Garry Winogrand, “New York” (1969)
Garry Winogrand, “New York” (1969)

For years, my mental image of Garry Winogrand was of a photographer hopped up on speed—someone who treated his shutter like a machine-gun trigger, sometimes without looking. Winogrand was sometimes called a “carpet bomber,” but the retrospective on his career now at the National Gallery of Art shows he was much more than just an itchy finger.

Leo Rubinfien, who helped curate the exhibit for the National Gallery and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, told Aperture Magazine that diving deep into the archive convinced him that the notion of Winogrand as rabid shutterbug is a “myth.” It was only late in his career, Rubinfien said, that Winogrand picked up the pace—and “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.”

When he died suddenly in 1984, he left a trove of a quarter million images, largely unsorted and unedited. About half of the photographs in the exhibition—the first major retrospective of his work in 25 years—have never been shown or published before, providing a much broader look at his oeuvre.

The earliest work in the exhibit—primarily depicting postwar New York City, where Winogrand grew up—echoes that of three other photographers born within five years of him: William Klein, Diane Arbus, and Robert Frank. Like his peers, Winogrand shot in moody, sometimes grainy black and white. More to the point, each of them was a quintessential people watcher. Winogrand would seemingly lurk on sidewalks with an antenna sharply attuned to the movements, faces, and oddities swirling around him. Hanging around Midtown, Winogrand was the original chronicler of the Mad Men era; one image of a young woman in an elevator could serve as a publicity still for the show. He had a keen eye for the mysterious, in such images as a tableau of a crowd of people surrounding a suspicious splotch on a sidewalk, a white couple driving a convertible with a monkey, and a trio of black men, one of them yelling. What is the splotch? What’s with the monkey? Why is the man yelling? While Winogrand’s camera seemingly sees all, he doesn’t explain much.

Perhaps the crowded sidewalks eventually got a little claustrophobic, because Winogrand began to roam. He still focused on happenstance moments, but now they took place in the suburbs or rural areas. The light he encounters in places like L.A. is airier, but the themes are increasingly unnerving. An image of a toddler and an upturned tricycle in the driveway of an Albuquerque ranch house presages by a decade the western anomie captured Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz; the face of an L.A. man driving a woman in a convertible is adorned with a nose bandage like the one Jack Nicholson would wear in Chinatown. In another image, a boy crawls on a grassy patch near a curb, eerily echoing Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.”

The exhibit’s final third, covering the 1970s and early 1980s, sags along with the nation’s mood. For the most part, people sought privacy and avoided Winogrand’s gaze—if the architecture of the modern suburb even allowed a photographer within shouting distance. This era of his work is capped by the demoralizing image of a woman sprawled on the shoulder of Sunset Boulevard, a Porsche Carrera zooming by without a care.

In this context, the photographer struggled to recapture his halcyon days. A tilt of the camera, once a successful way for Winogrand to tweak the 6-foot-4 President Lyndon Johnson by making him look unbalanced, became a crutch, utilized to the point of cliché as a way to frame desolate street corners and empty lots. One can only imagine how much Winogrand would chafe today, when the very idea of a documentary street photographer has been supplanted by an endless digital stream of selfies.