Featuring over two hundred photographs and artifacts chronicling Winogrand’s prolific career as a street photographer, the exhibition succeeds in displaying what the artist does best: capturing the strange familiarity of the everyday. Quirkier than Robert Frank but more subdued than Diane Arbus, Winogrand had that rare ability to capture a person’s sentiment in glances, hair tosses, strolls or fists. Though known for chronicling life on New York City’s streets, the photographer traveled throughout the United States, documenting campaign trails, beach parties and political fundraisers from the Midwest to Southern California.
The retrospective is divided into three sections and features works beginning in 1950 through his death in 1984. It includes remarkable film footage of Winogrand discussing his artistic process – his gregarious personality instantly communicated. Contact sheets and family photographs accompany the exhibition, (along with personal letters from ex-wives that are a bit too personal for public viewing).
While the exhibition narrates Winogrand’s profundity and talent well, the photographs themselves carry the exhibition – the artist’s eye the strongest curatorial asset. Indeed, many of the new curatorial choices undermine the story that could have been told.
In particular, the curators decided to print never before seen images. Having left thousands of rolls of unprocessed film, Winogrand has an extensive archive of never before seen photographs. As the curators note, he preferred shooting film rather than the task of editing or producing exhibitions. Thus, many scholars feel that his unprocessed work should be made public, and selected prints have been produced in publications over the years.
One-third of this retrospective exhibition features these newly printed photographs, their origin markedly indicated by text labels. Some of these images had been identified by Winogrand, circled on contact sheets with red check marks in their frames. Others had no indication that the artist saw value in their composition. As an artistic medium that lends itself to reprints and editions, photography can often lead to such curatorial dilemmas, particularly when the artist has long passed. Despite this inherent quandary, the most troublesome decision by the curators was to print these images larger than the originals, at times side by side. Thus the inconsistency of scale is startling and deeply awkward, with the rooms instantly displaying a conceptual discrepancy that leaves the viewer at odds.
While it is impossible to deny the significance of seeing new angles, viewpoints and subjects, the newly printed images remain controversial. And though each photograph is inherently unique, the new prints only reinforce the themes and styles that Winogrand is known for, leaving viewers with the question: will the artist’s scholarship be enhanced from printing these new images?
The Garry Winogrand retrospective is on view at the National Gallery of Art through June 8, 2014. It travels to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, June 27–September 21, 2014; Jeu de Paume, Paris, October 14, 2014–January 25, 2015; Fundación MAPFRE, March 3–May 10, 2015.