Behind the Lens

Garry Winogrand's American Hustle Comes To The Met

Winogrand may have walked the streets to find his shots, but he was no “street photographer.” He documented America as it really was, from the political unrest to the rise of suburbia.

Bill Cunningham is a name synonymous with street-savvy style in New York City. His photographs effortlessly have captured the people of New York and paved the way for the “street-style” photographers who followed, looking to make a name for themselves. Vivian Maier is a fairly recent discovery in the genre of street photography. Her prolific images of Chicago life during the mid-20th century went virtually undiscovered until 2009, but now rival the world’s best known photographers’.

Garry Winogrand, in all of his international acclaim, did the exact same thing as Cunningham and Maier. But don’t call him a “street” photographer. From New York City to Los Angeles, and many stops in between, Garry Winogrand blurred the lines between chaos and beauty, capturing the monumental era of rapid social change and economic prosperity post-World War II climate while documenting the traumatic assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the violent reactions to an impending Vietnam War.

His sudden death in 1984 left behind a trove of prints, contact sheets, and undeveloped film, many of which had never been seen by the photographer, or the public until now. Garry Winogrand, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, showcases over 175 of these iconic images offering a career-spanning, in-depth look at Winogrand’s work like it has never been seen before.

Photos: Garry Winogrand at the Met

“To think of [Winogrand] as somebody working within a genre, within a certain mode, is to miss what is most beautiful in the art,” guest curator Leo Rubinfien told the press. “The street is where he found the material that he used to speak about something vastly bigger than the street. And that something was the United States and all of the contradictory, often tormenting passions that drive the people who lived here in the past, the present and will continue to do in the future.”

The first section of the show, “Down from the Bronx,” examines Winogrand’s work from the beginning of his career in 1950 to 1971. By 1950, Winogrand—an Air Force veteran and educated painter—had moved to Manhattan from the Bronx, where he was born and raised, and discovered a passion for photography on the bustling streets of New York City.

His ability to mix the ordinary and the bizarre was one of his most well-praised traits. This can be fully seen in his iconic 1967 photo from the Central Park Zoo. A dark-skinned man and light-skinned woman stand among a crowd, clothed chimpanzees in each of their arms—an implausible family. The photograph shook up the idea of a model American family during a time when the picture-perfect family was idealized.

Winogrand also took to photographing women. It is during this time that Winogrand’s style seems to really develop. The candid moments that he captured on the street—such as men in outlandish outfits and fashion-forward, wind-blown women—rival the big-budget fashion advertisements of today.

The boom in transportation, be it highways or commercial aviation, allowed people to access far-off destinations with ease. It also allowed Winogrand to do the same. Throughout his time living and working in New York City, he also traveled across the country on journalism assignments and multiple Guggenheim fellowships. The suburbia culture that was blossoming in the 1950s, along with flamboyant cowboys and Hollywood excess, became a fascination for him as he returned countless times to the American Southwest.

Rubinfien recalled a time when Winogrand and himself were walking along 57th Street in New York City, speaking casually about the photographer’s life and works. “You can say that I’m a student of photography,” Rubinfien recalled the photographer expressing. “And I am. But really, I am a student of America.” This quote led to the title of the exhibition’s second section, “A Student of America,” which places Winogrand outside the limits of New York City, in the growing suburban culture of the American Southwest.

One image in particular, taken in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1957, depicts a small child standing alone in front of a ranch-style home. An overturned tricycle lays feet away as an ominous sky lingers in the background. An unmistakable sense of emergency exudes from the image, yet there is no context as to what that is. To Winogrand, the wall text states, the suburbs “indicated the dissolution of cities, the splintering of families, isolation, and self-seeking.” Also at that time, the country was on the heels of entering another war, threats of nuclear attacks loomed and a general sense of uncertainty remained.

The political climate that fueled the majority of the 1960s persisted in Winogrand’s work. Traveling from state to state, he visited political conventions and protests capturing a country divided by the Vietnam War, as seen in the brutal images of peaceful protests gone awry and soldiers devastatingly mangled. Within the gallery, these images—such as one from the 1964 American Legion Convention in Dallas depicting a veteran missing the lower half of his body—are juxtaposed with images of celebration and festivities. These include the Metropolitan Museum’s Centennial celebration and further emphasize Winogrand’s balancing aesthetic and society’s chaotic extremes.

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By 1971, Winogrand had moved from New York to teach in Chicago, before settling down—and further exploring—Texas and Los Angeles. He continued to do what he did best: photograph the streets from cars, in crowded destinations, political events, and even airports. But, something changed within the tone of his work.

“What joy there is in the Los Angeles work of his last years seems brittle and forced,” Rubinfien writes in the accompanying catalog. “Dramatic events are rare, and many of his subjects seem to look inward, as if troubled in ways that they themselves might find difficult to explain.”

This section, titled “Boom and Bust,” consists mainly of photographs developed posthumously after Winogrand’s untimely death in 1984. Many of the images depict lone subjects found among the crowded areas the photographer visited, often looking away from the camera and rarely smiling.

“It cannot be known how much this bleakness grew out of some personal distress on Winogrand’s part and how much of it reflects the larger malaise that overtook American life in the aftermath of the ’60s,” Rubinfien continues. “Neither can it be known whether Winogrand would have appreciated the work of his last decade, as he left so much of it unfinished.”

However, one thing is for certain. His photography is real and in your face. Whether it’s an image of a soldier coming home, the idealization of the model American family, or a casual passerby, Winogrand’s eye for detail allows the images to remain just as relevant today as they did half a century ago.

Garry Winogrand is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until September 21, 2014.