The photographic legacy of Garry Winogrand

Image caption Point Mugu Naval Air Station, California, 1979

For those of us interested in street photography there are a few names that stand out and one of those is Garry Winogrand, whose pictures of New York in the 1960s are a photographic lesson in every frame.

A new exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is showing some of the pictures he left behind for the first time and photographer Stephen McLaren went along to report on the show.

One of the great mysteries of 20th Century photography had been solved - albeit partially - at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The mystery concerns the later years of Garry Winogrand, a major figure in American and world photography, who died prematurely in 1984 at the age of 56.

Although dead for nearly 30 years, Winogrand remains a totemic figure to many of today's generation of street photographers. His ballsy attitude, dynamic and kinetic compositions, and refusal to repeat himself have made him a hero for photographers grappling with the challenges of shooting candid situations in everyday life.

Always prodigious, Winogrand left behind 6,500 rolls of film from which he never made prints, or even had processed. For a photographer with a reputation for shooting brilliant images from all corners of America this was a massive amount of material which had never been evaluated - until now.

Leo Rubinfien, a New-York based photographer who was a friend and former student of Winogrand's, decided in 2001 that it was time to reappraise the career of his mentor and finally draw some conclusions as to how his work had played-out in his later years.

This major retrospective of Winogrand's working life includes more than 300 pictures, one-third of which which have never been seen before in public. As a result, we finally get to discover what Garry Winogrand was shooting at with his Leica and wide-angle lens so furiously in the last decade or so of his life.

A hastily produced retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1988 made an attempt to grapple with the posthumous archive. However, after reviewing a selection of images from some of the unprocessed films, the curator, John Szarkowski, judged that while living in Texas and Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s, Winogrand had lost much of his creative focus and had not been applying himself with the same level of intensity as he had in New York.

Image caption Los Angeles, 1980-83

Reasons given for the abrupt change in his work included family break-up, possibly leaving him despondent and disillusioned, and also a suggestion that his relocation from the energetic streets of Manhattan to the wider, emptier, less claustrophobic spaces of the West had robbed him of that energy which courses through New York's sidewalks.

The considered opinion on Winogrand's posthumous archive was, "nothing much to see here".

Finding it hard to believe that his mentor's creative powers had deserted him so abruptly, Rubinfien decided that he would have to look deeper and more inquisitively into the archive.

To gain a new appreciation of what Winogrand was shooting in California and Texas, a team of specialists including Rubinfien and assistant curator Erin O'Toole have spent the past few years sorting through and appraising the massive stockpile of films stored at the Center for Creative Photography of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

As you enter the section of the exhibition devoted to those later years, it quickly becomes apparent you are looking at pictures of a different order to the ones which brought him recognition in the 1960s.

Gone are the punchy chaotic street scenes chock-full of oddball characters, animals and apparently haphazard framing. Instead we see more solitary and introspective characters, the mood is typically foreboding and in the pictures from Los Angeles, no-one seems to be living the Californian dream which had the Beach Boys harmonising.

"The late Los Angeles work is one of the great discoveries of this show," said Rubinfien. "We were told, and we believed, that he dissolved in the last 12 years and trailed off and ended up nowhere.

"But he didn't end up nowhere - he ended up in the middle of a very dark poetry full of its own kind of pathos and we've managed to give that a shape and a character and its here in the show."

Image caption Fort Worth, Texas, 1974-77

He was a photographer who showed little interest in editing his own work for publication or exhibition, instead leaving it to trusted curators and friends, so the question of how this archive should be approached is also troubling for Rubinfien.

"Winogrand would have been the very first person to say stories should have no endings. If you give my life's work a conclusion you are distorting the reality, you are falsifying the story.

"But the requirements of the living man and his surviving appreciators are not the same, and it seems to me, sentimentalist that I am, that this provides a very beautiful and appropriate conclusion to our sense of how the larger arc of his work developed."

Interviews would find Winogrand veering away from ascribing easy meanings or narratives to pictures which he felt could and should be read in a multiplicity of ways. Instead he found it more convenient to describe his art as grappling with photographic problems, or even as a form of play.

Image caption Los Angeles, 1980-83

At the opening reception for the exhibition I found Paul Graham, a world-renowned British photographer whose work, like Winogrand, thrives on open-ended narratives and a multitude of competing interpretations.

"He is one of the reasons I love and embraced photography," said Graham. "He is one of the most unique and important figures in post-war photography without any question at all. I admire his ability to read the world and to get all that into a photograph, so that other people can read it too. And to keep the image open, not close it down, not give it a simplistic humanistic message like the magazines were saying in the 50s and 60s, go way beyond that."

Image caption Park Avenue, New York, 1959

Graham expressed some doubts as to how willing the general public who are not into photography might be to engage with what he described as "300 little grey rectangles on wall" , but added that those able to give the exhibition the time and patience necessary would find it immensely rewarding.

The assistant curator at SF Moma, Erin O'Toole, believes that Winogrand's "shoot first, edit later" methodology will strike a chord with many modern photographers.

"I think this will resonate with people because this work is so much of and about the world he experienced. It's like people shooting lots of digital photos on their phone or cameras and showing people, 'This is what I saw!' .

"This is what this is about, him being out in the world, marvelling at all the things he experienced. When you see how much he created it's on a scale of what people shoot digitally. He was incredibly prolific and like people who shoot digitally he didn't print a lot of his images."

Despite his poor, almost non-existent, editing, Garry Winogrand left an immense body of work which is a startling account of America in the late 20th Century. It appears that right to the end he lived just to go out shooting the next day and to see what photographic challenges he could set himself.

Speaking not long before he died he said: "What I found out, over photographing a long time - the more I do, the more I do. When you're younger, you can only conceive of trying a limited amount of things to work with. The more I work, the more subject matter I can begin to try to deal with."

Image caption New York World's Fair, 1964
Image caption New York, 1968
Image caption Los Angeles, 1964
Image caption Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967
Image caption Fort Worth, Texas, 1974-77
Image caption Fort Worth, Texas, 1975
Image caption Albuquerque, 1957
Image caption Richard Nixon Campaign Rally, New York, 1960
Image caption Venice Beach, Los Angeles, 1980-83

This eagerly awaited exhibition, which opens this weekend, was jointly produced with the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. More details can be found on the website of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It tours other American cities next year and then visits Paris and Madrid in 2015. As yet there is no news of the exhibition coming to the UK.

Stephen McLaren is a street photographer and co-author, with Sophie Howarth, of Street Photography Now.