Reconsidering Winogrand

This essay was written for the inaugural issue of PUBLICATION. Thanks to Nick Turpin, Tod Papageorge (Pace/Macgill), Eileen Hale & the Estate of Garry Winogrand (Fraenkel Gallery).

There’s inherent risk in doing exactly what you want and doing it well. Garry Winogrand, whose photographic output said both “look at us” and “look at me look at us” in equal (and thrilling) measures, knew well the width of that risk. He took its measure, set it aside, and deliberately went about the work of widening photography (both what photography was, and what photography might become) with every click of his shutter.

Winogrand’s is the work of a serious artist (though he’d cleanly deny it) dedicated to seeing his project through to completion, even if, in his own case, it wasn’t exactly clear what the project was, or how it might end. Hard work would figure it out. Hard work would leave behind the four foot high piles of prints, the hundreds of thousands of negatives.

While Winogrand’s street pictures might appear to be bounty from the hull of a trawler with a Fifth Avenue driftnet, a photographic harvest of the mackerel and tuna that swam the currents of New York City in the sixties and seventies, the seriousness of his task was more practiced, and severe, even. You don’t take pictures like Winogrand if you’re wide-eyed and aimless, and you don’t take pictures like Winogrand if you’re hidden in the weeds with your duck calls and camouflage.

The middle road always requires a stern commitment, a deft touch, and the most negotiation. It’s there where Winogrand struck, and stayed to reap the source. I Am Photographing You and You Know It and I’ll Get To See What This Looks Like Later. I Am Smiling While I Photograph You Because It’s Such A Beautiful Day You Know? A whisper of danger in a seemingly harmless act. The man with the camera smiles so everything must be okay, right?

A diffuser by photographic nature, there are few pictures and fewer videos that reveal Winogrand while working, but photographing people candidly with a small camera and a cigarette stuck between the fingers didn’t exactly chime terrorist alert signals as it does now.

Winogrand’s alertness, easily misread as impatience or distraction, was most likely a state of hyper awareness, in which any small flash of visual stimuli might lead to something both wonderful and surprising, and you better be ready to capture it so Let’s Do This. And yet, while Winogrand emerged from the darkroom with photographs that delineate the attentions of a man clearly focused on incongruities writ large; hypocrisies of a nation; the impossibilities of connection; illuminating the surface tension between us all that keeps us apart; it’s easy to imagine him saying, “yeah, but it’s just a picture of a guy on the street.”

Waking-up in the morning and knowing you may or may not make a good picture but the day is as good as any other, and every day is worth a try, just as the people you might meet are worth engaging with, and the light is as good as on any other day — at the least good enough to burn some film and work a few hours on the street without having a specific destination; it’s a kind of morning relatively few photographers have the fortune to greet.

Yet it’s this quotidian attraction to the unspooling of time that creates the through-line of Winogrand’s effort. That there are precise moments and places on the planet where the truly extraordinary occurs, without actors, curtains, or fancy equipment, and that these places are often narrow and vanishing; perfect for a photographer with his finger on the shutter. The spoiled analogy of photography as big game hunting backfires; Winogrand’s targets were no one else’s; at their best they were his only. A couple with two chimpanzees, two lovers with a fox approaching. Neither from the pages of a Field Guide.

© Estate of Garry Winogrand

Too often summed-up as a visual trickster, Winogrand’s work may well have been one thing to him and something entirely different to the rest of us. And you can’t help but wonder if there was some genius in the aggregate. Like Gerhard Richter’s “Atlas”, perhaps Winogrand’s greatest work wasn’t in the brilliant moments or creative editing, but in the Complete Everything, in the performative act of making hundreds of thousands of images, of the people, with the people?

Either way, the more you look at the side that matters of Winogrand’s particular equation (the prints, face-up) the less the sum makes sense. How could this possibly have happened? How could a photographer have been right here, right then, and then here, right then? And why would they do whatever it took to make it there, to make this?

It’s photographic blowback. Left with the spectacle of the end result, you can’t help but scurry to the source and figure out how the heck it all came together. The prints are Winograndian facts that when taken at face value leave you penniless. They’re like poems that weren’t written for a reason — they were made entirely outside of the marketplace; their value is whatever you choose to place upon them.

This photograph both is and isn’t a picture of a couple carrying chimps. Sure, it’s what it is, but it isn’t all it is. Winogrand’s photographs aren’t billboards advertising the wink-and-nod of The Perfect Moment ™, they’re more like dispatches from a man with a stop time device, a photographer both at odds and in love with a social contract that states, you can look, but please don’t linger.

Winogrand’s best photographs do two things extremely well. The picture of the couple with the chimpanzees plainly describes a particular point of view on a chilly day in 1967 with extreme clarity. But the clearness of its description is like verse’s iambic pentameter, it’s another way to make the words slide easily into the ear. The clarity enables you to believe you know exactly what you’re seeing: two people carrying chimps. Or rather, a black man and a white woman carrying chimps as if they were their children, on a sunny afternoon in the park.

It’s a trick, really, the greatest tool a non-fiction photographer has in the bag: How can I make this thing you’ve never seen look approachable and oddly familiar? I’ll make it plain as day, black and white. Winogrand’s pictures might occasionally be out of this world, but they’re always of this earth, bound by gravity, chemistry, and light.

And his best work ratchets between these two poles; the clarity of obvious documentary vs. the scrambling of the senses when seeing something just this side of unimaginable. It’s the kind of back-and-forth that leads one in a few directions; straight back to the photographer, and the who/what/why/how of intention, or to the facts of the picture itself, and how those facts, clearly illustrated, yield a never-ending chorus of questions.

Miscegenation is not quite as provocative as it was in the 60s, but until June 12th, 1967, interracial marriage in the US was still illegal in 16 states. Winogrand’s couple wasn’t just perfectly addressing a political issue by being themselves, walking down the street (carrying chimps), they were doing it in style, the man in suit-and-tie business attire, the woman with a scarf covering her head, and each with a chimp calmly clinging to his lapel and her collar.

The chimps were clothed, which makes the picture look like a family portrait, and the direction in which the humans are looking vs. the chimps adds psychological (and generational) weight to the composition. But you know this already. You know that the frames that follow this particular image are doing one thing well, but a few other things wrong, and that, of the series, this image is the only one in which all the elements contribute to a satisfying whole. Then again, depending on the season, this photograph feels either bullet proof, or riddled with holes. Some days I can see it for what it is, other days it looks like what it’s not.

And where would this picture be without the boy in the background at right, holding his parent’s hand? So perfect how the woman is turning away from the shadowed fences and trees of the zoo toward the bright light of an unknowable future! So large the urge to find these two and see where they are now, but so utterly useless, because the context of this photograph is its contextlessness! Life doesn’t come with captions, or does it?

If the photographs after this image show a situation that could no longer “solve the problem” on a frame of film inside Winogrand’s camera, the images just before this one offer no inkling of what’s to come. On a contact sheet marked “London / Monkey”, the first shots on the roll are quiet pictures of a dinner with friends in London. Those were followed by a blank frame, and then boom. Welcome home, America.

Papageorge_Chimp change-1
© Tod Papageorge, Pace/Macgill

So we have a situation: the man with the camera, dedicated to the day in the fullest sense, wherever the pictures might be on a sunny afternoon in ’67. Not shooting solely on his own, but meeting up with Tod Papageorge at some point along the way. Who could say what might happen? Who could have known that the day would lead to this?

Again: a man, a woman, a child, two chimps. Light like only light can be, both soft and bracing, black and white. He’d never seen this before, he’d never see this again. A couple, together, dressed well, a child in the background, holding an unseen hand.

But the truth is this frame is born of failure. The following pictures are less sure, and the failures mount. Not just on this roll, but the next, and in the contact sheets, and work prints. They pile-up too, in a psychological way. You try and try again. You roll the dice: snake eyes.

But Winogrand’s failures allow for the successes in an organic way, as both till and filler. And it’s this entire stew of prints and unprinted frames that encompass the unseen work of Winogrand. If the failures allow for the successes, aren’t the failures part of the project, too?

And if you’re a photographer as prolific as Winogrand, who shot at an unfathomable rate, especially considering he was shooting with film, perhaps the most interesting product of all isn’t the finished prints or the exhibitions or published books, but the fact that you were out there, and living it, and shooting everything you could that might possibly become a good photograph, and that your effort (backed-up by the brilliance of your successes) was as much the product as anything.

In 2000, when digital cameras began to be affordable by average consumers interested in making photographic images (or just taking pictures) people were thrilled by the fact that the images were essentially free, that they could take as many pictures that they liked, and that the photos didn’t have to be of anything in particular. You didn’t have to save film for special occasions. You could freely photograph anything you desired, life as you knew it, rapid fire.

Photographer’s digital archives began to balloon under all that freedom, and even lazy weekend photographers found themselves sifting through tens of thousands of images. Some began to feel the weight of all that freedom; the ungainly Archive of Everything weighing down their hard drives.

It’s a Winograndian affliction, the creation of images you’ll never be able to assess (or see, even) in your lifetime. Winogrand was moving so fast photographically that he outran his own workflow, and thousands of rolls of film had to be developed posthumously.

It’s in this spirit that I sometimes consider Winogrand to be the first digital photographer. Not that he was a motor-drive weekender, but that there was no one before the advent of the digital camera who photographed with such zeal and inhibition. Toward the end of his life, while battling cancer, Winogrand’s friend drove him around Los Angeles and he photographed out the car window, wide-angled, to be sure. Yesterday, on my way home from work, I saw two separate cars in which the drivers were doing the exact same thing, with their digital point-and-shoots.

Winogrand’s omnivorousness for the image is what drove his greatest successes, like the couple with the chimps. Which is not to say that anyone with eagerness and the right equipment will become a great photographer. But I think Winogrand’s spirit lies less with the academics, and more with the kid who just got his older brother’s hand-me-down Canon Rebel and is about to stumble across a copy of The Animals in the school library during study hall.

If photography is a serious form of play, than Winogrand was an aesthetic athlete, always ready for kickoff, and his highlight reels remain. But one can’t help but wonder what gems (both historically and aesthetically) might be uncovered if the entirety of his archives were digitized and available not just to scholars, but to the proverbial kid in study hall. It’s a task for the “hive mind”: to reach a new understanding about an artist so ahead of his time that he himself never had the chance to reflect and assess the entirety of what he’d created.

In an era in which photography gets further away from its origins (for good and ill) and becomes the realm of “camera operators” and digital retouchers, Winogrand’s insatiable visual curiosity and unrivaled output has the strength and ability to ground us in the never-ending now. His task, to make pictures as often as possible that could satisfy that curiosity, has extreme relevance to the swelling audience of contemporary photography enthusiasts. Reframed, Winogrand’s output, not just the exhibition prints, or The Animals, Stock Photographs, Public Relations, or Women are Beautiful, but of each roll that passed through his camera, may have been the real prize – the final piece.

(More Winogrand on 2point8)

5 thoughts on “Reconsidering Winogrand”

  1. Bravo!

    And this, “While Winogrand’s street pictures might appear to be bounty from the hull of a trawler with a Fifth Avenue driftnet. . .” Superb.

  2. Very nice essay, thanks for that.

    “he outran his own workflow (…) It’s in this spirit that I sometimes consider Winogrand to be the first digital photographer”. Yes, that could be true. Though one can argue that he outran his own worflow consciously and voluntarily though (i.e. by postponing film processing months after).

    Don’t you think that Winogrand’s work routine was a bit paradoxical, being such a compulsive shooter, wanting to see “how things look like photographed” and at the same time delaying to see the result that long, to the extent that he left about 300k frames he would never see ?!
    … that is fascinating… but at the same time wasn’t he very much consistent with his vision by doing so ? I believe he was, deeply…. Because of his concern towards form and content that he would repeat again and again when teaching: “every photograph is a battle of form versus content. The good ones are on the border of failure”. This seems to indicate that he had to experiment the most possible situations he physically could photographically exploit to challenge the “border of failure”, which is not something attached specifically to the context of the shot (date and time of the shoot, mood at the moment, subject matter…) but something recorded in the film frame in an unalterable way. The “never-ending now” (as you wrote nicely) could have been for Garry Winogrand not a genuine interest for what is going on in this world – be it worth to be photographed for its own sake – but the infinite variations of the “battle of form versus content”

  3. I have always loved this shot of Winogrand’s (but there are many I do) and so it is telling to see another viewpoiint with the photographer captured…WITH the subjects. That also shows how much his particular point of view added to the image ~~~> everything! I believe that toward the end of his life, it was the act of shooting that became important, not the product. But of course, this has been mentioned elsewhere by others.

  4. “Let’s Do This. And yet, while Winogrand emerged from the darkroom with photographs that delineate the attentions of a man clearly focused on incongruities writ large;”

    Good article, but: Just so the young and impressionable set doesn’t get the wrong impression, GW, at least in his ‘mainstream’ years, didn’t print his own stuff. He farmed it out.

  5. Thanks a lot Michael. Couldn’t agree more with every single word (but would never be able to put it so beautifully)

    Many gems along the way… Among which:

    “If the failures allow for the successes, aren’t the failures part of the project, too?”

    “So large the urge to find these two and see where they are now, but so utterly useless, because the context of this photograph is its contextlessness”

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