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Tag Archives: John Szarkowski

As a beginning photographer, a long time ago, I struggled to understand why my photographs looked the way they did, and didn’t look quite like the photographers I admired.  And, of course, I tried buying bigger cameras and better lenses when I could afford them, but still it seemed like I was missing something.

Ansel Adams, Mt McKinley Alaska, 1948  (

When I moved to Fairbanks, I noticed that there was a big print, close to 40×50 inches, of the Ansel Adams view of Mt. McKinley hanging in the student union building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  For a while I assumed it was a big poster–but eventually realized it was a silver print, made by god himself, Ansel Adams.  It’s a really famous image–probably the most widely reproduced and best known photograph ever made in Alaska.  It’s the cover image of the book “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, with an essay by John Szarkowski.

That print commanded the room–you had to look at it.  It was intimidating.  I recall the first time I made some big prints–about the same size as the Adams–including one of my images of Denali–though from a different camera position than Adams, and in different light.  I loved my image, but of course it wasn’t the same picture as Ansel’s, and I really didn’t want to make a comparison—but I knew others would.  So was my picture “good enough”–was it up to snuff?  How would it hang next to that famous Adams image?

In the introduction to the book, “The Portfolios of Ansel Adams”, Szarkowski writes about Adams’ “legendary technique”, in which he states “In fact, Adams’ photographs are no sharper–no more optically acute–than those of any other competent technician using similar tools.  They are more clear–a matter not of better lenses, but of a better understanding of what one means.”   (That essay, in it’s entirety is, is something I’ve read many times over the years.)

With that understanding, I took a special trip to visit the McKinley photo again, this time to look at it closely, the way I looked at my own image, close up and personal–from six inches away.  And what I discovered rather shocked me–from that distance, there were some black dust spots on the negative (a few, but they were there), some of the grain pattern was slightly out of focus–and the grain pattern clearly showed this was from a 4×5 negative.  And the image was warping and yellowing slightly.  Szarkowski was right–as a physical object, this print had problems–the usual ones that every photographer struggles with.


Dennis Witmer, Denali from Wonder Lake, July 4, 1996

After that close look, I walked past that photograph many times, but I wasn’t intimidated by it anymore.   It was like seeing an old friend.  And then, one day it was gone.  The place where it had been for years—it wasn’t there anymore.  Eventually, I discovered that it had been moved, back into some student offices in the same building—hung out of public view.  I have no idea why the print was moved—perhaps out of concern that someone would steal the image (god knows what that print would sell for)?  Or protect it from damage?  Or maybe it just became too “uncool” for current sensibilities?  After I found it in its new place, I would sometimes go to look at it.  The students in the office always wondered what I was doing there—“just looking at the picture”—they seemed to act like I was doing something weird.

But, in the long run, what impressed me most was how effectively Ansel had intimidated me for so long.  He had created an illusion–and a very effective one–that prevented me, and I suspect almost all viewers of that image, from looking to closely at what he had actually done.  He convinced me, for a long time, that his image was perfect and impossible to equal.  It was an icon.

That experience profoundly changed the way I look at almost all photographs, especially my own.  When in a museum or gallery, I take off my glasses, and look at photographs from six inches away, the way I would look at an image on the ground glass.  And in my own work, I think of my job as trying to create an illusion, not of replicating the world.  It’s magic–like a card trick–and sometimes I think I pull it off.



Wild Pollock, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29×19.5″


A story from the art world:  Andy Warhol rips a picture from a magazine, holds it up, and says, “I made a drawing”.    On one level, he might have been right, in that drawings are sometimes studies for paintings, especially his silk screens that were based on widely reproduced photographs, but I think most would agree that ripping a page from a magazine is less creative than “making a drawing”.

I remember, back when I first started making photographs, some other photographers who went to art school talk about how the painting students would accuse the photographers of suffering from “painting envy”.  At that time, there was a lot to be jealous about:  “serious” photographers worked solely in black and white because color materials were “non-archival”, and most photographs tended to be small objects on paper, and were not really considered to be high art suitable for serious collectors.  Paintings, on the other hand, were big, bold, and colorful, and at least some paintings sold for lots of money.

Museum of Modern Art photography curator John Szarkowski noted that for him to consider something to be art it must first of all be a beautiful object—an opinion that put him at odds with the conceptual art community—but an interesting standard for photographs.  While it is easy to make a photograph—any idiot with a camera and film and access to a corner drugstore could make a photograph—it is much more challenging to make a photograph that could be considered a beautiful object.  I tried for years to make good photographs—it required attention to many things, starting with the selection of a camera and lens, care with focusing, avoiding motion and vibrations, exposing the film properly, then the dog work in the darkroom, developing the film, contact printing, doing work prints, and then finally selecting a few negatives to work with to make finished prints.    I made some photographs I consider to be beautiful objects, though I must admit that most of the prints I made over the course of 30 years don’t rise to that level.  Why?  Mostly because I didn’t have the patience to work with printing—I’d rather be out making new exposures rather than spending time in the darkroom, spending the hours necessary to make beautiful prints.

The Digital Revolution has changed photography, from silver gelatin on film and paper to pixels and pigments on paper or canvas.  Early on, I began to realize that even though I continued to print black and white images scanned from monochromatic negatives, the materials I used were the same as if I were printing in color—and, as a matter of fact, with the printing methods I used, colored pigments were being used in printing the monochrome images.  The whole “black and white is archival, color is not” argument became moot when printing digitally.


Red Dot, Digital File


I bought my first digital camera in 2001—a Nikon 995 Coolpix—a 3.2 MP camera—pretty small by today’s standards—but an amazing camera—it made bright, vivid pictures—and I started printing in color.  In black and white, a photograph depends on shape and texture to carry an image.  In a color image, the most important element is always the color.  The red object (if there is one) is always the subject, because that’s where the eye is drawn.  One of the first things I did with the digital camera was to find red subjects and put them in the middle of the frame.  Those pictures are about as subtle as hitting your thumb with a hammer.

It didn’t take long to figure out that printing from digital files was far different than printing from scanned color negatives.  The one problem with film is the presence of grain—in color materials, several layers of grain—which the scan would attempt to resolve.  A digital file, though, would assign a solid color to an entire pixel, so fields of color would be rendered as a continuous surface.  Even though the files weren’t very big, the resulting prints were quite convincing.


Bullet holes, Tanana River, Digital File


I remember, in about 2004, being invited to participate in a group show in Fairbanks called “the Gun Show”.  I submitted a print of bullet holes in the side of a red truck, printed at about 16×20 inches.  The red paint was rendered gloriously—and hanging in the gallery, it caught the eye of Kes Woodward, one of the town’s best known painters.  He stood in front of the print, shaking his head.  He turned to me and said, with a bitter laugh, “it isn’t fair”.  I laughed.  Damn straight, it isn’t fair.  Finally, photography could do big, bold, red, and beautiful.   But photographs were still fragile objects on paper that had to be protected, behind glass, matted.  Paintings were tough and independent.

I remember making my first large digital prints—it was the summer of 2004, and the university had managed to buy a 44 inch Epson printer—someone in the art department offered to let me use the printer one night.  I showed up with some high resolution scans from 8×10 negatives, and stayed all night, managed to complete 5 prints.  On my way home, about 9 in the morning, I took them to show the local gallery director—he took one look at them, and starting laughing.  “Boy, did you screw up” he told me.  But they are beautiful, I protested—he agreed—yes, they are beautiful, but at 44×55 inches on paper, they are bigger than standard matting materials.  I’d never be able to display them.


Green, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29″x19″



I’ve tried several ways to make big photographs—printing them on canvas (which works, but stretching them is a pain)–thumb tacking big prints to the wall (works, but looks unfinished)—or gluing them to foam core boards (works fine, but is a pain in the butt to do, and often warps).  Lately I’ve been hearing a lot about printing on Aluminum panels, which are then laminated to protect the image surface—which sounds like a robust way to make an image.  However, several images I’ve seen in galleries on metal had very poor detail resolution—something I’m unsure if it was due to the image file or the printing process.   And given the high cost of the aluminum panels—about $10 per square foot for a printable panel—printing on aluminum is not very affordable—especially if a group of images have to be printed for an exhibit.

I did discover that Epson makes an Enhanced Matt Poster Board product.  I’ve printed on Enhanced Matt paper for over a decade—it is a very serviceable printing surface—so I decided to give that a try and see how it looked.  It looked pretty good—especially after a coat of varnish which I had on hand from coating canvas.    And by gluing a wooden frame to the back, I could both stiffen the board, prevent warping, and attach a wire hanger to the back.  The final product looks great, is light weight, and hangs easily.

The resulting objects are big, bold, and colorful–and beautiful.   My son calls them paintings.  So, I guess I’ve made some paintings.  A pretty bold claim for a photographer.


Dumpster Painting, 2017, Pigment on Poster Board, 29″x19″

Nearly 30 years after his death, Garry Winogrand is still generating controversy—this time because he had the poor taste to die with his work incomplete—with 6500 rolls of film either undeveloped or completely un-edited.  The question seems to be, if Winogrand snapped the shutter, but never saw the image as a photograph, is it a “real” Winogrand?

This seems like a strange question, really—and gets to the heart of what a photograph is—and what it means to create a work of art—both questions becoming more interesting as our viewing habits pass from paper to pixels.   Some photographers work like some painters—taking control of the entire process from selecting the camera and film and paper, producing finished prints, and editing that work into finished book projects—Robert Adams and Lee Friedlander both work this way.  But lots of artists work with others—in teams—Ansel Adams used assistants for most of his working life—as did Andy Warhol and nearly every painter since then.

Winogrand began by doing his own printing, but really never had the patience for it—there are stories of people coming to visit his apartment to be confronted with endless stacks of unspotted prints—most of which seem to have ended up in the Winogrand archive at the Center for Creative Photography in Tuscon—and eventually ended up using the services of a very good printer who created many of the “finished” (signed by Gary Winogrand) images in circulation.   I once read that Garry Wionogrand always developed his own film—I went to my book collection and found the reference—a 1981 interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein—now available on YouTube.

Winogrand was living and working in LA in 1981 when the interview was done—one thing he mentions is that he’s working on photographing ‘the entertainment business’.     Which is a useful piece of information—I purchased one Winogrand image about 5 or 6 years ago—bought it off of E-bay, where it was identified as being from his “Mothers and Daughters” series.   The image is signed on the back by Garry Winogrand, but the signature is small and very careful—perhaps this was one of the many prints he signed en-mass shortly before he died.   It does not look like the signature of a large living photographic lion.

Garry Winogrand, "Mothers and Daughters', 1982

Garry Winogrand, “Mothers and Daughters’, 1982

I have never heard of Winogrand’s “Mothers and Daughters” series other than the E-bay description for this item.  The image may be from 1982—there is a designation “1982-157A” written in pencil on the back of the print—a date consistent with both the bottle of Perrier on the table, and the look and feel of the image.   The sun is shining bright—almost straight down—looks like lunch time.  There are three pairs of mothers and daughters in the picture, as well as a Ringo Starr look-alike, and Snoopy, dressed in tails at the nearest table (I bought this print because my son is fond of Snoopy).   There seems to be a look being exchanged between two of the daughters—the central figure—a black girl of about 10—and a girl with luxurious curls in the foreground.  While the central figure seems somewhat apprehensive, she is being guided by her mother, who is smiling and walking confidently towards the camera.  I’ve never seen this photograph published anywhere—but it is definitely a Winogrand—and shows that, at least on some occasions, he could still find subjects worth photographing, and catch the picture at the perfect instant.

The fact that Winogrand died so soon and left so much work un-edited meant, of course, that others would inevitably sift through it.  John Szarkowski was the first to try, but found that he lacked the time, energy, and eventually the patience for a definitive edit of Winogrand’s late work.  (He did predict the new look at Winogrand’s work—“…that a squad or platoon of scholars will eventually sort it out by motif and date, and construct piece-by-piece a model of what this remarkable artist tried to do, and what he achieved, in the last years of his life.”)

The new Garry Winogrand exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the accompanying hefty catalogue, is the next attempt to complete the task that Szarkowski described.   What is surprising in the new volume is not only the attention paid to Winogrand’s late work, but the number of new images found from Winogrand’s early work, in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Many of these images were marked on Winogrand’s contact sheets, but were presumably never printed (or acceptably printed) by him.

There have been several strongly written complaints about the book design of the catalogue—especially about the layout of the images—but worth noting is that the book was designed by a committee of three—and the spreads contain two, three, or four images—including some verticals—so the book design had to accommodate a variety of layouts—not an easy problem to deal with—and not every spread looks perfect—but the book definitely captures the energy of Winogrand’s photographs.  This is accentuated by placing the images as close together as possible—leading to a legitimate complaint that the book doesn’t lie flat (it does just fine if you are willing to break the binding) and some of the images suffer—but the images definitely converse with each other across the spread.  And, as a whole, the pairing and sequencing of the images is a major part of the fun of the book.

Winogrand (1 of 1)-2

To die early and leave the editing to others is not without its risks, however.  I once heard a group of photographers discussing Winogrand—“He’d run over his grandmother to get a picture” one of them said—and it wasn’t intended as a compliment.  And the new volume contains a picture of somebody’s grandmother who apparently got run over—and the editors of this book have placed next to an image a group of well dressed men, some with faintly bemused smiles, but one laughing joyously, looking across the gutter at the poor woman.  I can’t decide if this sequencing is a mistake, a very funny joke, or if some photographic scholar is going to rot in hell (filled with nothing but endless prints of “Moonrise over Hernadez, New Mexico for all eternity) for this pairing—but it certainly shows the power left to the editor if the artist dies and leaves someone else in charge.

I watched  the Garry Winogrand interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein earlier today—sat through to the bitter end, when it seemed the interviewer wanted Winogrand to make some profound pronouncement about his photographs and their meaning.  Winogrand fails completely to do so—he looks away from the camera, distracted, and then mutters, “it’s about living life, that’s all”.  Which, perhaps, bookends his 1964 Guggenheim application “we have not loved life” quote.

One can accuse Winogrand of running over his grandmother to get a picture, or of not getting his work done—but one cannot accuse Winogrand of not loving life.  His photographs remain powerful because he, with his camera, collected slices of life.  Who can blame him for being like a butterfly collector who would rather chase live butterflies in the field than endlessly rearrange those already on pins in the case?    In the end, he left us more than he knew—pictures he himself never had the time or inclination to finish.  But he did his work—he had his camera, he got the shot, he took the film home, and kept in a safe place.

But back to the question posed at the beginning of this post—When is a photograph finished?  The best answer I know is one given by John Gossage in the introduction to “Snake Eyes”—“The viewer completes the work of art”.  Which I think is to say, Winogrand left us with many photographs, only some of which saw completion in his lifetime.  The fact that he did not have the time or energy or inclination to develop his film or edit his contact sheets does not matter—he saw faster and better than anyone else, and got what he saw on film—the rest can be done by others.  A photograph is finished only when people stop looking at it.  Until then, it still has life.  And Winogrand’s photographs, individually and collectively, are full of life.

A friend just sent me a link to a lecture/conversation between Toby Jurovics and John Gossage about “The Pond”. It’s about an hour long, and well worth staying till the end.