When photographer Garry Winogrand died, he left some unfinished business. Winogrand had always had a backlog. From the beginning, he insisted on snatching images from the flow of life rather than setting them up, an approach that made it certain he would shoot in quantity. And he was always more interested in hunting the pictures down than in processing the film, so it was inevitable that the backlog would grow. Even so, no one was prepared for the mountain of unfinished work he left when he died (of cancer, at age 56) in 1984.

The Garry Winogrand estate included more than 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, another 6,500 rolls developed but not proofed, and unedited contact sheets made from an additional 3,000 rolls. In all there were more than a third of a million exposures he had shot during the last years of his life but never looked at.

The job of processing and editing this mass fell to John Szarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and several other longtime Winogrand associates. Szarkowski first met Winogrand back in 1962, when the photographer reportedly marched into the museum carting a thousand or so samples of his work in boxes and introduced himself. It was the beginning of an artist-mentor relationship that lasted the rest of Winogrand’s life and saw him established as a central figure in mid-20th-century photography.

Some of the selections Szarkowski and the others made from the estate are included in the Winogrand retrospective now heading into its final week at the Art Institute. In the catalog that accompanies the show, Szarkowski admits that the task of dealing with this gargantuan legacy was so overwhelming, and the work itself so uneven, that the editors felt impatience, anger, and finally a paranoid suspicion that Winogrand had set them up and was having the last laugh.

Always a heavy shooter, Winogrand was photographing obsessively during his last years, in the clutches of what Szarkowski calls “a creative impulse out of control.” Falling victim to all kinds of technical errors, failing sometimes even to hold the camera steady, he would ritualistically cruise his Los Angeles haunts, snapping, snapping from the window of his car. He was, Szarkowski writes in a painfully pointed analogy, “like an overheated engine that will not stop even after the key has been turned off.”

Even when he was in top form, however, Winogrand’s throwaway style, with its haphazard composition, lack of refined detail, and mundane subject matter, was controversial. He hated the suggestion that he was expressing a “snapshot aesthetic” and argued convincingly that he was not. Yet a lot of his work is reminiscent of our own black-and-white snapshots. Not the good ones where everyone looks terrific, but the rejects–the ones with eyes closed, heads cut off, backgrounds jumbled, perspectives off kilter, subjects misplaced.

These are the accidents we toss or bury, but Winogrand was after something more complex than a flattering surface. When he set out, for example, under the auspices of a Guggenheim fellowship to study the effect of the media on events, photographing press conferences, space launches, demonstrations, and political rallies, he pulled back just far enough from the intended frame of each scene to show the framework–the posturing and the props. It was a strategy as devastatingly effective as it was simple, the gaggle of microphones, cameras, and reporters revealing the tacit agreement between news maker, media, and audience by which the staged event is presented on the evening news as the real thing.

It was the real real thing Winogrand stalked, in the hundreds of thousands of photographs he took, on the street and in other public places, from about 1950 until his death. There are no studio shots in this retrospective, no constructed environments, no predetermined compositions. No one poses for him; and though his subjects may be caught in the throes of hysterical laughter, hardly anyone smiles into his lens. The typical expression for a Winogrand subject who has spotted the camera is a scowl, the one immediately preceding the question “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Szarkowski says Winogrand’s goal was “not to make good pictures, but through photography to know life.” His pursuit of that goal led him at his best to work that’s as quirky and mysterious as the world it mirrors.

“Garry Winogrand” consists of 180 prints, slides of another 40 images from the unfinished work, and–most interesting–eight mural-size blowups of contact sheets that allow us to see what he had in relation to what he chose to keep. The show continues through November 6. The Art Institute, Michigan at Adams, is open Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday 10:30 to 4:30; Tuesday 10:30 to 8; Saturday 10 to 5; and Sunday noon to 5. Suggested donation: $5 for adults; $2.50 seniors and students. Free on Tuesday. Call 443-3600 for information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Garry Winogrand.