Man on the Street:
Garry Winogrand’s America
“How do you make a photograph that’s more interesting than what happened? That’s really the problem,” said Garry Winogrand during a 1977 visit to Rice University in Houston, Texas. The photographer, gregarious and avuncular at 49, was ostensibly taking questions from students but ended up doing more asking than answering. “When you photograph something beautiful, how do you make a photograph that’s more beautiful than what was photographed?” he continued, in the gravelly voice that revealed his Bronx roots. “In the end, the word ‘dramatic’ has to apply. Is the photograph more dramatic than what was photographed? It has to be.”
Hazy black-and-white footage from that Rice seminar is currently playing on a trio of monitors at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of the first Winogrand retrospective in 25 years. Visitors encounter the video along with copies of the sumptuous exhibition catalogue in the show’s final room, and Winogrand’s oracular pronouncements only prompt more questions: What’s going on in that image? How did he manage to get that shot? What does it mean?
“I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.”Garry Winogrand
“Apart from elliptical, pithy statements about the nature of photography, he said almost nothing about what his work might mean, and he resisted when people would press him to speak about that,” says photographer and author Leo Rubinfien, a Winogrand protégé and curator of the retrospective, which runs through September 21 at the Met before heading to Paris and Madrid. Yet Rubinfien recalls one brief moment of self-reflection. It came as the two were walking on 57th Street in Manhattan just a few years before Winogrand’s sudden death of cancer in 1984. “He said, ‘You can say that I am a student of photography and I am, but really I’m a student of America.’”
Winogrand started as a student of New York City, prowling the streets to capture quotidian life at its most sublimely mundane and theatrically banal: a woman bathed in sunlight as she strides down the sidewalk, the cast of characters who pause together at a bustling intersection, the monkey who has inexplicably hitched a ride down Park Avenue in a Chevy convertible. He soon expanded his visual hunting grounds, to airports and uprisings, Forth Worth rodeos and Los Angeles diners.
“In both the content and the dynamic style of his photographs, Winogrand emerged from the 1950s into the ‘60s and ‘70s as one of the most forceful voices of those decades,” says Met curator Jeff Rosenheim, who organized the museum’s presentation of the traveling exhibition. “He’s a preeminent artist of the urban street, and he really believed that worlds could be revealed by scrutinizing the ordinary.”
Winogrand was voracious in his scrutiny, exposing some 26,000 rolls of film over 34 years and leaving behind a vast archive of unexamined work and undeveloped rolls. With the goal of revealing the full scope of Winogrand’s career, Rubinfien, along with Erin O’Toole and Sarah
Greenough, sifted through photographs never seen by Winogrand as well as early work that had dropped out of view.
Each of the more than 400 images in the exhibition catalogue can stand alone, but together, they form one big picture of American life and make it clear that Winogrand was much more than a street photographer. “The street was where he found the material that he used to speak about something vastly bigger than the street,” says Rubinfien, “That something was the United States and all of the contradictory and often tormenting passions that drive the people who live here.”
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