“Metropolitan Opera, New York City,” circa 1951: Acting as a visual sociologist, Garry Winogrand had “an uncanny knack for capturing very small gestures and physical relationships between people,” says curator Erin O’Toole. (The Estate of Garry Winogrand/Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

In the 1950s, when photographer Garry Winogrand started casually documenting his fellow New Yorkers, few people cared that he was taking their picture.

By the time he died of cancer in 1984 at age 56, attitudes had changed, says the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Erin O’Toole, a curator of a Winogrand retrospective co-organized with D.C.’s National Gallery of Art and Winogrand protege Leo Rubinfien. “At first, people didn’t notice him,” O’Toole says, “but as time went on … people started confronting photographers on the street.”

That never stopped Winogrand, who took thousands of pictures, some of which are on view for the first time in the SFMOMA/NGA exhibit. He became “surreptitious and agile,” O’Toole says, and continued working in New York, Houston, Los Angeles and other cities. He didn’t always shoot crowds, or shoot secretly; some of his most affecting works are quiet portraits.

While his New York photos portrayed the city’s density through mobbed street scenes or faces in the crowd, Winogrand’s L.A. work focused on car culture and lone pedestrians crossing sprawling boulevards.

“Central Park Zoo, New York,” 1967: Winogrand captured one of his most famous (and bizarre)
images at the height of the civil rights movement. (The Estate of Garry Winogrand (Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San francisco)

“Few other photographers have captured what L.A. is really like,” says O’Toole, who grew up in L.A. in the 1970s and ’80s, when Winogrand worked there. “It was a challenge for Winogrand to grapple with the lack of street culture, but he succeeded in a great way.”

As to how Winogrand got his candid shots, “He would get right in the middle of the action,” O’Toole says, “but he didn’t hold the camera” — a small Leica — “up to his face for long, and he would turn away or bring the camera down if he felt that people were watching him.”

Today’s would-be Winogrands use similar stealth to snap phone pictures of colorful characters on the Metro or attractive men and women in bars (pretending to text is a common ruse). Privacy concerns may have changed, but Winogrand’s yen to capture moments in the everyday lives of strangers remains.

National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through June 8, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)