Recalling Winograndia: Garry Winogrand's camera captured post-war America like few others

In Paris, the first retrospective of Winogrand's photography for 25 years mines the huge collection of unpublished material in his archives to produce an unprecedented narrative of his career that plays out like a Hollywood biopic.

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Garry Winogrand, who died relatively young – and abruptly – of cancer in 1984, is by no means forgotten, but his photography does have an inimitable air of an earlier age, one that can sometimes appear as distant to us as the Edwardians or the Regency do. The New Yorker was one of the great chroniclers of post-war America, a snap-happy cameraman of a Hogarthian bent, whose promiscuous lens coaxed, goaded and often provoked veritable "performances" out of unsuspecting subjects. If Winogrand’s images have, over time, become emblematic of mid-century Manhattan, there is also a universality at their core – few street photographers have been as successful in charting the grammar of the human gesture or the protean mystery of the human face.

Paris’ Jeu de Paume museum is currently running the first retrospective of Winogrand’s work in 25 years and it mines the huge archive of unprocessed photographs that he left behind at his death – some 6500 rolls of film and 250,000 images – as well as others that had been marked up in proof sheets but never printed. Roughly half of the photographs in the exhibition have never been exhibited or published before, and roughly 100 are printed for the first time. Most the photographs are untitled or simply captioned with a location and date, making them as austere and enigmatic as an Emily Dickinson trouvaille. The scale of the archiving task has delayed such a show until now, but it provides an unprecedented overview of his career, which plays out almost like a Hollywood biopic might. It is divided into three parts: the first where Winogrand "down from the Bronx"’, as the exhibition has it, photographs Manhattan life with all the gleeful fascination of a day-tripper; the second covers his first ventures outside New York, mainly photographing political conventions on magazine assignments; while the third concerns the final 15 years of his life where his work took a noticeably wistful turn.

The exhibition highlights a number of Winogrand’s famous maxims, particularly his assertion that he photographed 2to see what the world looks like in photographs". The irony, of course is, that later in his life, Winogrand never actually got to see most of the photographs he took, deferring the printing of his work until it was too late in the same way many of us bookmark articles online with the intention of eventually reading them. This faith in photography as reification did, however, invest his work with a clear aesthetic and a technical composure that withstood the often-rushed conditions of his point-and-shoot method. Use of wide-angle lenses gave Winogrand a greater field to situate his instant dramas, and he was also adept at foregrounding his subjects in a frame that was askew or off-centre.

In a photograph taken in Houston in 1964, he captures, between the twin jaws of a Ford Fontana and a drugstore canopy, a stream of pedestrians. They look to be trudging down an incline but the eye is drawn to a tall woman, even taller in a blonde beehive, who has just stepped onto the pavement, who looks regal in the midst of the procession. In "Metropolitan Opera, 1951" a male and female reveller are shunted off to the right of the frame, their faces conspiratorial and Munch-like as they sup champagne. The serious business of the opera meanwhile unfolds in the background in a blackish flurry. In "Los Angeles, 1964" a tough with a broken nose glares out from behind the steering wheel of a convertible, as cars whoosh by in the opposite direction, suggesting Winogrand might have had to talk himself out of some trouble after snapping it (he was well known for defusing any resentment with bonhomie and a cheerful disposition). Like many formal tics that once seemed radical, Winogrand’s lax framing has become a staple of photography, to the extent that contemporary eyes are likely to read the images a great deal differently from an earlier generation.

Winogrand photographed his anonymous demimonde – particularly that of a small corner of midtown Manhattan – with the persistence of a paparazzo (another invention of his era) and you find yourself doing a double-take much of the time, thinking that some of the faces in the photographs are familiar ones. When an actual famous face does pop up – such as John and Robert F. Kennedy in separate photos – the effect is akin to seeing a Richard Hamilton montage or spotting a reverse Leon Zelig lurking among the ordinary folk of Winograndia. The past being a different country, there is a historical strangeness to the world contained in the photographs – it is an America that has been embossed in the popular conscious, one that is familiar yet unreal. Its telephones, cars, cameras, microphones are all chunkier and its people slimmer. There are occasional lurches towards the present day – such as when Drew Barrymore is snapped almost furtively at the Oscars in 1983 – but the world we see here is that of a chapter of history that has been closed. Winogrand’s early death the following year cuts the epoch off all the more definitively.

Despite his gregarious amiability, Winogrand was a frustrated man, as unhappy working on commercial and advertising assignments as he was in photojournalism. These presumably offered less scope for the sometimes surreal direction his work took, such as the 1967 photograph, taken in Central Park Zoo, of a mixed-race couple carrying chimpanzees. Commercial success also eluded him. The exhibition juxtaposes a recommendation from Diane Arbus for a Guggenheim fellowship in 1968 with a typewritten letter from his wife the same year explaining how she can’t take any more of the financial strain of living with him. They would split two years later. In his final decade he broke out for the West, eventually settling in Los Angeles. His later work is more sparsely populated, with greater open spaces and is often lonelier than the earlier photographs, but the formal assurance remains. As is so often the case with an artist’s late work, there is a tension between an earlier style and a newer one, redolent of a reinvention, conscious or not, before the end comes.

But Winogrand in reality never did see the end come – he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 56 and he had already lost the battle by then, dying in Tijuana just two months later. He was a man who was wont to cull his published work from a huge amount of filmed images, but we will never know what he thought of those he shot in his last decade. This exhibition, curated by Leo Rubinfien, Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough, makes a commendable effort at imagining what he might have retained.

Garry Winogrand is at the Jeu de Paume, 1 place de la Concorde, 75008 Paris until the 8th of February 2015

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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