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Garry Winogrand -- The Curator’s Speak

Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "Park Avenue" 1959
The powerful Garry Winogrand retrospective now at the Met is not only a look back at the work of an acknowledged master, but is also a quest for a better understanding and a more complete picture of the artist’s work. It includes many images that Winogrand had seen only on contact sheets, and even some that the photographer had never seen at all since he had left behind some 6,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film when he died in 1984.

Jeff Rosenheim, the Met’s Curator in Charge, Department of Photography, and Leo Rubinfien, photographer, essayist, and the curator for the show, were both at the recent press preview at the Met and presented their views, reminiscences and approaches to the man and his work.

Photo by © Norman Bordan . Source:
© Norman Bordan, "Jeff Rosenheim at the Winogrand preview at the Met." 2014

Rosenheim called Winogrand “one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century who believed worlds could be revealed by photographing the ordinary.”

Winogrand was known for his pithy remarks, but was also known for what he said about his own work — which was usually nothing. Rosenheim explained that as a student of Winogrand’s during his sophomore year at Yale, he had asked him what was actually happening when he took the classic photograph of the couple and their monkey riding in a convertible on Park Avenue. Rosenheim, reading from the notes he had kept for 33 years, gave Winogrand’s response: “Forget about the original situation, Jeff, it’s gone, look at the picture… a photograph is a new thing, a lie, a transformation.” When Rosenheim asked what had influenced him, the artist replied, “I looked at magazines, Walker Evans and Robert Frank, in that order.”

Rosenheim ended his remarks with a classic Winogrand observation – “There is nothing more mysterious than a fact clearly described.” A statement whose meaning, he said, people still ponder today.

Photo by © Norman Bordan . Source:
© Norman Bordan, "Leo Rubinfien at the Winogrand preview at the Met." 2014

Leo Rubinfien, began this project when he was called on to edit a new Garry Winogrand book, one that would include many of the previously unseen images in the Winogrand archives; he was then asked to curate this exhibition for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In starting out on such a massive project, (Winogrand shot more than 20,000 rolls of film in his life, including the 6,500 rolls that were undeveloped at his death) Rubinfien said he had three objectives: 1) Look at the work that had not been seen; 2) Break it down into topical boxes; 3) Try to arrive at some interpretation of it. In the process he viewed 22,000 contact sheets, thousands of slides,– or nearly one million images.

Photo by Garry Winogrand . Source:
Garry Winogrand, "Los Angeles" 1969

In his research, he unearthed Winogrand’s 1963 application for a Guggenheim fellowship, which is in the exhibition, and which he believes offers a clue into Winogrand’s feelings about his own work:

“I look at the pictures I have done until now and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter – our aspirations have been cheap and petty…I read the newspapers, the columnists and some books and they all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves and the bomb will finish the job permanently. We have not loved life. “

Rubinfien then offered his own perspective:

“He was a sage, he was strongly opinionated, never shrank from them, he was always right and at the same time, he was the guy who would say in the quietest voice, ‘You have to realize you’re nothing before you can be free.’”

According to Rubinfien, Winogrand’s view of the world and photography is what drew many people to him. He considered Winogrand to be “one of the least phony people I have ever met...we were drawn to him by his truthfulness and his authenticity...He was a headlong worker, he never looked back, he produced books and shows but you never felt he was working for the next book or show but for the next picture.”

“I always felt he was an epic poet of life in the United States…here’s the businessman, here’s the beauty, here’s the truck driver, here’s the animal in the zoo.” Rubinfien mentioned the time they were walking along 57th Street when Winogrand said to him, “You can say that I’m a student of photography and I am, but I am really a student of America.”

Rubinfien feels the exhibition has given us a new Winogrand, and certainly a more complete picture of an epic artist.

Garry Winogrand -- The Curator’s Speak by Norman Borden


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