In his novel The Go-Between L.P. Hartley writes, "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." In the photographs of Garry Winogrand, now on view in a beautifully mounted retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, that foreign country, both strange and familiar, is our own America of the nineteen fifties, sixties, seventies and early eighties, brought vividly and unforgettably to the present moment by the beauty and power of his image making, in a medium – 8 x 10” black and white silver prints – that has now also become a kind of foreign country.
The 275 prints on exhibit are almost without exception photographic art of the highest caliber. The show is a revelation as well because more than 100 of them have never been shown before. The show rightly focuses on the images Winogrand made in New York City, perhaps his best; but it also showcases lesser known, but equally significant pictures he in Texas, Southern California and Washington D.C., where he recorded anti-war protests during the early 1970’s, before the U.S. exited Vietnam.
There are so many beautiful prints here that one hardly knows where to begin. Perhaps beginning with a late one is best. Los Angeles 1980-83 is really a portrait of sorts, in which a woman is standing at the edge of a large boulevard looking toward our left while swiveling in a contrary gesture toward the right. She is framed by a “No Left Turn” sign on the right and a car behind her moving left across a white crosswalk line running down to the bottom of the picture plane. The motivation behind these complex and very intense gestures is unknowable. Just as Baudelaire defined the modern artist as “the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of eternity it contains,” there is a sense here of it being both a random instant in time and of something loaded with meaning, however inscrutable.
Like great jazz, Winogrand’s photographs are made with an absolute mastery of controlled spontaneity. They are the most immediate abrupt instantaneous pictures one can think of. Incisive, invasive, sometimes rude, his camera cuts into the inhabited spaces of his subjects to reveal facial expressions and visual relationships that can only be seen the way they were recorded. "Photography is not about the thing photographed,” Winogrand said. “It is about how that thing looks photographed." Moreover, they are made with a locked in technical command. He uses unique, vital, unerring framing throughout.
The often stark lighting and tonal richness creates an expressive chiaroscuro that adds emotional weight and depth to his images. The compositions of larger groups and crowds are suffused with a complex, beautifully rendered choreography.
New York World’s Fair, 1964 – an image of a park bench inhabited by six women bookended by two men with distant figures moving behind them is a dynamic composition bursting with energy, movement and humor that captures a fleeting moment. And in that moment, each of the eight figures is there to be studied as an individual portrait.
In contrast New York 1961 is set in glaring summer sunlight. A large group of pedestrians is so beautifully captured that within the seeming chaos of the scene, each of the dozen or so briskly moving figures has a uniquely identifiable form and presence. The composition is centered on a young woman looking directly at us as if, for an instant, posing for her portrait.
Loaded with visual information, Winogrand’s photographs often give us almost more than we can handle, as if he were a kind of human panopticon, looking in all directions at the same time. In The Painter of Modern Life, published in 1863 and coinciding with the rise of the first modern city, Paris, as well as of photography itself, Baudelaire writes, “… in trivial life, in the daily metamorphosis of external things, there is a rapidity of movement which calls for an equal speed of execution from the artist.” He goes on to quote Poe’s essay The Man of the Crowd: “… he is rapturously breathing in all the odors and essences of life; as he has been on the brink of total oblivion, he remembers, and fervently desires, to remember everything. Finally he hurls himself headlong into the midst of the throng, in pursuit of an unknown, half-glimpsed countenance that has, on an instant, bewitched him. Curiosity has become a fatal, irresistible passion!”
Gary Winogrand’s art and legacy are well looked after by the organizers and curators of this show. Likewise, the exhibition catalog, with over 400 reproductions, plenty of biographical information and informative critical essays, is well worth the price. It was heartening to see so many young people in attendance, looking intently at pictures made before they were born, suggesting Left Bank cinema pioneer Chris Marker’s notion that all photography is time travel. Some of the most poignant of the photographs, in which the subject(s) stare back at us, evoke a time doubly lived, lived in the instant taken and transported to the instant in which we see them. Winogrand’s irresistible passion becomes our own.