San Francisco

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, ca. 1980–83, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x 13 1/2". © The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, ca. 1980–83, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x 13 1/2". © The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

Garry Winogrand

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)

Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, ca. 1980–83, gelatin silver print, 8 3/4 x 13 1/2". © The Estate of Garry Winogrand. Garry Winogrand Archive, Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

OF THE NEARLY three hundred photographs in this bold retrospective of Garry Winogrand’s work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, many ask of us a kind of intense level of attention—the same kind of attention with which Winogrand’s camera itself seems to embrace and threaten its subjects. Winogrand said he wanted to see in the picture what the camera did to his subject and what it could do with light: For example, a 1969 shot shows Hollywood sunlight narrowing into a sharp apex, through which three proud beauties are about to pass; in the shadows beyond, a man, whom they just seem to notice, slumps in a wheelchair. Winogrand sometimes thought the subject was unreal unless photographed.

That pressure is everywhere in this long-deserved landmark exhibition, curated by Leo Rubinfien, Erin O’Toole, and Sarah Greenough. Absorbingly sequenced and fabulously catalogued (with contributions by the curators and Tod Papageorge, Sandra S. Phillips, and Susan Kismaric), the show is organized into three sections: “Down from the Bronx,” spanning Winogrand’s New York in the years 1950 to ’71; “A Student of America,” which finds him in those decades also traveling outside of New York, usually (and significantly) by car; and “Boom and Bust,” covering 1971 to ’84 (the year of Winogrand’s death at age fifty-six). This last series makes a case for the long-discounted work of the final years, including forty-two never-before-shown prints (slightly larger than the others in the exhibition) from contact sheets processed from the thousands of images left undeveloped in the artist’s Arizona archive.

Called “the central photographer of his generation” by that generation’s central curator, the late John Szarkowski, director of the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Photography—who helped to bring Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus to prominence—Winogrand fared less well as an indirect consequence of his 1988 retrospective. While Szarkowski organized that show, his preliminary review of hundreds of prints Winogrand had abandoned when he left New York led the curator to assume the artist’s late photographs to be inferior, allegedly compromised by chaotic work habits and an unwillingness to develop vast quantities of exposed film. This 2013 show should answer devoted admirers who doubted the value of those last thirteen years to Winogrand’s career. It also makes available to a new audience Winogrand’s most famous so-called street photography, in which he reflected and refracted earlier masters such as Walker Evans, to catch in faces, limbs, and gestures an energy of motion quite new to still photography.

“Fact,” Winogrand insisted; yet outside the frame of the picture but within the impact of its orbit, something like fiction stirs us. People look—we often don’t know where—in expectation; two young women foregrounded in a sidewalk crowd stare, moved by whatever it is that arrests them, their expressions, temperaments, and clothes so different—are they friends? Businessmen packed into an elevator look back at us with haunted eyes. A mother moves one way; her little girl pulls her the other; a boy hesitates, uncertainly caught between strides: The image is a haiku three-liner, indelible yet transient. A wide-angle crowd of college kids reach up for a mostly out-of-the-frame black ball; its huge scale, coupled with the mordant knife-edge of sunlight and advancing shadow across university buildings, portends a meteor apocalypse. Street demonstration, political convention, airport terminal—in Winogrand’s shots, chaotically angled faces uncannily become vectors in a passing balance, and expansive compositions unfold subversive emergencies. In a late photo a Porsche, its rear spoiler above the engine panel almost like an open trunk, and a woman sprawled facedown on the far side of the road near the sidewalk—passed out? injured? worse?—perversely (tenderly?) half ignored in the frame.

No shot is about just one thing. Winogrand the stalker may anger his subject: What we see is sometimes what he partly caused. Intrusive but sociable, Winogrand, in handwritten captions for six related photos submitted unsuccessfully for a 1950 Life magazine contest (seen here in a separate display), describes what’s happening: A man tries to keep a very drunk woman from falling down in the street and to get to the hospital to see his dying brother. They do what they can, Winogrand writes; they “go on.”

In the late photos (mostly of the West, where now too available light may bleach meaning from subjects, turn experience to debris, or to a flatness, paved and extensive), a space of unflinchingly limited interest opens up where Winogrand hopes to find a path. These are subtle vacancies of place: an elderly woman making her slow way along the aisle of a plane. A kid on a street corner playing, sort of. “We have not loved life,” Winogrand said. Yet often his photographs say the opposite: the dramatic woman at a Los Angeles crossing, an intense nobility in her almost-alarmed profile, hair in the wind, yet tethered to the shoes we see she’s carrying, we don’t know why or where.

“Garry Winogrand” is on view through June 2; travels to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Mar. 2–June 8, 2014; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 27–Sept. 21, 2014; Jeu de Paume, Paris, Oct. 14, 2014–Jan. 25, 2015; Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, Mar. 3–May 10, 2015.

Joseph McElroy is a writer based in New York. His new novel, Cannonball (Dzanc), is out in June.