By some estimates, street photographer Garry Winogrand took millions of pictures during his lifetime, sometimes shooting an entire roll of film as he walked along a single block in New York City without breaking stride.
So the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's selection of 300 of those images from the 1950s to the 1980s -- an exhaustive exhibit for any other artist -- just begins to open a window on his world.
The Bronx-born Winogrand is the least well known of the American photographers of that era who are lauded by curators, gallery owners and collectors. Now the exhibit, simply titled "Garry Winogrand" and organized with Washington's National Gallery of Art, could make his name more familiar to a wider public.
This is the last big traveling show to open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art before it closes June 2 for nearly 2½ years of construction, a massive expansion and remodeling project. The Winogrand exhibit is an appropriate send-off, since the museum is renowned for its attention to photography, which it began collecting in 1935, just a year after it opened.
As even the curator admits, Winogrand's work is not easy to deal with. It resists interpretation. In the years since he created his largest body of work during the 1960s and '70s, it has been stamped with the malaise of those decades. His major theme, even among crowded sidewalks and airport waiting rooms, has been diagnosed as alienation.
Certainly there are plenty of gloomy scenes of New York streets and, when Winogrand moved west, of bleak Los Angeles boulevards. His subjects are usually lost in their own thoughts, not opening up for this street photographer even if they're aware of his presence. His style seems offhanded but also confrontational.
As richly detailed as Winogrand's images are (usually made with a wide-angle lens), he doesn't tell his subjects' stories for them. That's for the viewer to imagine, invent -- or get entirely wrong. The most intriguing photographs among the hundreds on display are straightforward as well as mysterious.
Winogrand's most iconic image -- not from New York or Los Angeles -- may be "Albuquerque, 1957." It depicts a toddler emerging from the blackness of a suburban garage or carport, with an overturned tricycle in the middle of the driveway, and with a scrubby, barren plain receding to shadowed mountains in the background. Gray clouds loom over the horizon. It could be the ominous opening scene from a science-fiction movie of the period. Or it could simply be a youngster walking down the sunny driveway to his trike.
In other notable images Winogrand is working "against interpretation" (to borrow a title from Susan Sontag) while allowing museum visitors to create any number of scenarios. "Park Avenue, New York, 1959" shows a pretty ordinary couple in a convertible stopped in traffic, but with a simian pet looking like it's about to attack the photographer.
Another convertible, this time in Los Angeles in 1964: The man driving has a large bandage across his injured nose, while a woman sits in the passenger seat looking stoic. What is their relationship? How did he injure his nose? Did she do it? An early, 1950 photograph of a sailor with a duffle bag walking along a deserted, foggy roadway asks and doesn't answer the basic question. Is he headed farther into the bleakness, or to some warm refuge?
Winogrand's crowds also suggest conflicting messages. He photographs Eero Saarinen's sweeping, sculptural TWA airline terminal at Kennedy Airport, but at a time when it's crammed with somber, bored passengers waiting for flights. At the New York World's Fair in 1964, he homes in on a bench where a line of weary fairgoers seem to be telling myriad stories, or just collapsing.
Across the range of his work, Winogrand seems to picture America -- in an era of wars, riots, assassinations -- as a grim nation relieved by flashes of nervous laughter. Visitors to this exhibit may see the outside world differently when they leave the museum, spotting their own "Winogrand moments" on the street. They may also be surprised to see that the sun still shines.
Winogrand, who died of cancer at the age of 56 in 1984, has been celebrated by friends and colleagues for his zest for life. He was obsessed with capturing it on his Leica's 35mm film. "Sometimes I feel like the world is a place I bought a ticket to," he said in a 1980 interview. "It's a big show for me, as if it wouldn't happen if I wasn't there with a camera."
His taste for life was "stronger than his regard for art," noted the curator of a 1964 exhibit in New York that Winogrand shared with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. His work was sometimes dismissed as "only snapshots." Yet he did as much as any artist to establish the value of those casual but revealing images that existed by the millions across America. It became known as a "snapshot aesthetic."
Curators, and particularly Winogrand's photographer friend Leo Rubinfien, who spearheaded the SFMOMA exhibit, are still surveying those "snapshots." Hundreds of thousands of them. When Winogrand died, he left behind 6,500 rolls of film, some 250,000 images. About one-third of the photographs in the show have never been seen by the public. Many were never seen by Winogrand.
There may be ethical issues in selecting, editing, printing and displaying a photographer's work after his death. Rubinfien, at an exhibit preview, looked around a gallery filled mostly with Winogrand photos chosen and printed posthumously. "To me," he said, "the ethical issue would be leaving this in a vault and no one ever being able to see it."
Through: June 2
Where: San Francisco
Museum of Modern Art,
151 Third St., San Francisco
(half-price Thursday after
6 p.m.), 415-357-4000,