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 …