Garry Winogrand’s first retrospective in 25 years unites over 300 photographs culled from thousands of unmarked contact sheets
Garry Winogrand was like a hunter with his camera, ever prowling the crowded streets of New York and the roadways of the nation for the happenstance of human incident. His best-known images from the 1960s—of beautiful women, businessmen, animals, and American spectacles of all kinds—teem with ebullience, humor, and haphazardness. These were qualities shared by the gregarious man himself, who was promoted by the influential Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski as the “central photographer of his generation.”
Yet at the time of Winogrand’s sudden death from cancer in 1984, at the age of 56, he left behind a vast amount of unprocessed as well as unedited work. This has long been problematic for the caretakers of his legacy, a group that includes his close friends and acolytes. Among them is the photographer Leo Rubinfien—a student when he met Winogrand in 1974—who has tackled the thorny issue of editing his mentor’s work as the guest curator of the first Garry Winogrand retrospective in 25 years. On view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from March 9 through June 2, the exhibition was organized by Rubinfien in collaboration with SFMOMA curator Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where it will travel after its run in San Francisco, followed by New York, Paris, and Madrid. It includes more than 300 photographs, roughly half of them never before exhibited or published and more than 100 not previously printed.
“This show brings the full arc of Winogrand’s career into view for the first time,” says Rubinfien, who assessed not only the 6,600 rolls of late work that the photographer never reviewed himself but all 22,000 of his contact sheets—starting with images from the beginning of his career in 1950 that he marked but didn’t print. “Winogrand seems to have felt all editing was provisional,” the curator says, explaining his friend’s resistance to making choices or shaping larger narratives within his work. “His attention was always on the individual image.”
According to a story recounted in the diary of Adrienne Lubow, Winogrand’s first wife, when Winogrand interviewed for commercial work in 1950 with Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar, he threw down 200 loose prints on the desk rather than presenting a carefully prepared portfolio—vexing the famous art director, who gave him assignments nonetheless. In the mid-’60s, Winogrand was known to routinely hand visitors to his Upper West Side apartment stacks of photographs to sort through, and he left the selections for his MoMA exhibitions and books almost completely in the hands of his friends and Szarkowski. When Winogrand donated 16,000 prints in 1983 to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tucson, he blew off the director’s entreaties to separate them into two simple piles—good and bad.
Given the looseness of Winogrand’s working style and his history of delegation, Rubinfien feels the ethics of his posthumous editing to be on firm ground—in a way that might not be the case with a more hands-on photographer, such as Aaron Siskind or Ansel Adams. Szarkowski, who died in 2007, came to the same conclusion years earlier. After Winogrand’s death, Szarkowski and the photographer’s friends Thomas Roma and Tod Papageorge vetted thousands of contact sheets Winogrand made—and barely reviewed, if at all—after leaving New York in 1971, as well as 2,500 rolls of film he left undeveloped. (He ultimately settled in Los Angeles in 1978.) Szarkowski included 25 of these late images in his 1988 Winogrand retrospective at MoMA under the heading “Unfinished Work.”
“Szarkowski said that there’s no reason why people who were steeped in an artist’s work, who had a sophisticated, sympathetic understanding of that work, should not edit it,” Rubinfien explains. “What was important was that they say openly that they were the ones doing it.” In Rubinfien’s retrospective and its accompanying catalogue, he has made the history of each image clear—including whether it was printed or marked on the contact sheets by Winogrand, or whether it was selected by himself, Szarkowski, Roma, Papageorge, or Susan Kismaric, a former curator at MoMA who helped with the editing.
Where Rubinfien parts ways with Szarkowski is in his final assessment of Winogrand’s late work. “Szarkowski judged that it was repetitive and aimless and that Winogrand had lost his way,” says Rubinfien, who theorizes that the venerable curator was very attached to the high-spirited Winogrand of the 1960s—the one he had loved and built. “He said that Winogrand was somewhat a has-been in exactly those years when I knew him, and when he seemed to me to be such a large and extraordinary figure. I thought the man Szarkowski was describing was not the one I’d known.”
While the emotional tenor in Winogrand’s pictures indeed shifted toward isolation and bleakness in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Rubinfien argues that they reflect the times and the artist, and should factor into our understanding of him. “To me, the large story that Winogrand tells is about the years when America was in its ascendency, inheriting the victory of the second World War, reaching a kind of apex in the later 1960s and then descending into despondency,” he says. “In the pictures, we can feel Winogrand’s own life loosely mirroring that general progression.”
Rubinfien began the project in 2009, aided by digital scans that allowed him to instantly zoom-in on images from the contact sheets—a technological advantage Szarkowski never had—and over the course of his research, he continuously returned to two comments made by Winogrand. The first was a criticism he once leveled at his friend and fellow photographer, Jay Maisel: “Your pictures don’t describe the chaos of life.” The second was something Winogrand had said directly to Rubinfien: “You could say I’m a student of photography, and I am, but really I’m a student of America.”
“I felt that if you try to figure out where those statements intersect, you get something about the chaotic wildness of American life,” explains Rubinfien, who used that idea to guide his curatorial process. Of the work shown from the 1950s, Winogrand had marked about 75 percent of images on the contact sheets. One image he missed, which Kismaric spotted, shows an army officer at the head of a throng in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, striding toward the camera with an arm raised victoriously. “There is such joy in this moment, light is showering down on them,” says Rubinfien. “How can you leave it out?”
The work from the 1960s, when Winogrand treated the bustling strip of Fifth Avenue from the 42nd Street Public Library to Central Park as his office, was well-mined by the artist, who’d printed or marked close to 95 percent of the images included in the retrospective. For the cover of the catalogue, Rubinfien chose a 1960 shot of a beaming, prosperous middle-aged man strolling the street with his lady friend, who wears a white fur hat and stole. “It’s like he just hit payday,” the curator says. “It’s in his wallet, it’s on his arm, it’s on his shoulders. That bigness and that brightness were one side of Winogrand’s character. That may be the side that Szarkowski most loved.”
Of the work from 1971 to 1984 included in the show and catalogue, the percentage of images that Winogrand marked himself drops from about 50 to 0 in his final years. Rubinfien agrees with Szarkowski that there was a vast imbalance of bad work to good toward the end of the photographer’s life, yet he maintains that Winogrand did produce some amazing pictures of sprawling, demonic, vulgar America in his move westward. “The mixing of ugliness and beauty becomes extraordinarily complex in the later work,” Rubinfien notes.
For the back cover of the catalogue, he chose a late-’70s Los Angeles shot of a woman collapsed in the street in front of a Denny’s, with cars whizzing by. While the image wasn’t marked on the contact sheet, “Winogrand sure noticed it when he was photographing,” says Rubinfien. “There’s a whole string of them. He’s driving his car and straining to photograph her over his shoulder until the last possible instant.”
Rubinfien acknowledges that it’s impossible to know whether Winogrand would have endorsed the show’s final section. “If he lived to 80, would he have thought the late 1970s, early 1980s was just a bad period in his life?” he wonders. “But for us, it’s the end of the only story that we’ve got.”
Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.