Feature

Exhibit of the week: Garry Winogrand

The photographer's “frenetic, apparently off-the-cuff pictures” seem to capture the nation’s populace in all its surprising variety.

San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtThrough June 2

To view the work of Garry Winogrand “is surely to know the soul of America,” said Richard Conway in Time.com. His “frenetic, apparently off-the-cuff pictures” seemed to capture the nation’s populace in all its surprising variety: cowboys, socialites, hippies, politicians, even a fair number of zoo animals. Winogrand (1928–84) was astonishingly prolific; by one curator’s estimate, he took nearly a million photos, including about 250,000 that were never developed during his lifetime. He “took so many pictures, in fact, that it is hard to grasp the breadth of his contribution to photography.” But the curators of this retrospective spent three years sorting through hundreds of thousands of Winogrand’s images before culling them down to the 300 or so on display—100 of them never seen before. The selection confirms that the Bronx-born artist wasn’t just prolific. He was, along with such contemporaries as Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, “one of the most important photographers of the 20th century.” 

“For every individual who smiles or laughs” in the images, dozens more appear stressed, said Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle. This is true even in Winogrand’s early work, which generally reflects a sense of postwar optimism. The artist took to photography after serving in the military, and his work in mid-century Manhattan “burns with curiosity about the ground-level American spectacle.” Several of these pieces are called simply New York, including a 1961 portrait of a “striding young beauty” in a bold-patterned dress and one from 1968 of a suit-wearing man in an elevator whose expression “mingles surprise, annoyance, condescension, and fear.” This was taken around the time that the tone of Winogrand’s work began to sour. “Or did the social reality before his lens sour?” The answer really depends on one’s view of history.

The show’s vastness risks leaving the viewer with sensory overload, said Sura Wood in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. “So pace yourself” and prepare for a decline: After Winogrand left New York in 1971 and moved westward, he “lost his cultural compass and his work its potency—a product of too much open space, perhaps.” That’s debatable, said Robert Taylor in the San Jose Mercury News. Winogrand’s “most iconic image” is a 1950s photo, but it was captured not in Manhattan but on a brief trip to New Mexico. Albuquerque, 1957 depicts a toddler emerging from the garage of a suburban-style house with barren hills and gray clouds looming in the distance. Dark omens—or simply a youngster walking down a driveway to his trike? Winogrand’s sharp but ambiguous gaze leaves that question to the viewer.

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