Garry Winogrand – Words and Images – M’s Review.

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.

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10 thoughts on “Garry Winogrand – Words and Images – M’s Review.

  1. This is a brilliant assessment and on the money. You could have been a Winogrand interpreter, standing on the sideline and speaking to the hipsters as he prattled about. The future real photographers would listen to Winogrand, and the know-it-alls would listen as you expressed it in terms they could get.

    As an aside, I should let you answer all comments from now on. 😉

    I think what you wrote is precisely the point, and why some think Winogrand was being flippant. The students were looking for the “magic sauce” that would make them good photographers, or, god forbid, successful. He kept telling them over and over, but they didn’t like his answer. And it was simple: You have to shoot what interests you. You have to realize that a photograph isn’t real, and doesn’t capture the real world. You have to realize that it simply takes a slice out of time and space and produces something that no one may have noticed in the real world. In so doing, you’ve now stopped time, analyzed the pieces and get to see the interactions between seemingly irrelevant pieces into this new “whole” you’ve made via the photograph.

    The fact that he always says “make a photo” is a hint to his thought processes. You create this … thing, and if it doesn’t interest you, it won’t interest anyone. He wouldn’t talk about the technical side, because, frankly, a good photographer doesn’t need to care. I give not two shits about that stuff, and never have. What makes a good photographer is seeing what to photograph in the first place. The “how you make it once you see it” can be learned from books or by doing, but need not be taught by the likes of a world-renowned great like WInogrand.

    The sheer arrogance of those students. Can you imagine Shakespeare discussing his process and a group of writing students getting annoyed because he wouldn’t tell them about what paper he uses or how he came up with characters’ names? If you want to learn from others, stfu and listen. It’s that simple.

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    • Very succinct, B. It is amazing the way that some forms of art seem to almost encourage criticism. But like you said with your Shakespeare analogy, you wouldn’t think twice to ask an artist why they use the particular brush stroke they used in achieving a specific effect. Like Winogrand kept repeating, talk about a specific picture and I’ll give you a specific answer. He was simply unwilling to talk about how he had produced that picture because it was irrelevant and none of our damned business. In the same light that for us the EXIF data is none of your damn business. Learn your equipment then you won’t have to ask “how?”, you’ll just know what you need to do to produce the effect you want.
      Winogrand interpreter, yeah, that’s funny. 🙂

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  2. I had missed this post . . . Nice write-up, but I do have a mild disagreement with this statement:

    “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.”

    That is true to a point. The photograph is not independent of the person who takes it. Also, like most photographers, he shoots more photos than what he actually shows.

    Two things, then, come into play. One is that there must have been an initial aspect of the scene that captured his attention (he focused on a portion of what was in front of him), and two is that of all the photo he took, he choose only a small number to share with others.

    He went the extra effort to emphatically deny there is a part of himself, who he is, what he believes, how he feels, that affects his choices in both instances.

    It seemed to me he wanted to put forth the idea that the process it totally divorced from himself, the photographer, almost as if the photos happened all by themselves.

    The following is part of the comment I wrote in the original post:

    “I don’t go out specifically to get a “message” or understand the world around me through photography. I totally get the fact he shoots what captures his attention. I do the same, but the choice one makes, the choosing which photos to show, I don’t think that is strictly about the mechanics of photography and the results of those mechanics.

    Like it or not, choosing a photograph has to be justified to oneself and part of that often drifts into a narrative (at least for me and for many photographers). If he is truly a blank slate, no background, no features outside the narrow capture, I would find him unique among humans.”

    I also said this:

    “I suspect he might have a more subconscious narrative, perhaps one he rather not admit to, perhaps because he does see it as a limiting factor.

    Then again, most people (including me) hate being told what motivates us. That’s what I got most from his talk; when the questions came (in my opinion) awfully close to the subtext of his work, he would go the extra lengths to obfuscate and deflect.”

    The rest of it, I wholly agree; I can’t explain to people how or even why I do what I do in photography or writing, and even if I could, it’s not something others would likely benefit from copying; they must find their own style and voice, and the only way to do so is to go out and do it. (although, given the message, he could have just said that and walked off the stage)

    Still, and again, it would be dishonest of me to say I do not have a style or voice, which is what it sounded to me like he was saying.

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      • If you think about it, learning the theory of Street Photography in class is just pointless. You don’t learn to be a street shooter by not doing. Although, I think he imparted some valuable lessons, except no-one was really listening.

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      • As much as the students and you were asking why Winograd was there at all, he was asking them, albeit indirectly, why were ‘they’ there asking him questions instead of being out on the street shooting and learning their craft? I think he his point was very clear.

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    • Thank you for reading and commenting. Further to Bill’s previous response, what both I and Winogrand were trying to express was that the evaluation of a photo/art is purely subjective. Having a knowledge of the photographer/artist’s motives for shooting may enhance your evaluation, however it is otherwise irrelevant to your individual and personal appraisal of it. Why we as photographers/artists shoot or represent our art in the way that we do is up to us to share with others if we so wish. In learning the art of street photography, as these students in the recording were attempting, it makes no difference to the production of that art through the medium of photography whether you know why your lecturer shot what he did. It’s a point of interest, nobody’s business, and not relevant to the production of your own art. He was telling his students and us that we should find our own motivations to shoot. Learn the equipment, find something contentious to shoot and go from there.

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      • I agree with the assessment, and said as much, except the part about imparting valuable lessons.

        Then again, I’m already predisposed to do things based on what I like and to judge art based on my preferences.

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        • Sometimes the lesson is not obvious. You only understand it if you go out and do it, and practise regularly. People will either like what you do or not. As long as you enjoy producing your own work, then that is all that matters. That’s what Winograd says in all his interviews available on the web. That is a very valuable lesson to learn as artist of any medium.
          Thanks for taking the time to respond. It’s much appreciated.

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