that owes nothing to a conventional idea of pictorial structure.
Meanwhile a smoke ring has drifted over Calder’s head, nicely silhouetted against the black costume of a perfectly placed priest and canted at just the right angle to serve as the secular saint’s halo.
Winogrand’s mature work creates a charmed realm in which the pungent taste of experience pervades what can seem to be flagrant fantasies. The Calder scene exemplifies his observation that the best photographs clarify the photographic conundrum without ever resolving it, for it simultaneously delivers the documentary goods—have you ever seen a better photograph of a fancy museum dinner?—yet pulls the rug out from under the whole documentary idea. It is at once fact and fable—a figment from the real world.
Winogrand always resisted discussing what his pictures might mean. Partly in consequence his art, though as rich in social content as that of Balzac or Daumier, was often dismissed as “formalist”—narrowly concerned with how photography remakes the visible world. In his catalog essay Leo Rubinfien rightly insists that Winogrand’s photographs are bursting with meanings and emotions that can no more be ignored than they can be reduced to pat lessons and sentiments.
And Winogrand’s range was very broad, from cartoonish satires to scenes of wrenching sadness. In a picture made in Dallas in the summer of 1964, less than a year after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Dealey Plaza has become just another diversion for a cigar-chomping rube in a porkpie hat and other tourists armed with cameras and postcards of the Texas Book Depository. Five years later in Los Angeles, Winogrand trained his eye on three dressed-up women who were about to walk by a scrawny young man slumped in a wheelchair with a beggar’s cup between his knees, as the setting sun behind them drew an elegant design of elongated shadows on a sidewalk embellished with stars dedicated to Hollywood’s winners.
“Garry Winogrand” at SFMOMA included 276 prints, supplemented by absorbing displays of other work and ephemera assembled by Susan Kismaric, who also compiled the catalog’s valuable chronology. With 401 plates, the catalog has many more pictures than the show. Both have three sections: “Down from the Bronx” (New York City, mostly Manhattan, from 1950 to 1971); “A Student of America” (the rest of the country in the same period, plus the work covered by Public Relations, much of it made in New York); and “Boom and Bust” (mostly Texas and Southern California from the early 1970s through 1983). More than half of the pictures in the first section are unknown or unfamiliar—an astonishing proportion for an artist of Winogrand’s stature who died nearly three decades ago. This distinctive contribution of the exhibition and catalog is full of delightful surprises.
The second section gives prominence to a cross-country trip of 1964, during which Winogrand productively applied the stylistic flexibility that he had developed in Manhattan to less familiar places and people. As Rubinfien points out, Winogrand was awed by Robert Frank’s The Americans (1959) but faulted it for missing the main story of the 1950s—the rise of the suburbs. He later backed up that criticism by leaving his beloved New York for Austin, in 1973, then Los Angeles, in 1978. He was convinced that Texas and California were vital incubators of contemporary American life, and some of his best work of the 1960s had been made there. A 1964 picture of a sun-struck split-level house in a Los Angeles suburb, for example, shows a slim young woman standing a few steps from her car in the doorway of the dark garage. We are too far away to read her expression, and we sense meaning in our distance. Is the viewer a voyeur, or perhaps a detective looking for trouble in paradise?