The middle-aged woman was drunk in public, and as she staggered around the streets of New York during daylight hours — leaning on a man for support, falling down, curling into a fetal position, then standing again and walking without shoes — a stranger with a camera captured her every move. That photographer, Garry Winogrand, hoped his series of images would land him an assignment from Life, which was at the time, in 1950, the most popular pictorial magazine in America. In a way, Winogrand wanted to be Gordon Parks, who was already on Life's staff and already publishing images that were out of the ordinary. But Life rejected Winogrand's submission, and Winogrand moved on to other projects that — like his drunk-woman series — were raw, enthralling, complex, and challenging to digest. Parks' photos were like that, too, but there was a significant difference. Parks often befriended those he photographed, an insider whose subjects peered right back. Winogrand rarely got to know the people he photographed in the street; he was an outsider peering at others.
Two major exhibits — one featuring Winogrand at SFMOMA, the other featuring Parks at Jenkins Johnson Gallery — showcase two of the 20th century's greatest photographers and their quest to document the contradictions of a changing world. Life could be oh-so-beautiful through the lenses of Winogrand and Parks, and both photographers (Parks much more than Winogrand) took images of the rich and famous. But what comes through these simultaneous retrospectives is the photographers' commitment to spotlight seemingly ordinary people whose lives said volumes about everyday society — and the photographers themselves. “It's not about making a nice picture — that, anybody can do,” Winogrand said, adding that his photos are “not pretty. They're not those kinds of pictures that people easily put on their walls.”
Parks occupied similar terrain. One of his best-known series for Life, from 1968, features an impoverished African-American family in Harlem. The Fontenelles comprised an unemployed, violent, alcoholic father, a stay-at-home mother, and their eight young children — all of whom lived in a freezing apartment with peeling paint, a swarm of roaches and rats, and little money for food. Parks lived with the Fontenelles for a month, and the images he published in Life — the kids without shoes, one kid sick from eating plaster, family members kneeling to get heat from their stove — were stunning and heartbreaking. After seeing the photos and reading Parks' vivid account, Life's readers donated thousands of dollars that secured the family a new house in Queens, New York. Parks, who died in 2006, was African-American, and he was regularly assigned to “race stories” that Life's white staff members couldn't pull off — a level of dependence that he used to take exclusive photographic essays of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam (1963), the militant Black Panthers and their leader Eldridge Cleaver (1969, 1970), and boxer Muhammad Ali (1966, 1970). In the mid-1950s, Parks barely avoided being attacked by whites during an assignment that took him to the segregated South, where he photographed a black family who faced daily “whites only” restrictions. “I chose my camera,” Parks said in the '60s, “as a weapon against all the things I dislike about America — poverty, racism, discrimination.”
All of Parks' most memorable photos are on the walls at Jenkins Johnson Gallery in an inspired exhibit that, co-organized by The Gordon Parks Foundation, commemorates his 100th birthday and shows the remarkable range and depth of Parks' career. Parks, who directed the 1971 movie Shaft (the first popular Hollywood film directed by an African-American), became a celebrated figure in his lifetime who was also known for his vivid writing.
Winogrand, meanwhile, was a photographer's photographer — someone who was widely exhibited and widely honored (including three Guggenheim fellowships) but who never attained popular success. By 1984, when Winogrand died unexpectedly from cancer at age 56, he'd stockpiled a trove of 6,500 unpublished film rolls (about 250,000 images) and developed a reputation for being in a photographic rut. In 1988, MOMA Director of Photography John Szarkowski — who in 1978 had called Winogrand “the central photographer of his generation” — lamented that Winogrand had, before his death, become “a creative impulse out of control.”
SFMOMA, which co-organized “Garry Winogrand” with the National Gallery of Art, includes the highs and lows of Winogrand's professional and personal life in this monumental exhibit, and resuscitates the unpublished work from his last decade. We get to know the complete Garry Winogrand — the one who influenced generations of photographers, who stuck to his own complicated vision of up-close street photography.
Winogrand and Parks were photographic trailblazers. For many years, they lived in New York and took images of the same streets. It's unclear whether they ever met in person, but they were connected by the times they lived in. One of Winogrand's most striking photos at SFMOMA, from 1968, shows an African-American beggar accepting a handout in the street from a white hand. One of Parks' most striking photos at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, from 1967, shows the prominent black activist Stokely Carmichael — his hand thrust in the air — addressing a big rally about “black power,” a phrase that Carmichael originated. The work of Winogrand and Parks still matters, in ways the photographers could never have imagined during the tumultuous times in which they lived.