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The ‘Garry Winogrand’ exhibition at the Jeu de Palme in Paris is a rare chance to see the work of one of the most important artist photographers of the late 20th century. Winogrand, whose critical reputation has perhaps dimmed a little in the years since his premature death in 1984, nevertheless remains one of the most important and influential artist photographers of the late 20th century. The show arrived at the Jeu de Paume, the Galerie Nationale de l’Image after a major US tour taking in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The retrospective is divided into three sections. ‘Down from the Bronx’ consists of the photographer’s work from New York City from 1951 to 1970. ‘A Student of America’ covers his work from this period done mostly outside New York. . ‘Boom and Bust’ . presents work from his late period in Chicago, Los Angeles, Texas and other places.
In his public utterances (including the archival Q & A video recording included in this show) the photographer often espoused the view that his work should speak for itself, so it is fitting that the exhibition is simply laid out with interesting but minimal supporting material so as not to detract from the individual and cumulative effect of the work.
What makes Garry Winogrand such a stand-out photographer? Undoubtedly, it is the seemingly simple but actually complex set of visual lyrics that underpin his best work. He regularly succeeds in revealing the emotional cadence implicit in everyday scenes and subjects within the (usually wide-angle) frame.
Likewise, the narratives in his work can often be read on multiple levels. At first glance images such as New York 1969, Central Park Zoo 1967, or Los Angeles 1980-83 seem chance, ordinary or just odd, but a closer look reveals multitudes about the individuals and the social-economic-political space they occupy. Within the composition of characters and events lurk messages that remain in the retina and the mind long after viewing.
A New Yorker by birth, much of Winogrand’s earliest – and some of his very best – images were captured on the streets of his home city. After being granted the first of two Guggenheim scholarships in 1963, Winogrand exported this same vision further afield to other cities and suburbs of America.
Winogrand can be seen as an important stopping-off point in the timeline of great American photo chroniclers from Walker Evans through Robert Frank. He is a forerunner of many of today’s new generation of professional street photographers, but this description does not do full justice to his distinct talents, which include his empathy, instinctive ability to see beneath the veneer of the everyday and absolute lack of judgementalism. In his best work Winogrand offers a window into the sense in all our doings, our comings and goings, witnessing life in all its gravity, grandeur... and absurdity.
As the historian Robert Cowley wrote of Winogrand ‘I can only think of handful of writers and photographers who captured so poignantly the feeling of what we are today – the hollowness and the pervasive madness as well as the vitality of American life’.
A composition, according to Winogrand, may consist of various factors but in the resultant image these become a ‘new thing’. This is in essence the same end result of what Henri Cartier-Bresson, the ‘Father’ of the snapshot style of art photography, famously called ‘the decisive moment’: that split second where light, form and time come together to raise the everyday to the level of the exceptional. A technical knowledge is of course required, although Winogrand put little store in excessive learning of technique – it being (according to him) easy to master. The greatest talent in these instants and something Winogrand possessed in spades was the ability to leave things just as they are and, to just let the moment to compose itself.
Although not overtly political Winogrand’s observant and unwavering eye took in the huge social changes in post war America, The Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Kennedys and Watergate all became part of his seemingly straightforward but intense photographic tableaus and are all well represented in this show. In supporting Winogrand's second Guggenheim fellowship application, which gave him his first opportunity to travel the country, fellow photographer and friend Diane Arbus described Winogrand as an ‘Instinctive nearly primitive Ironist totally without malice, unflinching’.
Concerning Garry Winogrand's later photography in general, the New York Museum of Modern Art’s legendary director of photography, John Szarkowski,a long-time supporter and champion of Winogrand, noted that the work had lost direction and power. On the evidence on display here (with one or two notable exceptions) it is hard not to disagree.
The later images are often markedly less concise in composition, appearing more rushed, diffuse, almost lazy. Perhaps he had a premonition of his own early demise (at cancer aged only 54). It is almost as if in his never-ending quest for the essence of the human condition he worked faster and faster but the result is more abstraction and less impact.
It is well documented that he spent progressively less time on editing his works from the mid 1970s and at the time of his death left 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and 6,500 rolls of developed but un-proofed exposures. A fair proportion of the work in this last section has been selected and printed from that vast untapped resource and is on display here for the first time. It is only here and there that the chosen selections reveal Winogrand’s aforementioned ability to encapsulate something in the scene more important than the scene itself.
Nevertheless, to the end, Garry Winogrand was a photographer with a mission to seek significance in the lives of his fellow Americans whilst not always holding out hope of finding any answers. What always remained was his ability to show how one captured moment could be a clue to the whole circus of life...or maybe not. ‘The world isn’t tidy; it’s a mess’, Winogrand once said. ‘I don’t try to make it neat’.