Garry Winogrand: One of the Most Important Photographers of the Twentieth Century

Widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) did much of his best-known work in Manhattan during the 1960s, becoming an epic chronicler of that tumultuous decade. But Winogrand was also an avid traveller and roamed extensively around the United States, bringing exquisite work out of nearly every region of the country. This landmark retrospective catalogue looks at the full sweep of Winogrand’s exceptional career. Lavishly illustrated with both iconic images and photographs that have never been seen before now, and featuring essays by leading scholars of American photography, Garry Winogrand presents a vivid portrait of an artist who unflinchingly captured America’s swings between optimism and upheaval in the postwar era.

In the last few years of his life, Garry Winogrand (1928 – 1984) was widely considered one of the most important and influential photographers of the twentieth century. His innovative, even radically inventive pictures – with their centrifugal compositions, tilted horizons, and decontextualized, mysterious details – captivated many people who saw them in exhibitions, books, magazines, or the slide shows he presented at colleges and art schools across the United States. To those willing to look carefully, Winogrand demonstrated how photography could be as rich, meaningful, and evocative as the most exalted of the fine arts, and how it could speak not just of the local and transitory appearances of things, but of all that we most deeply know and feel. His work combines the hope and exaltation that flourished post-World War II era with a powerful sense of anxiety, illuminating a country that seems both at the height of its powers and on the verge of spinning out of control. Winogrand revealed essential characteristics if American life as few photographers have done before or since, showing its beauty and brutality as well as its accidental humor, and his photographs present a world we still know and contend with today.

Until now, however, Winogrand has been the most sparsely studied and least understood of his peers, who include Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, and Lee Friedlander. Indeed, it has been difficult for people coming to his pictures for the first time to grasp their meaning, the exceptional scope of his vision, the importance of his contribution to American art, or his relevance to contemporary concerns. This book and the exhibition it accompanies aim to recapture the broad sweep of photographs Winogrand made from the early 1950s through the early 1980s and to reveal for the first time the full reach of the picture of America that he created. In so doing, our intent has been to break down the limiting topical categories in which his work was generally presented during his life, to link disparate pictures and so unlock their less obvious meanings, and to trace the arcs of both Winogrand’s own life and the collective feeling of Americans as they moved from the ebullience of the postwar years to the despondency of the 1970s.

Assembling a retrospective of Winogrand’s art has been challenging for many reasons. He died young and suddenly – just after his fifty-sixth birthday, he was told that he had untreatable cancer and was given only a few weeks to live – and he left his work in considerable disarray. Winogrand had always worked in a headlong way, preferring to spend another day shooting rather than processing his film or editing his pictures. No prints existed if many of the best photographs he made in his first decades, and he left behind over sixty-five hundred rolls of film from his later years that he never processed, or that he had processed but never proofed, and whose contents he had therefore never seen. The prints he made were mostly uncatalogued; all but those he produced specifically for sale or exhibition were unsigned, untitled, and undated; and though his negatives and proof sheets – the heart of his work – were numbered, there was no indication of where one year ended and another began or where in the world Winogrand was when he exposed any given role of film.

Although his photographs were shown in numerous exhibitions at museums and galleries, these shows usually presented what interested him at the moment, and all but one of the five books he published during his lifetime focused on specific subjects: zoo animals, women, public and political events of the late 1960s, the Fort Worth rodeo. Nowhere – except in the slide shows that he often gave in his last decades – was there a suggestion of the breadth of his vision. After Winogrand’s death, only John Szarkowski’s 1988 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and its accompanying publication, Winogrand: Figments from the Real World, attempted a general treatment of his work.


During his life, Winogrand made no effort to publish a summation of his work, and although he admired photographic books such as Walker Evans’s American Photographs and Robert Frank’s The Americans, which achieved their effects partly by connecting diverse pictures, he spoke only vaguely of attempting such a book himself. His enormous energy, his insistent desire to move forward rather than to look back, his delight in profusion of life and of photographic detail, and his affection for all of his photographs help to account for his reluctance to codify his work. Beyond all this he realized that photographs in general, and his in particular, are deeply ambiguous objects open to numerous, often equally compelling interpretations. 

– From the Introduction to Garry Winogrand by Leo Rubinfine

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