Following the suggestion of Mike Johnston at TheOnlinePhotographer (TOP), I went to see a photography show today in DC. In order to do this, I took half a day off work, caught a morning train to the nation’s capital and walked in the sweltering heat, traveling around 1.5 hours each way, to see the Garry Winogrand show at the National Gallery of Art. I had planned this trip a week ago, when the forecast explicitly called for nice, cool, drizzly weather. Alas, the sun turned up the heat today and it almost hit 86 degrees, with no rain in sight. The show started early March, and runs till June 8th, which was why I had to make the pilgrimage despite the heat, lest I miss it altogether.
To prepare myself for the trip, I watched the video on the Gallery website (which was, thoughtfully, also shown in a hall in the middle of the exhibition), and also listened to the podcast by Leo Rubinfien. I especially recommend watching the video of an interview conducted in Rice University, which shows Winogrand at his most charming.
With regards to the show, it was divided into three sections: “Down from the Bronx”, “Student of America” and “Boom and Bust”. The former two contained many familiar favorites of Winogrand’s, and most were primary prints (i.e. prints made with the photographers explicit input, as opposed to secondary ones where the printing may be done without supervision, as in posthumous selections/prints). Generally, these two sections were very strong, with many of his hits interspersed with his lesser-known works. The explanatory/expository texts also served to enrich my personal understanding and knowledge of Winogrand. For example, I did not know that he married thrice, and was awarded one Guggenheim Fellowship during each marriage. One of the highlights of the second section was a furious letter written by second wife, Judy Teller, chastising the man for his inability to provide for the family. Her references to his jocular responses strikes one as typically Winogrand (insofar as he is known), and does much to humanize the extremely private, yet larger-than-life man.
The last part of the exhibition, “Boom and Bust”, consists of images that were mostly never-before-seen. This should have been the main draw of the exhibition, and indeed was the main reason I made the trip. Unfortunately, it seems that the words of the immortal John Szarkowski, former curator of photography at the MoMA, do indeed ring true. He famously expressed his disappointment at the quality of Winogrand’s late work, which, despite the frantic pace of photographing, seemed to lack the same intensity and magic of his more celebrated oeuvre. I was deeply disappointed with the images, which seemed to lack any purpose at all. The prints were also of inferior quality – as if printed by a darkroom novice. I am not sure why this would be the case, though the phasing-out of analog processes may have taken a toll on the collective skill level of printers. Despite Rubinfien’s rationalizing this as a “darker turn” in the photographer’s work, it seems to me that perhaps Winogrand would have been better served, and his legend better preserved, if the 4500 rolls of film he did not have time to look through remained unknown to the world. Of course, it is also possible that in the hands of a more able curator, the selection would have been better – there are more than 100,000 images to choose from after all. Ultimately, this may speak to the need to review one’s work – repeatedly putting it off cannot give one enough feedback to improve and correct one’s work.
In summary, is the exhibition worth going to? I’ll say it’s a qualified “yes”. It is certainly good to see the original prints of Winogrand, which I have seen so many times on the internet (until the publication of this exhibition catalog, it had been very hard to get hold of his books, due to, according to my understanding, the estate’s refusal to release rights to the material). Unfortunately, the photographer is left a somewhat diminished figure because of the exhibition.