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Tag Archives: Winogrand

The recent PBS show on Garry Winogrand got me thinking about my own very brief attempts at street photography, mostly while living in Philadelphia.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

Garry Winogrand spent his entire adult life walking the streets with a couple Leicas around his neck, shooting hundreds of thousands of negatives. I was a poor graduate student, and my camera was a tiny Rollie 35 that I bought for $25 because someone had stripped the stop pin off the lens focus, and then put the lens back on the wrong set of threads. I think I got it back together right, but I had to preselect the focus, and my photos often are out of focus in the foreground. And I didn’t shoot that much film—a few dozen rolls over a few years.

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Walter Mondale Rally, Philadelphia, September 1984

I learned that a great time to photograph was during events—like the victory parade for the 76ers, or the annual Mummers Day parade. I learned that the audience was often at least as interesting as the event. There were also political rallies, but those had a more solemn tone.

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Penn Football Game, 1984

On July 4, 1985, the Beach Boys came to Philadelphia after Nancy Reagan said they weren’t welcomed on the mall in DC. There must have been a million people there, the biggest crowd I’d ever seen. After dark, they put up eight million dollars worth of fireworks.

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Beach Boys Concert, Philadelphia, July 4, 1985

So most of these photographs are 35 years old—most of the people in them are approaching retirement. And what strikes me about them is what isn’t there—no cell phones, no ear buds. Everyone is present and paying attention.

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Outside Live Aid, Philadelphia, 1985

So, I ain’t Garry Winogrand, don’t presume to be—but these photos seem to be aging well…

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.

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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.

The digital revolution of the past decade (or two) has had profound effects on photography in general, and my photographs in particular.  Wikipedia defines photography as “the art, science, and practice of creating durable images by recording light”–

Zhengzhou, China, August 2011

For photographers of my vintage—I began making photographs fairly seriously in 1977—the preferred route to “durable images” was through the use of black and white materials—the color papers and films of the time used dyes of dubious durability—but (at least some) black and white images had persisted for more than a century (and many became more interesting with age), so that was the medium of choice.   A finished print was a silver print, usually small.   Once started, I persisted in making black and white images, until the advent of digital printing, which I began to experiment with in about 1998.

Early digital printing (anything pre 2001) was an ephemeral experience—prints could color shift and fade in hours if left in sunlight—but digital technology solved one of the major problems with traditional chemical methods—photographs and texts could be printed on the same sheet of paper.   It became possible (for the first time) to make simple books—something I had been struggling to do for decades.  So I began scanning negatives with gusto, even though the quality of the products were often less than satisfactory.

Fairbanks, January 18, 2012

In about 2001, third party ink sets became available that claimed to use pigments (metal oxides used in paints) rather than dyes, which I began to use (at least in part because ink cartridges were exorbitantly expensive in the quantities I was using them to print books—I was spending about $500 per month just on ink).  Eventually, the ink jet manufacturers developed pigment based ink sets that offered much better stability.

I bought my first digital camera in June of 2001, a 3 mega-pixel Nikon Cool-pix 995, with an articulated body so that I could use it at waist level—and I began to shoot with gusto—and print in color, for the first time in my life—wallowing in color.  In the time since, I’ve had about a dozen digital cameras, mostly the “pro-sumer”  level—relatively compact with fixed lenses, cheaper than the SLR models—pocket cameras that I could keep in a coat pocket or a computer bag, almost always having the camera in reach—at home with my family, when traveling, or just out and about town.   I’ve taken something like 100,000 pictures in that time (so many, it’s hard to count).

Walmart, Fairbanks, November, 2011

Why so many pictures?  Part of the answer is that digital has made it so cheap and easy to make a picture—a single chip costing a few dollars can hold thousands of images—you never have to change film in the camera.

(One wonders what photographers of the past might have done with this tool:   Gary Winogrand noted that “all the good stuff happens when you’re changing film”—and left a freezer full of undeveloped film when he died.  With digital, there is simply no reason to stop shooting.   But John Szarkowski noted, in reference to Winogrand’s frozen legacy that “to expose film is not quite to photograph”  (in Winogrand—Figments from the real world, pg 36)—a reference to Winogrand’s deteriorating technique during his last few years—including his apparent inability to even hold the camera steady in bright light—“It is as if the making of an exposure had become merely a gesture of acknowledgement that what lay before the camera might make a photograph, if one had the desire and energy to focus one’s attention.”  )

Hong Kong, August, 2005

The question becomes, though, is what to do with all the pictures.  Most photographs made now are never committed to paper—no prints are ever made—people view the pictures on their cell phones, or (if they are ambitious) on a computer screen.    I began by making ink jet prints of images I was interested in—I have more boxes full of them than I care to admit.  But prints in boxes are not very satisfying—they are never shown to an audience—even I don’t look at them very often.

In late 2005, I discovered a solution—on demand printing of books—and took to the medium with a vengeance.  Once a pile of digital photographs are selected, it takes only a few hours to arrange them into a book format, write a short description for the body of work (usually the writing is the most time consuming task), then upload it to a distant web site.  In a few days, a complete book arrives in the mail, and the work is at least somewhat finished.  It’s more like a bound stack of prints than a real book, but it is a physical object that will survive a hard drive crash.

But I’ve done several groups of photographs that are much bigger than reasonable for even these little book projects, and so I’ve been thinking about other ways to display them.  New digital TVs often have a USB port that can do slideshows from memory cards, but smaller digital picture frames are also available.  I’ve had a couple of digital frames for the last year and a half (I bought the first one for my 82 year old mother—but it’s too complicated for her), and enjoy watching pictures come and go, something new every time I walk past.

I have a show in a local gallery, and in in addition to the 4 large canvas landscapes made from scans of large format negatives, I  plan on hanging about a dozen digital frames, with a total of 23,000 pictures loaded in them, changing every 5 seconds.  Next to each will be a  single framed print—the 20th century meets the 21st.   One of the points being, of course, there are just too many pictures to look at.  And it isn’t just me—every photographer I know has some version of the same problem.

 

Trash, Tanana River, April 29, 2012

So maybe this is the dead end that Winogrand hit—when everything looks like it might make a photograph—and there is no reason not to trip the shutter.  Or maybe it’s the beginning of some new kind of photograph—less considered, more fluid, something that’s lasts barely longer than the flash of a lightening bug.

When I was growing up on the farm, a long time ago, my father would give me chores to do—feed and water the cattle, weed the garden, pick tomatoes—and even though the work was necessary for keeping the entire enterprise going, I resented doing those chores—it took time and effort, and kept me from doing the things I wanted to do—playing ball with my friends, shooting my BB-gun, or reading a book…   I left the farm, in large part to escape the endless, thankless chores, but, as every functioning adult soon realizes, chores are not limited to farm life…

Working with the 8×10 involves many chores—loading film holders, lugging heavy equipment around, developing film—all chores that cannot be avoided if one is to continue working.  But printing—now that’s a chore that can be avoided for a long time, with few immediate consequences.  Once the negatives are safely dried and stored, they can sit years…

8-5169 Moving Ice, Yukon River, May 9, 2009

When Gary Winogrand died, he left a freezer containing 2500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film behind plus an additional 9,500 rolls of film developed but not edited—an unprocessed archive more than a third of a million  images—to be developed and printed by others.  John Szarkowski writes of the frustration of the editor attempting to stagger through this mass of images, how many of the images were of subjects far from the camera, many were not sharp because Winogrand failed to hold the camera steady at the moment of exposure, as if even he lost interest in the image before the shutter was released, already moving onto the next image.  Szarkowski then notes that a photographer needs to bring his work to completion, to make prints, to see when he is failing to successfully make the images he wants.

8-5236 Taylor Highway, July 3, 2009

When working with a large format camera, the investment in each exposure is significant—for the 8×10, Tri-x is now $5 per sheet, and the time associated with the chores in the darkroom and the time of travel to the place where the image is made often averages well over an hour of effort.  I have a commitment to make at least a proof print of every large format negative I shoot.  In the days of the darkroom, this was a contact print, based on a guess at the exposure, done quickly, usually in lots of 32 images in a single 3-4 hour session in the darkroom, a number picked based on the number of prints that would fit in my print washer.  Now that I’ve moved to digital printing, scanning doesn’t require a fixed block of time, but the amount of time is actually greater—the flatbed scanner I use takes several minutes to complete a scan of these large negatives.  But the “exposure” is easier to adjust, and the resulting proof is very satisfactory for evaluating the success of the image.

I often fall behind in my proof printing, usually during the summer, when travel into the landscape is easier, and other plans and chores take precedence over time in front of the computer.  When I take a trip, I usually process the film shortly after arriving home, store and label the negatives, and scan and print a handful of what seem to be the best images, mostly because I want to see the pictures, but also to reassure myself that there are enough successes to justify continuing working.  But last winter, I never got around to the proof prints of the new negatives from the summer, and a few weeks ago, I realized that I had a stack of about 600 negatives to be proofed, too far behind.  I had just told a young friend about the importance of looking at every image—so I took my own advice and started scanning.

I’m about half way through the chore, I can do about six scans an hour—but I’m finding some wonderful images in the stack–

8-5095 Betly Mall, January 2009