One of the great mysteries of 20th Century photography had been solved at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The mystery concerns the later years of Garry Winogrand, a major figure in American and world photography, who died prematurely in 1984 at the age of 56.
Although dead for nearly 30 years, Winogrand remains a totemic figure to many of today’s generation of street photographers. His ballsy attitude, dynamic and kinetic compositions, and refusal to repeat himself have made him a hero for photographers grappling with the challenges of shooting candid situations in everyday life.Always prodigious, Winogrand left behind 6,500 rolls of film from which he never made prints, or even had processed. For a photographer with a reputation for shooting brilliant images from all corners of America this was a massive amount of material which had never been evaluated – until now.
Leo Rubinfien, a New-York based photographer who was a friend and former student of Winogrand’s, decided in 2001 that it was time to reappraise the career of his mentor and finally draw some conclusions as to how his work had played-out in his later years.
This major retrospective of Winogrand’s working life includes more than 300 pictures, one-third of which which have never been seen before in public. As a result, we finally get to discover what Garry Winogrand was shooting at with his Leica and wide-angle lens so furiously in the last decade or so of his life.
A hastily produced retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988 made an attempt to grapple with the posthumous archive. However, after reviewing a selection of images from some of the unprocessed films, the curator, John Szarkowski, judged that while living in Texas and Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, Winogrand had lost much of his creative focus and had not been applying himself with the same level of intensity as he had in New York.
Reasons given for the abrupt change in his work included family break-up, possibly leaving him despondent and disillusioned, and also a suggestion that his relocation from the energetic streets of Manhattan to the wider, emptier, less claustrophobic spaces of the West had robbed him of that energy which courses through New York’s sidewalks.
The thing itself is fascinating. The game, let’s say, of trying to state photographic problems is, for me, absolutely fascinating. I use the word ‘play’; but you understand the word ‘play’ – if you ever watch children play – what do you observe when you watch children play? You know, they’re dead serious. They’re not on vacation”
The considered opinion on Winogrand’s posthumous archive was, “nothing much to see here”. Finding it hard to believe that his mentor’s creative powers had deserted him so abruptly, Rubinfien decided that he would have to look deeper and more inquisitively into the archive.
To gain a new appreciation of what Winogrand was shooting in California and Texas, a team of specialists including Rubinfien and assistant curator Erin O’Toole have spent the past few years sorting through and appraising the massive stockpile of films stored at the Center for Creative Photography of the University of Arizona, Tucson.
As you enter the section of the exhibition devoted to those later years, it quickly becomes apparent you are looking at pictures of a different order to the ones which brought him recognition in the 1960s. Gone are the punchy chaotic street scenes chock-full of oddball characters, animals and apparently haphazard framing. Instead we see more solitary and introspective characters, the mood is typically foreboding and in the pictures from Los Angeles, no-one seems to be living the Californian dream which had the Beach Boys harmonising.
“The late Los Angeles work is one of the great discoveries of this show,” said Rubinfien. “We were told, and we believed, that he dissolved in the last 12 years and trailed off and ended up nowhere. “But he didn’t end up nowhere – he ended up in the middle of a very dark poetry full of its own kind of pathos and we’ve managed to give that a shape and a character and its here in the show.” He was a photographer who showed little interest in editing his own work for publication or exhibition, instead leaving it to trusted curators and friends, so the question of how this archive should be approached is also troubling for Rubinfien. “Winogrand would have been the very first person to say stories should have no endings. If you give my life’s work a conclusion you are distorting the reality, you are falsifying the story. “But the requirements of the living man and his surviving appreciators are not the same, and it seems to me, sentimentalist that I am, that this provides a very beautiful and appropriate conclusion to our sense of how the larger arc of his work developed.”
Interviews would find Winogrand veering away from ascribing easy meanings or narratives to pictures which he felt could and should be read in a multiplicity of ways. Instead he found it more convenient to describe his art as grappling with photographic problems, or even as a form of play. At the opening reception for the exhibition I found Paul Graham, a world-renowned British photographer whose work, like Winogrand, thrives on open-ended narratives and a multitude of competing interpretations. “He is one of the reasons I love and embraced photography,” said Graham. “He is one of the most unique and important figures in post-war photography without any question at all. I admire his ability to read the world and to get all that into a photograph, so that other people can read it too. And to keep the image open, not close it down, not give it a simplistic humanistic message like the magazines were saying in the 50s and 60s, go way beyond that.”
Graham expressed some doubts as to how willing the general public who are not into photography might be to engage with what he described as “300 little grey rectangles on wall” , but added that those able to give the exhibition the time and patience necessary would find it immensely rewarding. The assistant curator at SF Moma, Erin O’Toole, believes that Winogrand’s “shoot first, edit later” methodology will strike a chord with many modern photographers. “I think this will resonate with people because this work is so much of and about the world he experienced. It’s like people shooting lots of digital photos on their phone or cameras and showing people, ‘This is what I saw!’ . “This is what this is about, him being out in the world, marvelling at all the things he experienced. When you see how much he created it’s on a scale of what people shoot digitally. He was incredibly prolific and like people who shoot digitally he didn’t print a lot of his images.”
Despite his poor, almost non-existent, editing, Garry Winogrand left an immense body of work which is a startling account of America in the late 20th Century. It appears that right to the end he lived just to go out shooting the next day and to see what photographic challenges he could set himself. Speaking not long before he died he said: “What I found out, over photographing a long time – the more I do, the more I do. When you’re younger, you can only conceive of trying a limited amount of things to work with. The more I work, the more subject matter I can begin to try to deal with.”
El fotógrafo Garry Winogrand (Nueva York, 1928-México, 1984) encarnó el prototipo de fotógrafo de calle, hasta el punto de que mereció de sus colegas el sobrenombre de ‘príncipe de las calles’. Armado con su cámara Leica, captó sin descanso durante más de 30 años la sociedad americana de la época hasta dejar a su muerte un legado de más de 300.000 negativos.
La ingente obra de Garry Winogrand un centenar y medio de imágenes en blanco y negro, realizadas entre 1950 y finales de los años 70. ‘Son instantáneas de la vida real, muy directas, realizadas sin manipulaciones técnicas’, explicó ayer su comisario, Carlos Gollonet. ‘Es uno de los grandes creadores de la realidad, de los que logran dar forma a lo informe, a las fuerzas explosivas de la vida que nos rodean, pero que no siempre somos capaces de vislumbrar’, agregó.
En las fotos de Winogrand desfilan los personajes que caminaban por las calles de Nueva York, los visitantes de sus parques y del zoo, las fiestas en el Museo Guggenheim, los rodeos en el Oeste, las marchas pacifistas, escenas de la vida política o la fiesta de cumpleaños del escritor Norman Mailer. Y muchas mujeres, a las que encontraba de paso y en espacios públicos. En 1975, Winogrand les dedico el libro Women are beautiful (Las mujeres son hermosas), pero su optimista visión del género femenino no fue atractiva ni para hombres ni para mujeres. ‘Comercialmente el libro fue un fracaso y, a la larga, considerado por él como el menos interesante de su carrera’, recuerda Gollonet en el catálogo de la exposición.
‘Hago fotografías para descubrir qué apariencia tendrá algo una vez convertido en fotografía’, dijo en su día Winogrand. Gallonat puntualiza que, a diferencia de otros fotógrafos americanos, deseosos de intervenir en la sociedad y tratar de cambiarla, sólo aspiraba a desarrollarse a sí mismo.
Winogrand comenzó estudiando pintura en el City College de Nueva York. La culpa de que abandonara los pinceles por la cámara la tuvo su traslado a la Universidad de Columbia, que mantenía abierto las 24 horas del día su laboratorio de revelado. El personal estilo de Winogrand comenzaba con su forma de trabajar. El fotógrafo se sumergía en el mundo que le rodeaba, en un deambular continuo y sin dejar de disparar su cámara. A su muerte dejó miles de rollos sin revelar y en total, más de 300.000 fotografías. Son cifras que refuerzan el mito del fotógrafo que patrulla a todas horas la ciudad, del príncipe de las calles. Las reproducciones incluidas en la exposición fueron realizadas en vida de su autor y pertenecen al Legado Winogrand.