But that's the problem with Winogrand, the word 'masterpiece' makes no sense with him. His compulsive, bulimic, exaggerated photographs did not end with a final aesthetically perfect product. He was the perfect anti-Cartier-Bresson.
Of course, he published books, made exhibitions, so he had to choose, edit, distinguish, order and sequence his voracious collections of "Fragments from the Real World", as his discoverer defined them - the MoMa photographic guru John Szarkowski, who launched him in '67 in a famous exhibition which also showed the work of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander.
Also, to set up the big retrospective that the San Francisco MoMa dedicated to Winogrand, Leo Rubinfien had to pick his choices from the 'tremendous challenge' of Winogrand's immense photographic archive.
After all it seems there exists a direction, a project, or at least some recurrent themes, in his first works. He likes women (Women are Beautiful, 1975), cars, children, he hunts the incongruous, the grotesque in the daily Street Theatre of human relationships, he discovers ironic affinities between humans and animals (The Animals, 1969), he seems sometimes to lean toward the analysis of the social landscape (Public Relations, 1977), like he did in that striking snapshot of that long bench where all the young American society seems to gather together (image on top).
But whenever you try to define Winogrand's style, his aesthetics, his poetics, you will always go home with empty hands. Winogrand is not thematics or aesthetics, and even his stylistic provocations (leaning horizons, blurred foregrounds, chaotic compositions) had already been experimented a decade earlier by his big model, Robert Frank.
Winogrand doesn't photograph the world. He photographs the act of photographing the world. "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed", says his most famous quote, so much quoted by photo amateurs, so little understood.
Winogrand threw himself in the world like an explorer in the jungle, like a fisherman in the ocean, he collected evidence, cast the net of his wide-angle Leica, brought home a gamebag full of things yet to be decoded, to be read.
Those who saw Winogrand in action, like his friend and explorations mate Joel Meyerowitz, describe him with amused affection: portly and sloppy, taciturn, almost rude, tireless walker of New York sidewalks, hunting bodies in actions, with a perceptive instinct, hungry and confident, conscious of his limit 'I know what I see, but what does it mean?".
For his detractors (like A.D. Coleman), Winogrand was only a tireless primate with camera enclosed, unaware, irresponsible, and uncaring, randomly snapping photos of anything, while his handler picked out the good stuff . But this is the reaction of someone used to considering photography a conscious effort to put the world into a form, through a reasoning look.
But photography allows also another approach to the world: the research of the water diviner, random, lead only by curiosity and without premeditation. 'I don't have anything to say in any picture. If I am lucky, I have something to learn'.
But the pioneer's fate is sometimes thankless. Winogrand lived his last years prey of a purchase wrath gone out of control. Hundreds of images every day (in the end they were almost 6 million) piled up in his laboratory, way more than what he could reasonably develop, print, look at.
The photography he had asked to explain him the world, overwhelmed him with the excess of photographable world. The chaos of the visible became an unsightly chaos, impossible to manage.
Twenty years on, maybe Winogrand experienced by craftsmen, on himself, the devastating effects of the thermonuclear fusion of the uncontrollable images that today, with billions of photos ready to overflow from the big belly of the Net, threaten to crush us also.