NEW YORK — Other photographers’ images can recall aspects of Garry Winogrand’s: the improvisatory, agnostic spirit; the braiding together of velocity and curiosity; the gravitational pull of the street. Certainly there are other photographers whose images resonate with his and share a sensibility: Robert Frank, whose book “The Americans” greatly influenced Winogrand; his friends Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, both of whose work appeared with Winogrand’s in the landmark 1967 Museum of Modern Art show, “New Documents”; the young Joel Meyerowitz and Tod Papageorge, both his students. Winogrand was part of a brilliant, fearless, subversive generation; and MoMA’s John Szarkowski called him its “central photographer.”
Centrality doesn’t preclude singularity, perhaps even requiring it. No photographer — not one, zip, zero, nada — has ever been quite like Garry Winogrand. He was unique the way a hurricane is. He was Hurricane Garry. He’s been dead for 30 years, but his gale force can be felt throughout “Garry Winogrand,” the very large and absorbing retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Running through Sept. 21, it includes more than 175 Winogrand images, along with contact sheets, family photographs, magazine spreads, and a quite-captivating video of a talk he gave at Rice University, in 1977. Roughly half of the images are either little known or have not previously been shown.
Winogrand was born in the Bronx, in 1928. Three years earlier, another Jewish kid had been born there. Bernard Schwartz grew up to be Tony Curtis. Curtis’s most searching performance comes as Sidney Falco, in “Sweet Smell of Success.” A low-rent press agent, Falco’s the sort of dubious character Winogrand delighted in photographing as he prowled midtown Manhattan with his camera. Falco’s girlfriend wonders if he’s listening to her. “Avidly, avidly,” he says.
That twice-said adverb might be the simplest, most accurate — and expressive — description of how Winogrand photographed. His artistic avidity was awe-inspiring. “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs,” he famously said. Photography was a means to its own end.
Leo Rubinfien, who helped curate the show, writes in its outstanding catalog that Winogrand “sought not to control photography but to submit to it.” That description applies wonderfully well to the close-to-collapse compositions found in numerous of Winogrand’s best pictures. So many Winogrand images seem to be teetering on the edge of formlessness. Life is about the dominance of content over form. Life just happens . Art is about the sovereignty of form. Nothing in art just happens. The fascination of Winogrand’s work is its consistent ability to record the formlessness of the one using the formal control of the other.
Rubinfien’s words apply even better to the compulsiveness of Winogrand’s photographic procedure. Over the course of 34 years, he exposed 26,000 rolls of film. Some 2,500 had been exposed but never developed at the time of his death. Another 4,100 had been developed, but not contact printed.
For the MoMA retrospective after Winogrand’s death, Szarkowski chose to include very few of these photographs, the vast preponderance of which come from Winogrand’s final years. The new exhibition includes more than 100. This decision has drawn criticism. If Winogrand didn’t choose to print a photograph, this line of reasoning goes, then it shouldn’t be exhibited. The curators note that for much of his career Winogrand delegated printing to others — he was anything but a darkroom devotee — and even delegated the selection of images for several of his books. To criticize the inclusion of photographs he didn’t choose to have printed, or didn’t himself see, seems to be observing the letter of the law to an absurd degree. Winogrand was a great and essential photographer. Exhibiting a selection of these images is both sensible and justified. Getting to see them is a gift.
The question becomes: Are they good? Sure. A photographer doesn’t lose his eye, and Winogrand’s was amazing. Are they as good as his work from the ’60s and early ’70s? Rarely. Winogrand had changed, as any person getting older does. So had the times. The ’60s brought out the best in him, as they did in one of his favorite writers, Norman Mailer. Political demonstrations, media events, affluence on the hoof: Winogrand was born to shoot them. Most important, Winogrand’s locus had changed. He owned midtown Manhattan (Central Park, too) as much as Joe DiMaggio had center field at Yankee Stadium. Winogrand moved to Los Angeles in 1978. LA is contradictory in so many ways. Not least among its contradictions is that a city so visually alluring — how can a garden in the desert not be? — is only marginally photogenic. LA lacks the density of visual information that New York has coming out of its pores. (Instead of pores, LA has cars.)
The exhibition is divided into three sections: “Down From the Bronx,” the early years; “A Student of America,” on Winogrand’s heyday, from the late ’50s to the early ’70s; and “Boom and Bust.”
Various early pictures could have been taken by Weegee or Lisette Model or even Atget. They’re good, but they’re not yet recognizably Winogrand. A marvelous photograph from 1952 shows a swimmer at Coney Island happily tossing his girlfriend into the surf. It’s nearly sculptural in its sense of solidity and vigorously arrested motion. Atypical in setting, the image is nonetheless a precursor. A sculptor sees possibility in a piece of stone. Stone just sits there while the sculptor studies it. A photographer — specifically, Winogrand — sees possibilities in a dynamic arrangement of people in space. His camera carves a stone even as that stone is being hurled at him.
The dynamic arrangement of people — a phrase that describes both society as a whole and the sidewalk groupings Winogrand so often captured in his pictures — is the heart of what he did. “A Student of America” demonstrates this again and again. Stillness held little interest for Winogrand. Even with just a single person within the frame, his photographs seem almost always to teem. A toddler, standing in a New Mexico driveway, is dwarfed by the black space of the garage behind her and immensity of sky above. Yet even amid such emptiness she seems to be dancing. John F. Kennedy, photographed at the 1960 Democratic convention, looks waxworks-unreal; but the quartet of people around him are a study in animation. The fact that all five of them, as well as two others in the background, are looking in different directions adds an element in optical hilarity. The convention’s gone slightly Cubist.
Winogrand is becoming Winogrand. The settings and subjects he most loved to photograph — zoos, airports, sidewalks, Texas, attractive women, cars — keep recurring. A woman in a sleeveless white dress strides down the street. The camera’s at an acute angle to her. The wind whips her hair. Two men behind her grin. The light has an almost-furious radiance. A memorable composition is a version of geometry. This is geometric, yes, but Winogrand prefers another kind of mathematics: irrational numbers.
Arbus, writing to support Winogrand’s application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, described him as “an instinctive, nearly primitive ironist.” He had a genius for incongruous juxtaposition (the squeegee being used on the glass in front of a whale at the aquarium, the mannequin staring over the shoulder of a laughing woman holding an ice cream cone). The street is to incongruous juxtaposition what Holland is to tulips. But Winogrand lacked the ironist’s presumption of superiority. Avidity is inherently democratic.
Grotesque people appear with some frequency in Winogrand pictures: a man selling JFK souvenirs at Dealey Plaza less than a year after the president’s assassination; another man in Dallas wearing a cowboy hat that looks as though it could hold 20 gallons, not 10; a woman with a rictus grin (and painted nails like bloody thimble daggers) dancing at a swanky nightclub. Winogrand presents none of them as freaks. Freakishness assumes some kind of larger order, a non-freakish context, which renders the individual an outcast. So much of the force of Arbus’s work owes to her being a moralist at heart and the phenomenal tension this lends her work. “A picture is a secret about a secret,” she said. Secrecy is an irrelevant concept for someone uninterested in morality, and that was Winogrand. For him, it was the context that was freakish, not the people in it.
In 1962, Arbus took a photo of the Disneyland castle that makes it look as dark, dank, and dangerous as anything in the Brothers Grimm. Two years later, Winogrand took a photo of a mother and son walking through Forest Lawn, the Los Angeles cemetery, and the boy wears Mickey Mouse ears. What could be more freakish? Yet Winogrand, in his eager-appetite way, just takes it in. He offers no judgment. Instead, you can all but feel his happiness at finding so striking a sight — and being able to capture it.
“Capture” is an interesting word for a photographer, especially one so partial to zoos. In Philip Roth’s novel “The Anatomy Lesson” Roth’s literary alter ego Nathan Zuckerman confesses to revulsion with the act of writing. “It isn’t life and it isn’t you. It’s ten talons clawing at twenty-six letters. Some animal carrying on in the zoo like that and you’d think it was horrifying.” The title of Winogrand’s first book was “The Animals.” No, photography isn’t life, and Winogrand would acknowledge that. But photography is who he was, and “clawing at it” suggests how violently he was attracted to the camera. What those words leave out is the volatile elegance of the resulting images. And Winogrand did it with just a single talon, the one to click the shutter release.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly listed the number of Winogrand images in the exhibit. The retrospective includes more than 175 Winogrand images, along with contact sheets, family photographs, magazine spreads, and a video of a talk he gave at Rice University, in 1977.