Friday, April 18, 2014

Garry Winogrand at the National Gallery of Art

There's a pretty substantial retrospective of Garry Winogrand on now at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. I happened to be in town for a few days with the kids, and managed to take an hour and stop by.

There's a large number of photographs shown in more or less chronological order, from the beginning to the end. 1950s through early 1980s. We get to see a substantial stylistic evolution. Many of the pictures have never been seen before, and probably many more had been seen but not by me. There were certainly samples of styles I had not seen from Winogrand before, at both ends of his career.

I had never seen (much of?) his early photojournalistic work, which struck me as workmanlike, competent, but unremarkable. No particular trace of Winogrand, just a good picture of this politician at that event. I, and everyone else, had never seen much of his later work, about which more shortly.

Also included in the exhibit, as I suppose one must, were various papers and so on. Winogrand's application for a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as several contact sheets about which, also, more shortly.

A final preliminary note: The curators helpfully noted by each print whether Winogrand had had it printed in his lifetime, whether he had at least marked the frame on a contact sheet, or whether someone else had selected the frame (often because the film was developed posthumously, I suppose?). The curators selecting frames did a good job. I tried to discern some difference between photographs selected by curators and photographs selected by Winogrand, and could not. They seemed to be good pictures, mostly, but not the best pictures. Representative, good, but not remarkable. It's possibly, barely, that the curators picked slightly better frames on average than Winogrand did. However, I am prejudiced here, and not to be trusted.

I was struck by a few things.

I recognized most of the really good ones. I've seen them before. This was not, to my eye, anything like an unearthing of a marvelous trove of outstanding work. The few dozen really good ones might be all the really good ones that there are in Winogrand's oeuvre, at least as far as this exhibition shows us. There's tons of quite decent pictures, there's tons of pictures with a bit of interest, that look quite "Winogrand", that show off one or another of his tropes. There just aren't all that many truly excellent pictures here.

I'm on the record as wondering how much of his really good work was deliberate, and how much was simply the result of skillfully curating an enormous collection of random snaps. I have come to the conclusion that while curation surely played a large role, the underlying enormous collection of pictures from 1960 to 1980 must have been shot with some ability. How much I don't know, but there must have been some clarity of vision, some ideas, some deliberation, however large or small.

I believe this, now, because I have also seen what happened when Garry Winogrand truly did start firing away at random.

The work at the tail end is frankly tragic. It looks exactly like the pictures that might be selected by a curator from a large heap of rolls of film shot out the window of a moving car, more or less at random, by a man driving aimlessly around Los Angeles. The curators helpfully wrote up some text to accompany some of the pictures "the speed of the car echoing the blah blah in contrast to the static blah blah blah" the worst sort of art school horseshit. These appear to be junky random shapshots of nothing, shot carelessly.

Looking at the contact sheets we learn why. It's because these are junky random shapshots of nothing, shot carelessly. Winogrand clearly was shooting anything that looked like it might evolve into something. A girl crossing a street (half of what the guy shot in his life was, apparently, girls crossing streets), a car pulls out of a garage, whatever. He seemed attracted to motion, to transitions, which was a good impulse. It allows the curators to pull a few dozen pictures that they can sell as credible out of the 90,000 or so undeveloped frames left at Winogrand's death.

I don't really care to guess what was driving Winogrand here, but it's certainly consistent with a guy who just couldn't stop squeezing the shutter button. Was it a compulsion, was it just habit, was it some sort of complex half-assery about the way he viewed or related to the world? I don't know, but whatever was driving him, his work from the 1980s is nothing.

Winogrand's estate would have served the man better if they'd simply swept the last few years of stuff under the rug and forgotten it. Tragic development accident, such a loss, we'll never know what work he did, etc, etc.

Ultimately, the retrospective clarifies some things, and muddies others. It calls into question the entire body of work, while at the same time proving that there was actually something there in the middle years, by showing so clearly its absence in both the earlier and the later years.


  1. being in Toronto, I will not get a chance to go to the exhibition, regrettably. The opinions you expressed are ones which I share. I have several of Winnogrand's books and have seen his work on display on several occasions. Some of his images are truly iconic, then there are the others. I distinctly remember seeing some prints on display here at the Art Gallery of Ontario which were being displayed as part of an assemblage of images from a variety of artists and kept thinking to my self " what is so special about that…aside from the name of the maker…."

    1. The show will be going on to San Francisco for the summer and then to New York and Paris, so if you have any travel plans this year there's a chance you'll overlap!

      Despite my problems with the Winogrand I think it's a very worthwhile show. Whether I think the pictures are any good doesn't much matter, he's important. Also, obviously, one might form quite a different opinion than mine!