If Garry Winogrand has been criticized for being indiscriminate, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibition of his work proves the reverse. At the very least, Winogrand was consistent in his obsession with people.
“Garry Winogrand,” the first retrospective of the photography giant in 25 years, is a joyous, witty celebration of human life.
On view through June 2, the show is co-organized by SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and co-curated by photographer Leo Rubinfien, one of Winogrand’s longtime friends.
Called a “talking lion” by photographer Tod Papageorge, Winogrand was an omnivorous whirlwind, a voracious observer with a powerful presence.
Aggressive in getting images, he wasn’t great about organizing them. He died in 1984 at 56 and left about 250,000 undeveloped images behind, leading to curatorial confusion about his print and publishing intentions.
About half of some 300 heavily peopled images in the SFMOMA show have never been shown before, and 100 had never been printed.
In the exhibit’s first section, “Down from the Bronx,” there are snarling Coney Island cigar smokers, Minsky’s Burlesque girls, beach babes, snow scenes, street portraits, rallying politicians and midcentury hipsters. Women gossip over cocktails at the opera, men kiss cheek-to-cheek and trapeze artists flip over floats.
In a famous 1955 shot from Harlem, N.Y., nightclub El Morocco, a woman’s laugh is almost audible, her mouth caught at the height of merriment, joy and mischief equally palpable.
“Student of America” sees Winogrand’s non-New York work from the 1950s into the 1970s, his eye drawn to speed (airports, cars) and change (John F. Kennedy, bikinis, television and supermarkets).
Despite criticism in his later years, many images in “Boom and Bust” — photos after 1970 — remain timeless. A girl in Los Angeles with frizzy hair hides behind sunglasses like a hungover rock star, while partying kids in Austin circa 1975 look like today’s Coachella hipsters.
Winogrand’s penchant for angled, slanted compositions evokes speed, movement and a “nowness” that continues a lineage started by Jacques Henri-Lartigue in the early 20th century and later Henri Cartier-Bresson.
But Winogrand is more intense. He crops more closely, more bizarrely and isn’t afraid to let his subjects know he is there. Many of his best shots include intrepid glares.
“Garry Winogrand” is a success. Images are well-chosen, intriguingly juxtaposed and thematically cohesive. The show even includes Winogrand’s first Guggenheim Fellowship application, which was rejected by an artist he greatly admired: Walker Evans.