25 Years, 6,000 Rolls: Garry Winogrand Retrospective to (Finally) Open at SFMOMA

Even during his life, Garry Winogrand embodied a certain elusiveness. Widely recognized as one of the most prolific photographers of the 20th century, Winogrand rarely exhibited. When he did participate in gallery shows, it was even more rare that his work received critical attention or that Winogrand spoke of his work. To find an interview with the photographer, one has to dig deep and often these interviews are second-hand, recounted by Winogrand’s former students or friends.

Then there’s the issue of documentation. Through his career, Winogrand developed thousands of rolls of film, producing more content than most of his contemporaries combined. But when he died, abruptly, he left behind 6,000 rolls of undeveloped film.

There’s nothing surprising in these numbers–often credited as one of the originators of “street photography,” Winogrand could shoot a roll of film within minutes, but consciously, always with the utmost care. According to a former student, Mason Resnick:

“He shot prolifically. I watched him walk a short block and shoot an entire roll without breaking stride. As he reloaded, I asked him if he felt bad about missing pictures when he reloaded. “No,” he replied, “there are no pictures when I reload.” (Read more here)

Still, such a massive collection of unreviewed work has posed various problems for Winogrand enthusiasts, collectors, and friends as they attempt to bring public attention to the photographer and his talent.

Now, one man (with the help of SFMOMA, The National Gallery of Art, and various arts organizations) seeks to untangle the archives, negatives, and film rolls, offering a fresh perspective on Winogrand’s life, passion, and work in a massive retrospective exhibit…

A joint effort by SFMOMA and the National Gallery of Art, Leo Rubinfien curated the exhibition, which will open in March 2013. It’s the first retrospective of Winogrand’s work in 25 years. The show itself approaches the photographer’s work with a certain radicalism, which fits well with the rule-bending methods that Winogrand applied to his own subject matter. Rubinfien isn’t a professional curator, but he was part of Winogrand’s circle in the 1970s. He applied his personal knowledge of Winogrand with meticulous research to select works included in the exhibit. Along with Winogrand’s most recognizable images, some 200 photos from the undeveloped film rolls discovered in Winogrand’s effects will be on view for the first time.

Rubinfien spent years wading through this undeveloped film, applying his creative judgment, but also knowledge of Winogrand’s personality and aesthetic to select the images that represent the photographer best. A photographer who focused on street events, transitory moments and life in action, we can understand Winogrand best through archival footage, including the outtakes of a life lived behind the lens. There, in the images overlooked for 25 years, we find a photographer of the people, one worth adding to our repertoire.

Garry Winogrand runs from March 9 – June 2, 2012 at SFMOMA.

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Kit Warchol