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Book Review: Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand. Photographs by Garry Winogrand.
Published by Yale University Press, 2013.
 
Garry Winogrand
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Garry Winogrand
Photographs by Garry Winogrand.
Yale University Press, New Haven, 2013. Hardbound. 448 pp., 470 black & white illustrations, 9-3/4x11-1/4".


Most photographers are lucky to receive one major museum retrospective. Garry Winogrand has had two. So far. Figments From the Real World, curated in 1988 at MoMA by Winogrand's patron and champion John Szarkowski, was meant to be the final verdict.

But a quarter century later the shine of that show has faded, at least in the eyes of Winogrand's colleague and friend Leo Rubinfien. His blockbuster retrospective currently at SFMoMA reconsiders the photographer from a variety of perspectives, but primarily as a symbol of post-war exuberance. In the process Szarkowski himself goes under the examining table. Rubinfien's main beef seems to be with his treatment of the later rolls, those quarter million or so frames shot by Winogrand but left unconsidered when he died. By most accounts Szarkowski gave them short shrift, devoting only a few pages to them at the end of Figments, an afterthought to what he considered the important work.

Garry Winogrand, by Garry Winogrand. Published by Yale University Press, 2013.

Now Rubinfien hopes to rectify that situation. He's given a curator's attention to the later rolls, along with the other 2 million frames. No small task. The results, sprinkled throughout the recently published Garry Winogrand, are decidedly mixed. For Winogrand fans the new pictures are unlikely to burnish anyone's appreciation. For the non-fans, this book will likely confirm their worst suspicions. The book fills out the legend, especially of Winogrand as compulsive street shooting icon, but in the end one is left feeling that perhaps Szarkowski's early judgment was correct.

All in all, the book has the size and scope we've come to expect from similar retrospectives. It feels comparable to Friedlander, the 2005 MoMA survey. That is to say, both are enormous, calculated, and resourceful. Both will flatten any troublesome print left underneath. And both attempt a task which is perhaps impossible, to sum up 40 odd years in a few hundred pages and improve the understanding of someone already very well known. If Garry Winogrand falls short of Friedlander, it's in the photo reproductions, which occasionally vary in quality to the point of distraction. What should be black sometimes wanders into middle grey. It's generally fine, but one wonders why time wasn't taken to ensure consistent tonality. Maybe to enhance the rushed feeling of Winogrand's caged animal pace?

Garry Winogrand, by Garry Winogrand. Published by Yale University Press, 2013.
Garry Winogrand, by Garry Winogrand. Published by Yale University Press, 2013.

Friedlander aside, the natural comparison is to the previous retrospective, Szarkowski's Figments. Taken together the two volumes complement each other nicely, each filling the gaps of the other. Books have come a long way since the late 80s, and the new one is generally superior in most respects. Bigger, faster, stronger, etc. There is some minor repetition of images between the two but not as much as one might expect. Figments is organized as a Greatest Hits collection, showing most of the images for which Winogrand is best known. In fact it's probably partially responsible for their notoriety. Rubinfien's Garry Winogrand on the other hand seems determined to dig below the surface a bit. Many photos are familiar, but also plenty of unseen images from Winogrand's late L.A. period -- the aforementioned 6500 rolls -- and also some culling of previously overlooked gems from Winogrand's early and mid career. All are mixed together in a kind of rough stew with minimal organization. The sequence is nominally by subject and era (as with Figments) but those labels seem a bit like an afterthought. But that's the nature of Winogrand. He was more Tumblr than Flickr.

Garry Winogrand, by Garry Winogrand. Published by Yale University Press, 2013.

Minor caveats aside, I like this book quite a bit. I'd recommend it as a supplement to Figments, and to anyone with more than a passing interest in street photography. It has been given the careful attention and craft that museum shows generally confer. Along with several hundred photographs, the requisite accompanying essays have been commissioned by various luminaries: Sarah Greenough, Tod Papageorge, Sandra Phillips, Erin O'Toole, and of course Rubinfien himself. Their essays are interesting, especially Rubinfien's biographical account, but not particularly enlightening for those already familiar with Winogrand's photos. They don't transform the meaning of Winogrand's images in the way, for example, that Papageorge's essay did for Public Relations, or Szarkowski's did for Figments. The most helpful supplement is Susan Kismaric's chronology and bibliography, greatly expanded and improved on from the barebones version in Figments. For hardcore fans, that nugget alone will be worth the price of the book, as a source of research leads if nothing else. Judging by the new show and book and continuing general interest in Winogrand, I suspect the final word in his chronology has not yet been written.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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