In Garry Winogrand’s Viewfinder
Sometimes I feel the world is a place I bought a ticket to," said the prolific American street photographer Garry Winogrand. "It’s a big show for me." A man driven by an insatiable appetite for taking pictures, Winogrand was fearless when it came to shooting, an act infinitely more satisfying to him than printing or editing. When he died prematurely from cancer at the age of 56 in 1984, he left behind a vast archive of nearly 6,500 rolls of film with 250,000 undeveloped images - a staggering 300,000 pictures - he and the public had never seen. "Simply saying Winogrand’s output was large is like saying the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground," explained Washington Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper.
Whether or not he led an unexamined life we’ll never know, but Winogrand certainly bequeathed an unexplored body of work that he wasn’t inclined to reflect upon or organize before his died. That task, along with culling previously printed material, fell to proteges like Leo Rubinfien and curators from San Francisco and the National Gallery of Art, who spent three years putting together the enormous retrospective now at SFMOMA.
Influenced by Robert Frank and Walker Evans, and friends with contemporaries Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus, Winogrand was a brilliant if erratic documentary street-shooter who chronicled postwar American life, particularly the period of the early 1960s. A native New Yorker who grew up Jewish and working-class in the Bronx, he prowled Manhattan with his lightweight 35mm Leica stealth camera, poised to capture whatever caught his discerning eye. His great subject was the social landscape of urban and suburban life and its disintegration during the second half of the 20th century. He immortalized the American carnival, from cowboys, hippies and anti-war protestors to actors, athletes, politicians and animals in the zoo. In the latter venue, he sought and found humanity in a very wary orangutan with giant feet and ancient eyes that took stock of the photographer as if to say, "Now I’ve seen everything." In another shot, a man’s disembodied hand drops a single peanut into an expectant, unfurled elephant’s trunk, whose owner is out of range; presumably, both were satisfied with the transaction.
A portion of Winogrand’s prodigious output, 300 black & white photographs, is included in the show, which assembles iconic images of New York City, Texas and Southern California, and at least 100 images that haven’t been published or exhibited before. Display cases are filled with contact sheets, work he did for Life magazine and other publications, photos taken of him by his friends and he of them, poems and letters like one he sent to Evans, whom he greatly admired, asking for a recommendation to accompany his application for a Guggenheim. Evans turned him down.
Would it be ungrateful to observe that the show is too big, or that it’s exhaustive and exhausting? Well, it is. So pace yourself. The early photographs, taken on Winogrand’s home turf - he moved away from NYC in 1971- are vital and uninhibited, and distill the arena he knew best: the slice of Manhattan between Macy’s and Central Park. The exhibition’s first image (1950), a sailor on shore leave walking down a deserted bridge at twilight, the street lamps blurred by mist, prompts the question: What will be his story? Elsewhere, a boat steams toward the gray skies above the Manhattan skyline, and in an extraordinary photograph, silhouetted men in coats and hats pause at night in front of a brightly lit store-window display of women’s evening dresses.
A teenage extra with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Winogrand was entranced by its faux glamour, and compared the carnal pleasure of being backstage with the dancers to "being smothered in thighs." The experience presaged his fascination with women, many of them less alluring than the fetching Italian starlet/model Elsa Martinelli, seen here seductively taking a drag on her cigarette in a swanky nightclub, and his love of the spectacle of theater. The acrobatic man dressed in a business suit and caught airborne in mid-backflip above the chaos of a parade in the 50s could be the artist’s alter ego.
"All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players" is a theme that finds its way into numerous pictures. Winogrand was partial to ambiguous, strange groupings of random humanity that convey an alone-in-the-crowd feeling, as well as smaller scenes of quiet desperation like one where a woman barks at her well-heeled male companion seated at the Stork Club, signaling an evening gone wrong despite the uncorked champagne and white tablecloths.
After leaving New York and heading West, Winogrand lost his cultural compass and his work its potency, a product of too much open space, perhaps. But he seemed to be invigorated by the sprawling vulgarity of L.A., "a place," says Rubinfien, "where freedom goes when it goes too far."
It was there that he wove together ruined beauty and despair in the show’s final image, of a shapely platinum blonde lying dead and discarded in the parking lane of Sunset Boulevard as a jazzy Porsche speeds by. Taken shortly before the artist’s death, it’s a knockout punch, a portrait of desolation, and a testament to the ruthlessness with which life goes on. (Through June 2.)