Garry Winogrand – Looking at Photos the Master Never saw

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When Images Come to Life After Death

The photographer Garry Winogrand was known for imposing an artist’s eye on messy urban life, but when he died in 1984, after a rapidly lethal cancer, he left behind an imposing mess of uncertain artistic value: a third of a million exposed frames of film that he hadn’t edited. More than 2,500 rolls — some 100,000 frames — were undeveloped. He had never seen them.

His friend and supporter John Szarkowski, director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, developed the unprocessed rolls and saved them from irrevocable deterioration. However, when he reviewed many contact sheets of this overabundance of late photos, Mr. Szarkowski became frustrated and angry. He included only a small sample of what he deemed “unfinished work,” plagued with “crippling mechanical flaws,” in Winogrand’s posthumous retrospective in 1988. He compared Winogrand’s late-life photographic frenzy to the sputtering that an overheated car engine continues to make after the ignition has been turned off.

To expose film is not quite to photograph,” Mr. Szarkowski, who died in 2007, said. How can an artist evaluate his photographs, correct his working methods and present what best expresses his vision, if he has never proofed his negatives?

In the first major Winogrand retrospective since 1988, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until Sept. 21, the curators argue otherwise. Leo Rubinfien, a photographer and writer, agreed to organize the show largely because he hoped to overturn Mr. Szarkowski’s verdict and demonstrate, he said, “that Winogrand was not washed up in the years I had known him.” He examined most of Winogrand’s images and devoted one-quarter of the catalog to late work, the vast majority of which Winogrand never reviewed. In all, 164 of 401 plates are posthumous.

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