Garry Winogrand: ‘I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.’

 

We view our world stereoscopically, through two eyes an inch or so apart. We witness a random, uncontrollable flux of movement and energy, often unable to contemplate or even fully comprehend what it is that we are witnessing. However, the camera has the ability to control the seemingly uncontrollable. This monoscopic machine removes all exterior noise and distraction, duplicating our world and turning a split second into pure, visual experience. Janet Malcolm highlighted photography’s ability to capture a ‘fleeting moment that no brush or pencil (or even eye, sometimes) is fast enough to seize’ and by freezing time and placing four frames around reality, the photographer creates order where there is disorder. The photographer and photograph allow us to look, and therefore enables us to see and Garry Winogrand’s career was driven by his obsession with seeing. There is rarely a discussion on Winogrand that doesn’t include reference to his famous quote, ‘I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs’ and I aim to dig deeper into how his photographs and working practice reflected this ideology. More importantly however, I will look at how through his quest, Winogrand ‘taught us to see.’

‘The game, let’s say, of trying to state photographic problems is, for me, absolutely fascinating.’

In a 1970 interview, Winogrand stated that his primary concern with photography was a formal one and he began to state these ‘photographic problems’ through his experimentation with the camera. His photographs seem tilted and his subject isolated as Winogrand began to play with the contestation between the form of the photograph and the content that he was capturing. His weapon of choice was a 35mm handheld Leica with a wide view lens. With a wider view now attained through his viewfinder, Winogrand sought to find a wider view of the world. He also looked at how small he could make the most important figure or object of his photograph in relation to the total field, whilst maintaining its status as the most important figure. Although there is debate around the ‘Winogrand tilt’, the photographer claiming that he doesn’t shoot from the hip or purposefully tilt the camera, the off-centred framing and ordinary subject matter applied by Winogrand evokes a casualness and snapshot-like appearance. Szarkowski promoted this style in his 1967 exhibition ‘New Documents’, with Szarkowski describing Winogrand’s photographs as obtaining a ‘Snapshot Aesthetic’ (another claim that Winogrand disputed). Winogrand was questioning conventional picture-taking as well as the formal conventions that underpinned it and, on a basic level, the ‘I photograph to see…’ quote could be interpreted to represent Winogrand’s experimentation. He was questioning not only what the world looks like in a photograph, but how he could make it look. Friedlander praised this, claiming that Winogrand’s pictures ‘are essentially all questions and that is, to me, their greatest appeal.’

On the other hand, I feel that Winogrand held a deeper interest in witnessing the transformation that takes place once something has been photographed. Returning to the point made earlier about framing and freezing time through a photograph, Barbara Diamonstein reminds us that ‘the fact of putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it.’ The photographer intentionally chooses what information to exclusively focus on and it is this  framing which allows us to look closer at our world. The visual facts are presented without exterior distraction, which in turn provokes our contemplation. James Agee suggests that ‘the  artist’s task is not to alter the world of aesthetic reality, but to perceive the aesthetic reality within the actual world.’ This leaves the photographer to choose what information they want to frame within a photograph, a notion that was deeply explored by Cartier-Bresson and his idea of the ‘decisive moment.Diamonstein argues that Winogrand used the camera to celebrate and transform ordinary events ‘with precise timing and framing into astute visual commentaries on modern life.’ These ideas can be articulated in Winogrand’s New York (fig1). This is a vernacular scene from Winogrand’s world of which we would rarely pay much attention. Yet by photographing this moment, Winogrand has provided the figures and their natural world (at that specific time) with a lenticular memorialisation, eternalised in black and white.

Fig1 New York, 1962, Gelatin Silver Print.
Fig1 New York, 1962, Gelatin Silver Print.

Although ‘photography looks so much like seeing,’ Hubert Daumisch, one of the key philosophers involved with the phenomenology of photography, reminds us that ‘the photographic image does not belong to the natural world’ and that it is a ‘product of human labour.’ This highlights the photographer’s role as creator and mediator. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the ‘decisive moment’ may be affected by the photographer’s psychological and emotional state and Winogrand may have been interested in how these emotions were transformed into a photograph. It seems that he was aware of this emotional aspect to photography and he often added that ‘photographers mistake the emotion they feel while taking the picture as judgement that the photograph is good.’ Winogrand attempted to avoid this problem by waiting one or two years before developing his films, so that his memory of the physical act of taking that particular picture, as well as the emotional attachment that he held with the photograph, was erased. However Chiarenza argues that Winogrand was not successful. Instead suggesting that he used photography as a way to frame his ‘desires, feeling, critiques on pieces of photographic paper- rather than engaging them in actual physical and emotional contact.’

Julian Doha described Garry Winogrand as a kind of ‘Flâneur’, wandering the streets of America in search of the ‘modern American zeitgeist.’ Was this what he meant by ‘seeing the world through a photograph?’ Was he trying to capture this intangible feeling through photography? With a generation underneath the almost apocalyptic cloud that The Cuban Missile Crisis cast over America, Winogrand instead felt liberated. He understood that ‘he was nothing’ and described the realisation that he was ‘powerless, insignificant, helpless’ as liberating. In 1964, in his second Guggenheim Fellowship application, we again see a melancholic side to Winogrand.

’I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life. I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper.’

In a doctor’s note asking for reasons that may have contributed to his illness, Winogrand blamed a ‘hopelessness and helplessness of the world.’ Winogrand was unable to trust what he believed about the world as true and sought photography as a means of verification. This helplessness was felt by most of the American public during The Cuban Missile Crisis and it was this helplessness that came through in Winogrand’s photographs, with Leo Rubinfien arguing that no other photographs ‘described the look, the feel, even the smell of their times, so convincingly as these.’

Lee Friedlander, a friend and contemporary of Winogrand, supported this argument in Arrivals & Departures, arguing that Winogrand used photography as an ‘emotional equaliser.’ Winogrand once said  that when he photographed it was the closest he came to not existing and, rather melancholically, he found this notion both appealing and attractive. Winogrand began to use photography as a form of escapism and Friedlander states that this really came through in the untold amount of photographs he took whilst waiting in airports. Friedlander notes Winogrand’s fear of flying and argues how this fear found its way into his photographs. The plane in Winogrand’s Los Angeles Airport (fig2) dominates almost half of the composition. This daunting, metal monster haunts both the viewer and the faceless, silhouetted figures photographed. The viewer is placed on the same, uncomfortable side of the glass as the figures and the shallow depth of the composition creates an imminent claustrophobia. We are made to share the same anxiety and uneasiness that Winogrand felt before flying.

Fig 2 Los Angeles Airport, 1978-83, Gelatin Silver Print.
Fig 2 Los Angeles Airport, 1978-83, Gelatin Silver Print.

This evidence points to a Winogrand who not only used photography to see the world, but as a means to cope with it. However, if we were to pose this reading of the photograph to him I fear that a rejection from the ever-elusive Winogrand would be inevitable. In 1977, he barked at a student ‘You’re talking about about meaning. I want to talk about pictures.’ He disregarded any title which critics applied to him (Street Photographer, Snapshot Aesthetic etc…) and he disregarded most, if not all meaning that people attached to his photographs. He allowed others to curate his exhibitions and books and there is a lack of textual accompaniment from Winogrand himself concerning his work. This surrounds his photographs with an irremovable smog of ambiguity. The only evidence provided by Winogrand are his photographs and the sharp-tongued and often vague responses he gave in interviews to his critics and students. From what we do have though, we can gather that Winogrand certainly disliked providing any meaning to his photographs, claiming that all photographs do is show you ‘what something looks like photographed’ and provide ‘no narrative ability at all.’ However the desire to attach meaning to art is intrinsic to our human nature and Todd Papageorge attempts to resolve the issue by arguing that it is ‘from that evidence (Winogrand’s photographs) we might take our own instruction’ and read into them what we may.

In another interview, Winogrand claimed that ‘the more you work, the more you see’ and in 1982 he acquired a motor-driven film which allowed him to take ‘more exposures with less thought.’ The proliferation of photographs that followed are often criticised for Winogrand’s incessant tendency to overshoot, which Gerry Badger labelled as the ‘Winogrand Problem.’ Yet to me, it again shows Winogrand’s obsession with seeing. As his obsession crescendoed, so did his work rate, the 2500 undeveloped films that were left after his death are a testament to this. Chiarenza declares the undeveloped and unpublished photographs as a failure on Winogrand’s part, portraying Winogrand as a reckless, uncontrollable and obsessed voyeur. Chiarenza also claims that Winogrand’s quest to ‘see what the world look like through photographs’ was a quest that was doomed to fail. In my opinion, I don’t think Winogrand cared whether he succeeded or failed and was simply following his compulsion to see. In the end, in order to see, Garry Winogrand needed his 35mm Leica just as much as he needed his glasses. If we return to Szarkowski once more who, in one simple sentence, summarises perfectly the life of Winogrand and his marriage to  seeing. Garry Winogrand’s ‘ambition was not to make good pictures, but through photography to know life.’

 

Footnotes

1 Janet Malcolm, Diana and Nikon: Essays on Photography (New York: Aperture, 1997), 52.

2 Ben Lifson, “Art of the Actual”, in Garry Winogrand, The Man in the Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand, (San Francisco, Ca: Fraenkel Gallery, 1999), 154.

3 Dennis Longwell, “Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult- A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand”, in Image Magazine, (1970), http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/interview-monkeys-make-problem-more.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

4 Lee Friedlander, “A Conversation with Garry Winogrand”, in Arrivals & Departures, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004),14.

5 Barbara Diamonstein, “An Interview with Garry Winogrand” in Visions and Images (1981), http://www.americansuburbx.com/2008/10/theory-interview-with-garry-winogrand.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014.

6 James Agee, “Essay by James Agee” in A Way of Seeing, Helen Levitt (New York: Horizon Press, 1981), 6.

7 Diamonstein, An Interview with Garry Winogrand”.

8 Rod Slemmons, “Just Look At It”, (2005) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/02/theory-lee-friedlander-just-look-at-it.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

9 Hubert Daumisch, “Five Notes For a Phenomenolgy of the Photographic Image,” October  5 (1978), 70.

10 O.C. Garza, “Class Time with Garry Winogrand” (1974-6) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/07/garry-winogrand-class-time-with-garry.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

11 Carl Chiarenza, “Standing on the Corner- Reflections upon Garry Winogrand’s Photographic Gaze- Mirror of Self of World Pt1”, (1991) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/03/theory-standing-on-corner-reflections.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

12 Julian Doha, Two Way Street: The Photographs of Garry Winogrand and Jonathan Brand, (Oregon: Portland Art Museum, 2014)

13 John Szarkowski, “The Work of Garry Winogrand” in Winogrand: Figments from the Real World, (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988), 20.

14 O.C. Garza, “Class Time”

15 Bill Moyers, “Garry Winogrand with Bill Moyers”, in Creativity (1982), http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/06/interview-garry-winogrand-excerpts-with.html Date Accessed 07/11/2014

16Tod Papageorge, Public Relations, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977), 17.

17 Szarkowski, “The Work of Garry Winogrand”, 39.

18Gerry Badger, “I Dont Give a Rap About Gasoline Stations- The Winogrand Problem”, in Creative Camera (1988) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/03/garry-winogrand-i-dont-give-rap-about.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

19 Chiarenza, “Standing on the Corner”

20 Szarkowski, “The Work of Garry Winogrand” 41.

Bibliography

Agee, James “Essay by James Agee” in A Way of Seeing, Helen Levitt. 1-6.New York: Horizon Press, 1981.

Badger, Gerry.  “I Dont Give a Rap About Gasoline Stations- The Winogrand Problem”, in Creative Camera (1988) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/03/garry-winogrand-i-dont-give-rap-about.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

Chiarenza, Carl.  “Standing on the Corner- Reflections upon Garry Winogrand’s Photographic Gaze- Mirror of Self of World Pt1”, (1991) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/03/theory-standing-on-corner-reflections.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

Daumisch, Hubert “Five Notes For a Phenomenolgy of the Photographic Image,” October  5 (1978): 70-72.

Diamonstein, Barbara.  “An Interview with Garry Winogrand” in Visions and Images (1981), http://www.americansuburbx.com/2008/10/theory-interview-with-garry-winogrand.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

Doha, Julian. Two Way Street: The Photographs of Garry Winogrand and Jonathan Brand. Oregon: Portland Art Museum, 2014.

Friedlander, Lee. “A Conversation with Garry Winogrand”, in Arrivals & Departures, London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Friedlander, Lee . “The Hair of the Dog”, in Arrivals & Departures, 13-17. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

Garza, O.C. . “Class Time with Garry Winogrand” (1974-6) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/07/garry-winogrand-class-time-with-garry.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

Lifson, Ben. “Art of the Actual”, in Garry Winogrand, The Man in the Crowd: The Uneasy Streets of Garry Winogrand, San Francisco, Ca: Fraenkel Gallery, 1999.

Longwell, Dennis . “Monkeys Make the Problem More Difficult- A Collective Interview with Garry Winogrand”, in Image Magazine, (1970), http://www.americansuburbx.com/2012/01/interview-monkeys-make-problem-more.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

Malcolm, Janet. Diana and Nikon: Essays on Photography. New York: Aperture, 1997.

Moyers, Bill . “Garry Winogrand with Bill Moyers”, in Creativity (1982), http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/06/interview-garry-winogrand-excerpts-with.html Date Accessed 07/11/2014

Papageorge, Tod. Public Relations. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

Rubinfien, Leo. “The Man in the Crowd” in Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, Vicki Goldberg. 492-498 Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981.

Slemmons, Rod. “Just Look At It”, (2005) http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/02/theory-lee-friedlander-just-look-at-it.html Date Accessed: 07/11/2014

Szarkowski, John. “The Work of Garry Winogrand” in Winogrand: Figments from the Real World. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1988.

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johnringwood

Art Historian.

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