Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Revisiting the Winogrand Archive: Philip Lorca diCorcia in Conversation with Leo Rubinfien

Leo Rubinfien and Philip Lorca diCorcia revisit the Garry Winogrand archive.

 - July 2, 2014


For many years, an aura has surrounded the Garry Winogrand archive. The photographer, who died in 1984 at age fifty-six, left behind more than
 six thousand rolls of unedited film and numerous photographs that had been marked on his proof sheets but never printed. Over the past three years, photographer Leo Rubinfien has been working for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., as guest curator of the first Winogrand retrospective since the mid-1980s, re-editing these materials—in collaboration with curator Erin O’Toole (SFMOMA) and Sarah Greenough (NGA)—and supervising the printing of many never-before-seen images, some of which appear in the accompanying pages. The exhibition Garry Winogrand—accompanied by a major publication—began in March last year at SFMOMA, subsequently traveled to the NGA, and recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (it will later travel to the Jeu De Paume, Paris, and the Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid). Here, photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia (known as PL) speaks with Rubinfien about the complexities of Winogrand’s work, which has often been mischaracterized as “street photography,” the legacy of curator John Szarkowski, and the new meanings we may discover today by revisiting this influential photographer.
— The Editors

Philip-Lorca diCorcia: As someone who went to Yale in the late 1970s and had Tod Papageorge as a professor, I resisted Garry Winogrand. By ’78, he was a cult; there was an orthodoxy around him at that time.

Leo Rubinfien: There was certainly a circle of people associated with Winogrand—mainly photographers, but not exclusively. They had intense convictions about the value of his work—and other people’s work, too—and also about how photography should be thought about and discussed, but to say that a cult formed around him seems harsh to me. These were thoughtful, intelligent people, and each one had reasons for being present. Did an orthodoxy develop? Maybe so, but slowly. The photographers connected with Winogrand in the 1960s were drawn at least partly by the sense that there was more freedom in his approach to photography than they could find anywhere else. Later, they had to defend themselves and if there was some dogmatizing, that was only human.

PL: Of course, the arbiter of photographic quality at that time was the Museum of Modern Art. There was a pantheon there, and Winogrand was one of them. With that pantheon came certain attributes—for instance, black-and-white work. I remember going to MoMA and the only color photography that was up at that time was by Irving Penn.

LR: When MoMA showed the color work of Eggleston and Stephen Shore in the mid-1970s it was news, although I’m not sure that noncommercial photographers were doing a vast amount in color before that, anyway before C-printing made it affordable. As a matter of fact, though, one component of MoMA’s famous 1967 New Documents exhibition was a slide show, in color, by Winogrand. It’s true of course that Winogrand was openly supported by John Szarkowski and the Museum of Modern Art, and that Szarkowski had his own case to make, and didn’t compromise it. He dismissed a lot of work, and that made many people resentful. But if somebody asked: “What’s the simplest explanation you can give of what Szarkowski did?” I would say that it was to move photography out of the world of journalism and into the world of the fine arts. The old picture magazines were dying. They had dominated the practice and the dissemination of photography for three decades, and now their culture and their mode of thinking were fading away. Szarkowski didn’t just bring a gang of photographers across the street from the Time-Life building to the Museum of Modern Art; he replaced one set of values with another, one way of looking at photographs with another. Journalism had demanded pictures that explained the world “clearly,” in well-accepted ways, but Szarkowski said that photographs explain almost nothing, and that this was not a defect, but a virtue. And Winogrand’s work demonstrates that the ambiguity of photography can be one of its great strengths.

Garry Winogrand, New York, ca. 1960. © Estate of Garry Winogrand and courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

PL: In terms of the legacy in museums, the Szarkowski world is disappearing. The Museum of Modern Art has a new director of photography, Quentin Bajac, who has nothing to do with that world. Is this major project about Winogrand— one of the core figures of that school—in some way marking the end of that era?

LR: I didn’t work on the Winogrand retrospective to make a statement about MoMA, but to better understand Winogrand. Although it’s true that since shortly before Szarkowski’s death, his prime protégés have been having retrospectives—Arbus, Friedlander, Eggleston, Robert Adams—and that these have inevitably re-evaluated Szarkowski’s work. The SFMOMA Winogrand project is the most recent one. Is it the end of something, or the beginning of something else? Maybe it’s both. Today, the debates of the Szarkowski years have mostly expired, or turned into other debates, so maybe an artist like Winogrand can now be set free of them. The SFMOMA book and show say: “Let’s go back and look again at what Winogrand did.” It’s particularly interesting to do this because he died young and until now his work has never been thoroughly explored. A lot of what’s in SFMOMA’s book and show has never been seen before, or has rarely been seen, and it presents a somewhat different Winogrand from the one we thought we knew.

PL: There was presumably a reason that so much work was left behind, unprocessed and unedited. Is there any sense that that was the way it should have been left?

LR: Well, I didn’t think the work should be left in the closet or I wouldn’t have undertaken SFMOMA’s project. The unfinished work was unfinished because Winogrand died not only young, but suddenly, and he had no time to prepare anything for posterity. In December 1983 he thought he had years to live. In March 1984 he was gone. There are many reasons why he didn’t edit and print more of his work, and they’re all interesting. But would those pictures be better left unseen? We’re speaking of one of the finest photographers there has been, and of work that changes the way we understand him. It’s work of great beauty and depth that will nourish anyone who lets it in. So no, I think it would be arbitrary, rigid, and shortsighted to hide it away.

PL: Every epigram that is attributed to Winogrand seems to be an evasion of a question. It’s hard to say, when someone’s work has an aspect of evasion and alienation in it, whether this is social commentary or an expression of an artist’s own feelings. But the man obviously was not comfortable with the world and with himself. Do you think his investigation of class was a manifestation of his own insecurities? In his pictures at the Whitney and the Metropolitan Museum you can’t help but think that he’s being judged by the same people that he’s photographing. And there’s his own not-too-subtle criticism in most of those images.

LR: Winogrand was often combative and sometimes defensive, and his evasiveness sometimes expressed this. But more importantly, he understood how untranslatable a photograph is, how it says something that can’t be said in speech. I think that the main reason he resisted explaining himself was that he didn’t want to smother under a pile of words that special, poetic ambiguity that makes a photograph beautiful. I don’t believe that he felt himself an outsider in the way that The Americans suggests that Frank did. The world in Winogrand’s photographs is his own world. His pictures from the streets of Manhattan in the early ’60s—the beautiful women, the businessmen, and so on—to me they describe a world that Winogrand is contemplating joining, or that he is in the process of joining even if he’s horrified by many things he sees. Beauty and ugliness, order and chaos, are inextricable in Winogrand’s work.

Garry Winogrand, Wyoming, 1964. © Estate of Garry Winogrand and courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

PL: Was he carpet-bombing the visual realm—shooting everything in sight? Why settle for one frame when you can have twenty?

LR: The idea that he was an extraordinarily prodigious shooter, a “carpet-bomber,” is actually a myth. I didn’t know that until I worked on SFMOMA’s project. From the time he started up until 1971 (twenty-one years—and most of his best pictures were from that period), he was shooting five hundred rolls of film a year on average, which is not very much: a roll-and-a-half a day. The large numbers came much later. In fact, when they did come, that’s when the quality of the work fell off sharply—almost as if Winogrand knew that he was weakening and was struggling furiously against it.

PL: Winogrand’s narratives are so elusive that they sometimes seem quite modern. But some of his work was almost corny, in the “tale told” way. I think as his picture structure started to fall apart, so did the conclusions to be drawn from the suggested narratives. And that’s where, for me, he becomes really interesting and surreal.

LR: He began in the world of magazine journalism, where pictures were functional and illustrative. But he resisted this from very early on, and by the ’60s he was working in an anti-narrative way and arrived at a kind of ambiguity that he found enlightening and beautiful. He would ultimately say: “There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described,” as if the picture might stand in front of you like an apparition. It would be strange. It would be surprising. It would be disconnected from the rest of the world as you knew it, and from whatever story you expected it to tell. In the late work, in the 1970s and the early ’80s, there’s not only no narrative, there’s almost no event. The pictures are about the way faces look. They’re about space. And you could say that he learned how to find beauty in a picture in which you can’t tell what’s happening at a moment in time—the 1960s—when the entire American nation couldn’t tell what was happening in life itself. And so his way of picture making came to speak not just for him but for a vast collective experience.

PL: The street provides a constantly changing set of possibilities. The pushback that the world throws at you when you attempt to wrangle from it some sort of meaning with a camera is significant.

LR: In one way, Winogrand’s work is all about how the world coalesces, and then dissolves, about how chaos threatens to overtake order again and again. He often talked about himself and his work in relation to photography in general. He’d say: “I’m interested in the problem that a piece of material sets for the medium,” or “I’m interested in the contention between content and form.” Szarkowski, too, among others, argued that Winogrand was saying various things about photography itself with his work. But another aspect of his work is a ferocious attention that I associate with portrait making more than with most photography of the street, even though Winogrand brought it to the street, to crowds of people in motion. He looks at those people with a fierce grip, and he asks, What’s that hat you’re wearing? and Why does your foot turn the way it does? and Who are you? At one point he said: “You could say that I’m a student of photography, and I am, but really I’m a student of America.” At another time, he said to a close friend of his: “You know why your pictures are no fucking good? Because they don’t describe the chaos of life.” These two comments are the best guides I can think of to what Winogrand’s work is about. In the end, I think the street was just a site. The point was what he saw in the street—and what he saw there was a great many pieces of evidence that teach us serious things about the character of American people, about the evanescence of seeing, about the transience of life itself.

PL: There’s a reductiveness to photography, of course—in the framing of reality and the exclusion of chunks of it (the rest of the world, in fact). It’s almost as if the act of photography bears some relationship to how we consciously manage the uncontrollable set of possibilities that exist in life. I think that, more than any other photographer, Winogrand expressed the fact that everything is held together by the thinnest of threads. Strangely, I doubt that anybody in a photo program right now thinks of Garry Winogrand as their prime motivation, although the current practice of photography does have a certain relationship to his work, which could now seem outmoded. I think part of what he did, which is today a process in contemporary photography and art, was to break assumptions.

LR: Well, maybe that’s one reason why people should look at him again now. The work is very free, and it remains fresh. It’s powerful but it refuses to make grand declarations—it’s powerful partly because it refuses to do that. It’s only outmoded if one thinks that art progresses in a linear way, and that this year’s art disqualifies last year’s. But I don’t believe that there is any such progression. That kind of thinking is a fiction of certain criticism and of the art market. If a work of art is alive, it is alive, no matter when it was made. There is something tremendously open-ended about Winogrand’s work. It’s there picture by picture, and in the overall body of work. It’s a quality of Winogrand’s, but it was a quality that artists often sought in the 1960s. Fellini once said: “To make a movie that has an ending is immoral.” It’s immoral. It’s to lie to the audience. Because life has no endings; life is all flux and discontinuity.

Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s work is the subject of many books, including Eleven (Damiani, 2011), Thousand (Steidl/Dangin, 2007), A Storybook Life (twin palms, 2003), Heads (Steidl, 2001), and Hustlers (Steidl/Dangin, 2013).

Leo Rubinfien is the author of A Map of the East (Godine/thames & Hudson, 1992) and Wounded Cities (Steidl, 2008), and co-author of Shomei Tomatsu/Skin of the Nation (SFMOMA/Yale university press, 2004). The book accompanying his Winogrand exhibition was be co-published by SFMOMA and Yale university press.