With SFMOMA closing for its expansing beginning in June, I have been trying to spend extra time there. While much of current programming is geared towards the impending closure, the current Garry Winogrand retrospective stands apart as a strong exhibition independent of the museum.
I have encountered Winogrand’s work often in photography exhibits, especially those featuring urban portraiture of the twentieth century, a subject that is often romanticized even in its most gritty portrayals. But his full body of work goes far beyond that as he document a great variety of people and places as he travelled the country. Portraiture tends to invite a very personal response, and that is the case with many of the pieces in this show, including the title image:
[Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, ca.1980–83; gelatin silver print; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.]
One’s eyes are immediately drawn to the subject, the straight lines of her dress and contrast with her hair the bright background. My initial take from the posters was “New York, 1970s” which added to my personal sense of identification with the subject, but the photograph is actually from Los Angeles in the 1980s, one of the last pieces chronologically (Winogrand died in 1984). However, there was no shortage of images from New York (especially from the 1960s) in the exhibition.
[Garry Winogrand, New York, ca. 1960; gelatin silver print; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.]
[Garry Winogrand, New York, 1961; gelatin silver print; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase and gift of Barbara Schwartz in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.]
These two contrasting pieces also invited self-identification as well as an appreciation of the details, sharp contrasts and sense of motion. They demonstrate the breadth of Winogrand’s subjects within the small geographical space of New York as well as his ability to make the different seem similar. As in much of his work, the subjects are not isolated, but part of the flow of people of the city. Arms and legs are naturally cut at the edges as figures in motion move out in and out of the frames.
Beyond the confines of the city, WIngrand’s images take on different moods in different settings, such as this stark image from a suburban neighborhood in Albuquerque.
[Garry Winogrand, Albuquerque, 1957; gelatin silver print; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchase; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.]
The figures in this image, both young children, are a bit obscure, and the scene is cut in half with the partial house to the left and the desert landscape to the right. It is overall a bleaker image than the more exuberant urban photographs. Although the exhibition was separated into chronological and geographical sections, one can mentally juxtapose the city and desert image, and in doing so imagine the contrasting sounds and textures alongside the visuals.
There is also humor that radiates from many of his photographs, either intentionally or unintentionally.
[Garry Winogrand, Park Avenue, New York, 1959; gelatin silver print; collection National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Patrons' Permanent Fund; image courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco]
[Garry Winogrand, New York, ca. 1969; posthumous digital reproduction from original negative; Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona; © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.]
The final image New York, ca. 1969 is one of many images in the exhibition that were only printed posthumously. Winogrand left behind a vast trove of negatives that were never printed and more the 2,500 that were never developed. This was a unique aspect of the show, but one with complex issues:
“One reason that Winogrand is only now receiving the full retrospective treatment already devoted to peers of his era, including Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, is that any truly comprehensive consideration of his life’s work requires contending with the practical and ethical issues surrounding the vast archive he left behind,” says [Erin O'Toole, assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA]. “In the absence of explicit instructions from him regarding how he wanted his work to be handled after he was gone, its posthumous treatment has been the subject of ongoing debate and raises provocative questions about the creative process and its relationship to issues specific to the medium.”
It is unclear how the artist felt about these unpublished images in comparison to the ones he printed. Many of the later images from Los Angeles in the 1980s do have a somewhat more tired quality to them, though compositionally they do fit with his earlier work, with the somewhat off-center subjects and activity at the margins partially off frame.
Overall, it was a strong show and a unique opportunity to see Winogrand’s work separate from the context of his contemporaries from the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibition will remain at SFMOMA through June 2.