Garry Winogrand’s body of work is as big and sprawling as the country he documented. It’s said that over two million people — roughly one percent of the U.S. population in the 1960s — were captured by his lens. Paging through the massive catalog accompanying Garry Winogrand, his current globe-touring retrospective, it stood to reason I would encounter resonant images that reflect my own life during the post-World War II decades. There’s that diaperclad baby in “Kalamazoo, Michigan, ca. 1957” held rapt midcrawl by the flickering screen of the satellite-lookalike TV and positioned between symbols of the past and future: a faded claw-footed velvet ’30s chair and the sleek blonde legs of a Scandinavian knockoff.
Next I found “New York, 1965.” A young woman with long, straight hair strides down the street in a Liberty of London A-line skirt and nylon sleeveless shell, carrying a woven rattan bag — a look straight out of my junior high fashion playbook. Fast forward to “Central Park, New York, 1969,” where a rail-thin, big-eyed androgynous couple are wrapped in each other’s arms.
Then I found her — “New Hampshire, 1975” — my doppelganger from the pages of my senior yearbook. Shot from the side, the young woman looks away from the camera, dressed in shirred tube top, low-riding torn jeans cinched by a wide leather belt, and a straw fedora barely containing her unruly, thick hair.
In a 1980 interview, Winogrand said, “Sometimes I feel like the world is a place I bought a ticket to. It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.” In the 1950s and 1960s, we were all part of that show, caught in a simmering stew of optimism, anxiety and change that marked America at mid-20th century. Things were a little off-kilter — the couple in “Metropolitan Opera NY, 1951” pushed to the far right of the frame, or the gaggle of hot and exhausted tourists scrunched together on a bench in “New York World’s Fair, 1964.” We’re always coming in mid-story with Winogrand, careening along with his tireless curiosity about who we Americans were.
He did much of his best-known work in New York in the 1960s, becoming a major voice of that tumultuous decade. But he also roamed widely, from California and Texas to Miami and Chicago. Shooting five million photographs in his relatively short life — he died at age 56 in 1984 — he had no time for editing; he was too busy devouring us. As photographer and guest curator Leo Rubinfein relates in his admirable catalogue essay, providing context for this titan talent, “The hope and buoyancy of middleclass life in postwar America is half of the emotional heart of Winogrand’s work. The other half is a sense of undoing.”
The full breadth of his work is revealed for the first time in Garry Winogrand, his first retrospective in 25 years, organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition brings together 190 images, ranging from the artist’s most iconic photos to others never before exhibited or reproduced. When he died, Winogrand left behind thousands of rolls of exposed but undeveloped film and unedited contact sheets — around 250,000 frames. Indifferent to curating his own work, he never printed or even examined most of the photographs from his last half-dozen years. In this retrospective, nearly 100 previously unknown pictures appear for the first time. By presenting these archival discoveries alongside his most celebrated pictures, Garry Winogrand reframes a career that was, like his America, both epic and unresolved.
Born in the Bronx, Winogrand grew up in a garment workers’ neighborhood called Allerton Coops, home to Polish and Russian immigrants. His father cut leather for handbags, and both his parents did piecework for silk neckties in a room that served as work room, living room, and bedroom for Winogrand and his sister. After a brief stint at Townsend Harris Hall, a Manhattan school for gifted children, he finished high school in the Bronx, enlisting in the Air Force at graduation. Stationed in Austin, Texas as a weatherman, he was discharged less than a year later due to an ulcer.
Winogrand returned to New York where, as in much of the nation, a new world of post-war opportunity and optimism unfolded. He took courses at City College; then, with the support of the G.I. Bill, he went to Columbia University to study painting. He soon fell in with a group of student photographers, joining the Midnight to Dawn Club. In 1951, on a scholarship at the New School for Social Research, he studied with legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar. Brodovitch’s advocacy for “photography that was the triumph of intuition over science and design” surfaces in much of Winogrand’s best-known work in Manhattan during the 1950s and 1960s.
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2014 issue.