Garry Winogrand: America in his viewfinder

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1969; gelatin silver print
(Garry Winogrand / SFMOMA)

Passionate and prolific, Garry Winogrand always had an eye out for the next picture, the next glimpse of life in the streets of his native New York and venues as varied as a Texas rodeo and Venice Beach.

His subjects included protesters, partygoers and passersby. His seemingly haphazard images intrigued — and annoyed. He came to be seen as a singular observer of postwar America’s hopes and anxieties, one the influential curator John Szarkowski called “the central photographer of his generation.”


Despite such accolades, “Winogrand may be the most unknown of well-known photographers,” says Leo Rubinfien, guest curator of a new retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through June 2. “Garry Winogrand,” organized by SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., offers the most complete look yet at a career that has been hard to fully assess because of Winogrand’s sprawling oeuvre and the large amount of film he left unprocessed when he died of cancer at 56 in 1984.

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“This show and [accompanying] book introduce a great deal of work — overlooked early work and unfinished work — that even people who knew Winogrand haven’t seen before,” says Rubinfien, the New York photographer and author who conceived the exhibition. “They also shift attention from Winogrand as formal innovator within photography to American artist speaking about the American character.”

Nearly 300 images are featured. Some are famous; nearly a hundred were printed for the first time. The majority of the pieces are loans from the Winogrand archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.

Rubinfien estimates that Winogrand took nearly 1 million pictures, including more than 6,600 undeveloped or unproofed rolls of film whose contents he never saw. “He had always given editing a backseat to more shooting,” Rubinfien says. “This and his early, sudden death caused him to leave behind” so much unfinished material. The rolls were processed and reviewed before a 1988 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Szarkowski, then director of MOMA’s photography department, was disappointed in these later images and showed only a small group.

Rubinfien, a Winogrand protégé, decided to reevaluate the images. He ended up looking at the artist’s entire career, examining more than 20,000 proof sheets from the archive.

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The posthumous editing and printing of Winogrand’s film “touched a nerve in the ‘80s,” says Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA and one of two curators who worked with Rubinfien. “Today, it’s still an ethical issue for some, but most people see the value of viewing his unfinished work and know he often delegated his editing and printing.”

Winogrand’s later pictures take what Rubinfien calls “a dark turn, losing the strand of delight” evident earlier. Los Angeles, where he moved in 1978, figured prominently. “L.A.'s the headquarters of unrestrained promise, freedom, vulgarity. It provided ideal material for him.”

Sarah Greenough, senior curator of photographs at the National Gallery, says the exhibition, which heads to Washington next, “lets us see the evolution of Winogrand’s work and how its spirit matches the evolution of the country’s mood” from postwar optimism to post-Vietnam and post-Watergate disillusionment. “It shows a richer, fuller artist than we had known before.”


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