“I always say yes,” Garry Winogrand laughed, when asked how he made decisions. This Whitmanesque figure, who hated to leave anything out, simply aimed his camera at the world and clicked. He fed a hungry eye gluttonously, snapping and snapping, reluctant to miss a single morsel of reality. Amid this industrial-scale abundance, an occasional image gelled into a statement, distilling meaning from accident.
The focal point of one early shot is a bloodstain on the sidewalk, a gleam at the heart of a dark, tumultuous scene. The action unfolds in a centrifugal whirl. Our eyes dart from the viscous blot to a flash of white-socked ankles between shiny black shoes and dark grey trousers. They are the victim’s, presumably, though we see no more of him. A crowd huddles, presenting the viewer with a wall of coats, shoulders, hats, and a nun’s enfolding cowl. All the psychological drama takes place in a small clearing where a boy, dressed in a dark wool pea coat and clutching a pair of trainers against his chest, looks solemnly on, his pale hands twisting in anxiety. The picture has the tabloid starkness of Weegee but tinged with surreal poetry, telling us something – we don’t know quite what – about random violence and the bystander’s state of mind, about mortality and urban life. Winogrand has transfigured this moment of chaos into a metaphor, but the beauty lies in not knowing what it represents.
Painters add to a blank canvas; photographers subtract. Framing the shot, eliminating from the viewfinder everything non-essential, is only the first step in a process of escalating exclusion. Rejecting hundreds of negatives, selecting the few worth printing, then cropping those to accent their graphic power – that is the core of the photographer’s work.
But Winogrand loathed making choices. When he died at 56 in 1984, he left behind piles of prints along with thousands of canisters of undeveloped film. For the Metropolitan Museum’s opulent new retrospective, guest curator Leo Rubinfien slogged through a mountain of throwaways hunting for glistering nuggets. He selected some images that Winogrand had marked but never printed, and others that the photographer had never even seen. Posthumous prints – many, many of them – are on view here alongside more familiar material, forming a torrent of repetitive imagery.
Rubinfien has matched, if not exceeded, his subject’s avidity. The teeming show affirms Winogrand’s genius, but it is also so voracious that it undermines its own objective. A little more editing would have gone a long way towards cementing the photographer’s place in the pantheon alongside Frank, Friedlander and Arbus. As it is, the show is a crammed compendium.
Winogrand was a New Yorker from his toenails to his frizzy blond crown and he conducted the city’s energy like a lightning rod. He imagined that the drama of the streets was staged for his benefit. “Sometimes I feel like the world is a place I bought a ticket to,” he said in 1980. “It’s a big show for me, as if it wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t there with a camera.” Midtown Manhattan was a permanent parade, the subway a cabaret, and the zoo an opera stage shared by humans and beasts. Wielding the camera as both weapon and shield, he sidled up to people and didn’t so much take their picture as grab it. You can sense his aggression in their belligerent response. They glare back at him, and at us, with rage and disgust.
In 1964, curiosity finally took him west of the Hudson. The Cuban missile crisis and JFK’s assassination had eroded his postwar optimism, and he pleaded with the Guggenheim Foundation to help restore his faith. “Our [that is, America’s] aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty,” he wrote in his application. “I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper.”
This pursuit of optimism didn’t work. He blitzed across America, a tourist among tourists, getting sourer and sourer. In Dallas he visited Dealey Plaza, where just a few months earlier the president had been shot. Now, he noted cynically, it was just another stop on the sightseers’ circuit. His picture catches a cluster of grotesques passing around souvenir postcards of Oswald’s hideout. Winogrand’s omnivorous eye absorbed everything: businessmen in airports, cowboys in ten-gallon hats, fluorescent bodies floating in night-lit motel pools, rodeo riders clinging to rearing broncos. He cultivated the messy look of motion, and his freewheeling style foresaw a country flying apart.
Back in New York in the late 1960s, he haunted the new American freak show, and drew new vigour from all the insanity. He immortalised men in hard hats beating up lefties and hippies gyrating, nude, in Central Park. An anti-war protester, blood streaming, stares disbelievingly into the camera; a man patched over with thick white bandages wanders aimlessly near Carnegie Hall. Bystanders morph magically into symbols of the wounded American psyche.
But a few years later, Winogrand left New York for good, first for Chicago, then Los Angeles, and his talent went definitively awry. In his last notable picture, from 1979, the lens finds a woman slumped on an LA street, as a Porsche purrs by. The drama is heavy-handed but visceral and the scene affectingly mysterious. But by then finely calibrated irony had become rare and, judging by Rubinfien’s finds, his contact sheets were filled with parades, generic crowd scenes and the occasional bleak portrait. The precarious line between exuberance and entropy had finally shifted toward despair.
Winogrand seems to have sensed this falling off. He kept shooting but stopped printing, afraid, perhaps, that he wouldn’t like what he saw. Did he sponge up the decline and exhaustion all around him? Or did leaving his hometown somehow saw him off at the root, severing the flow of inspiration? Deracinated, the flâneur from the Bronx couldn’t seem to find his bearings. Rubinfien tries his best to help him out, but even the most sympathetic curator can’t redeem this sad work by insisting on showing it now. It’s too much, too late.
Until September 21, metmuseum.org