I had originally written this as a comment on Bill’s previous post of the same title, but I thought because of its length and content that it warranted a post instead as it mirrors much of what Bill and I have already expounded in our series The Art and History of Street Photography. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to look at it, you should. Effectively this is my off-the-cuff review of the Q+A session recording.
Winogrand may not be as articulate as Meyerowitz for example at explaining the artistry of photography, but I think he is very succinct with his answers. What was happening in this Q+A was that the students were being arrogant and flippant with him because his responses were so matter of fact, and for the most part were closed statements. He was simply answering the questions as honestly as he could. The real problem, I think, was that his social skills, or his skills as a lecturer weren’t great, but that what he was saying was very sound, and no different than what either Bill and I have been expounding in our series as mentioned above, or what Meyerowitz articulates in many of his videos (which can be found in previous posts here, and on YouTube). A photograph is a piece of art, that is divorced from the context within which it was taken. It creates its own context, which then changes depending on what you want to get out of it. He was also saying that a photograph is a photograph. There is no good or bad photography, but that in his view in order for an image to be interesting there has to be something compelling about it, something that challenges how you view the mundane world around you, otherwise it’s just a boring snapshot. The equipment is irrelevant therefore. Also the fact that he chose to shoot predominantly in black and white was his personal preference, It wasn’t, as he was saying, a determinant factor in creating good street photography. It was also an economical factor, in that anybody who remembers those days will know how expensive colour film, and colour film processing was. I know, I was there, so was Bill. In his opinion as expressed in a number of interviews with Winogrand, he certainly wasn’t doing it for the money.
The students were missing the very hypocrisy of their position, in that what they wanted to learn was how to become good photographers, perhaps as good as Winogrand (or not), not realising that the only way to achieve that was to stop talking about it and just do it, which is exactly what he was trying to impress on them. And is exactly what any good photographer knows. You’ve got to shoot what you like, and learn from that process, from the process of repeated and dedicated practise. If you like what you shoot, then chances are someone else will like it too, but like with any art, it isn’t a given. Like many artists gone before, your work may not even been ‘discovered’ until you are long gone.
I like that he kept emphasising that the success of a photographer is political, it’s down to circumstance, trends, fashions, and chance occurrences, and that it has little to do with having exceptional talent, or indeed whether your work is good or not.
I wonder if any of those students went on to become professional photographers, and if they did whether the penny ever dropped and Winogrand’s words suddenly made crystal clear, resounding sense? He was speaking from the standpoint of being a professional photographer, but instead of listening to what he was actually saying and learning from that, the hipsters of the time thought they knew better because they simply lacked experience to know otherwise.
Winogrand was a great photographer because he didn’t stop to think about why he was considered great, he just enjoyed what he did. He was compelled to make pictures because it fascinated him. That’s the valuable lesson I got from this recording. Having been an artist my whole life, that is all that counts when producing any form of art. Who cares who it’s for, or what purpose it may serve. That part just hasn’t happened yet when you’re caught up producing the work. The ‘headache’ as he calls it is what happens afterwards when other people suddenly become involved, and complicate the matter in trying to turn your work into a profit. Art becomes good art simply because someone is willing to pay a premium for it. That’s essentially what he was saying, and from my own long experience, I agree.
Photography is not about the equipment, it’s about the photographer, and thus the artist. A photograph only becomes art when others interact with it. It’s that simple. Being a Garry Winogrand just can’t be taught, as photographers/artists, we have to learn what makes us tick and how best the equipment can serve our needs to express our intent and our unique perspective of the world, whatever that may be. Using a camera isn’t rocket science, but being a camera wielding-artist goes beyond rocket science because for the most part it’s an instinctive process.