Sometimes I feel like…the world is a place I bought a ticket to…It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.
[above: a video included at the exhibition.]
Garry Winogrand didn’t believe in teachers. He didn’t believe in school. He didn’t believe in classes. Garry Winogrand believed in work. He thought that you learned from making pictures, from looking at those pictures, and then taking more. As his life went on, he started to skip the middle step and simply snapped and shot and photographed without a second look back. Today, the Garry Winogrand archive holds some 100,000 negatives, with 2,500 rolls that are wholly undeveloped and 6,500 more that bear no trace of his review.
But within this massive trove of work, over the course of three very different decades, Winogrand told the story of America. Beginning in New York City in the 50s, ranging across America in the 60s, and finally moving out West in the 70s, Winogrand’s camera took in a country at its best, its worst, its most exuberant, its most confused and everything in between. According to one rough calculation, Winogrand’s photos captured some 2 million people—around 1% of the American population in that time.
Curator Leo Rubinfien spent some three years at Winogrand’s archives, poring over tens of thousands of negatives to make his selection for the exhibition “Garry Winogrand.” It is a great credit to Rubinfien that his show manages to corral the prolific photographer’s massive output into three sensibly-sized, reasonably graspable periods: “Down from the Bronx.” “A student of America,” and “Boom and bust.” Each of these segments roughly corresponds to a distinctive era in American history—the post-war consumerist glory days of the 1950s, the confused, complicated, passionate (student-driven) 1960s, and the gleaming (but hollow) materialism of the West, of Hollywood, in the 1970s.
Besides re-understanding America, the depth and breadth of this show allows us to re-understand Winogrand. Since so much of Winogrand’s work, especially from the final 15 years of his life, was never developed, the show offers even the most seasoned street photography lover new insights. While Winogrand’s later work loses some of the youthful energy of his more iconic photos, it more than makes up for it in wit, irony and penetrating insight.
Besides these revelatory later photos, Rubinfien shares with us revealing recommendation letters, successful Guggenheim fellowship applications, and most delightfully, Winogrand’s marked up contact sheets. In these final objects, we really see how Winogrand’s voracious mind worked. We see him photograph the same subject five different ways, move on to a different subject, and then return again to the first thing, with a new idea in mind. We understand his evolving style, his changing moods, his ever-improving vision. Simply put, we get a glimpse into the mind’s eye of this photographic master.
More than any history book, any period piece, any single issue of Life magazine, Winogrand’s photos give us a portal into the history, character, and beating heart of America.
Editor’s Note: ”Garry Winogrand” showed at the Jeu de Paume in Paris from October 14 to February 8, 2015 as well as in San Francisco, Washington D.C., New York and Madrid.