Ed. Leo Rubinfien
(San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and
Yale University Press, 2013)
For many young photographers in the ’70s and ’80s, Winogrand was a mythic figure. The territory Winogrand carved first in the streets of Manhattan, and later in the rodeos of Texas, the airports of New York City, and the open streets of Los Angeles, helped established a photographic language of spontaneous engagement with the world. Part of a generation of photographers who took to the streets in post World War II America, Winogrand prowled the streets of Manhattan with a hand-held Leica camera and wide-angle lens seeking, with each packed and titled frame, to capture the chaotic fervor of the city. Lionized by the Museum of Modern Art’s famed photography curator John Szarkowski, Winogrand’s work helped solidify and define the tradition of street photography so thoroughly that for a long time his presence seemed inescapable. Like all influential artists, his presence was so pervasive and widespread that the singularity of his vision and achievement all but disappeared. Although Winogrand has remained a touchstone for a generation of photographers, tackling and defining his legacy has proven to be a mercurial task.
While Winogrand was the subject of a MoMA retrospective shortly after his death in 1984, the show did not delve deeply into his massive archive, nor did it explore his later work, which was largely dismissed by Szarkowski, the show’s curator. At the time of his death, Winogrand notoriously left behind thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, countless unedited contact sheets and transparencies, and piles of proof prints. Sensing a need and opportunity to address a friend’s work anew, Leo Rubinfien, an accomplished photographer and writer, has initiated and co-curated a massive revisionist exhibition and catalog of Winogrand’s work, along with Erin O’Toole, Sarah Greenough, and Sandra Phillips. In order to put together this show, Rubinfien scoured Winogrand’s contact sheets, unprocessed film, and countless proof prints. What is remarkable and noteworthy about the exhibition is that almost half of the nearly 400 pictures have never been published or exhibited, and many have never been printed until now.
Any attempt to understand Winogrand must also grapple with his enormous output as well as his own reluctance to edit his work. It also prompts the question: which Winogrand are we talking about—and whose? As Erin O’Toole astutely notes in her essay, this problem is intrinsic to understanding his work. Curators and friends have always played a central role in shaping and defining Winogrand’s work and legacy—whether it is Szarkowski or Tod Papageorge, who curated his 1977 exhibition and book Public Relations. It has also led to the dissenting opinion that the success and ultimate canonization of his work is largely a result of the editorial and curatorial work of Szarkowski and others. Given his talents, this criticism is unfair. The end result may have still been voluminous, but Winogrand assiduously poured over his contacts, pushed himself to take new and different pictures, and was always focused in his attention.
However, toward the end of his life he increasingly abdicated the responsibility of editing. Perhaps Winogrand simply became overwhelmed by any attempt to grapple with his innumerable images. The ratio of successful pictures to failures is usually high with any great photographer, but it seemed to grow in the end. The volume grew and the pictures became darker and more melancholic. Sadly, his untimely and sudden death cut short any potential attempts for him to grapple with his later work. The immensity and uneven quality of the later work also makes it difficult for others to assess, but stresses the importance of an editor or curator and makes Rubinfien’s accomplishments even more impressive. Paradoxically, it also leaves us wanting more.
Retrospectives are unique opportunities to revisit and assess an artist’s work. They also require difficult choices—especially for such a prolific artist, who left little or no instructions and so many images. Given the constraints of any exhibition and book, some of Winogrand’s work has sadly been omitted—namely his limited color work, his work abroad, commercial work, as well as his work on sports and on his own family. In the face of these tough editorial choices and Winogrand’s lack of direction, perhaps the more appropriate response would be to also open up his voluminous archive and make it at least partially accessible to the public as part of the exhibition—duds and all. As an artist with a voracious appetite and boundless energy, Winogrand seemed determined to devour America and the turbulent times in which he lived. His archive offers a unique opportunity to rediscover his work—each show or book allows us to revisit acknowledged masterpieces, discover new ones, and see what else Winogrand’s restless eye can teach us about ourselves and our evolving republic. It also shows us many Winogrands, each one compelling and engaging in its own way.
ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn.