Garry Winogrand

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Garry Winogrand, Park Avenue, New York, 1959. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The exhaustive Garry Winogrand retrospective at SFMoMA, with more than 300 pictures, is both enthralling and visually fatiguing. The show is arranged somewhat thematically—based on region, subject, and demeanor– and bookended by early and late work. Winogrand’s career-making New York images, which capture the verve of the city with all manner of human interaction, be it iconic street photographs or pictures of glamorous galas and nightclubs, begin the show. These works capture an optimistic vibrancy that reflects a prospering America, though they are tinged with some social criticism that comes to full flower in the later, lesser-known works shot in the west – from Texas to Hollywood. With more cynical views of fame, class, and humanity, these works reflect a more complicated moment in the 20th-century American psyche, as well as the artist’s own shifting worldview from an extroverted documenter of pedestrian city life to an artist expressing more nuanced, withering views of alienation. 

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Garry Winorgrand, Los Angeles, ca. 1980-83. Courtesy San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The show, as curated by photographer Leo Rubinfien along with Erin O’Toole, assistant curator of photography at SFMOMA and Sarah Greenough, curator from the National Gallery of Art, portrays an artist with a famously voracious eye and an expansive body of work, a fair amount never developed during his lifetime. One hundred prints culled from posthumously processed film are displayed amidst vintage Winogrands, a problematic strategy in regards to notions of authorship, but forgivable considering the artist’s noted  preference for shooting over printing. That kind of creative wanderlust through the mid-century U.S. is vividly communicated in the various galleries, with pictures documenting touchstone moments–presidential campaigns, legendary boxing matches, political demonstrations, a World’s Fair — in images filled with crowds and the confluent energy of culture in transition. Recurrent airport scenes function to express the excitement of movement, interaction, and modernist architecture. Vitrines containing personal effects—his nicely designed business card, a peevish letter from his spouse, a staged commercial shot for the sedative Librium—do much to round out the artist, as do some 8mm films that add a bracing touch of color to the otherwise monochromatic proceedings. But it is the later works that leave the most lasting impression—Winogrand’s view of California seems poignant if a bit critical. In Los Angeles, ca. 1980-83, a woman appears to be stranded and windblown on a financial district street, near traffic signs that speak only of prohibitions. Such works frame a narrative that reveals an increased sense of cultural isolation. Winogrand’s depiction of his country is as unique as his stamp upon the history of photography, which is vast and varied.