Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Thoughts on the MIT mp3

Michael David Murphy's 2point8 recently ended a long dormancy with a transcription of Garry Winogrand's appearance at MIT in 1974. I have a hard time absorbing that type of material in audio form so I'd never heard the original mp3. But when audio is transcribed into writing, I'll often spend as long as it takes to read the whole thing. In written form the information seems to sink in more thoroughly, especially when it's as dense with ideas as this is.

Transcribed dialogue has an almost photographic quality that's often missing from expository writing. It conveys "the illusion of literal description" quite well, to use Winogrand's term. You become a spy, a fly on the wall. If he'd just written his ideas down in an essay, they'd probably seem edited, mediated, and thought over. That's what written ideas are supposed to look like. But to read them expressed in the moment as part of a give-and-take conversation transforms them. They become raw like his photos.

After a short introduction by Tod Papageorge, Winogrand makes no speech at all. He launches straight into Q & A. To me this seems like a natural outgrowth of his photographic philosophy. Winogrand couldn't create ideas from scratch. He just wasn't wired with imagination. Not that it mattered to him. "Still photography," he says, "is the clumsiest way to exercise imagination, to illustrate literary ideas. Anybody with a pencil, beasts you, period. You know, what I mean is you just want to take a very simple illustration of the point, if you wanted a melted watch, how do you get it? Dali can have one anytime he wants. You see? It is the clumsiest way to exercise imagination. It is tantamount to driving a nail in with a saw, when you can use a hammer."

Rather than rely on imagination Winogrand used the world to provide the raw material for his photos, from which he later derived meaning. He was reactive, not proactive. Therefore it makes sense that when speaking to a crowd he would initiate the interaction from a reactive stance, letting the audience dictate the agenda from the start. And they played right along. I have no idea who was in the crowd but there must've been some serious photo geeks because the interplay is continually charged and probing.

Winogrand comes across as a wily old Zenmaster. Not only does he brandish the quip, "I probably just take every picture just to see what something looks like photographed." (the very credo of Modernism, according to Gerry Badger), he continually taunts the audience with similar tautologies. He's as slippery as a politician at a press conference:

[Audience Member]: Do you still like [your older photographs]?

[Winogrand]: The ones I’m interested in, I’m interested in. That’s all I can say.


[Audience Member]: Do you have a favorite place?

[Winogrand]: Where I am! … No, the question is funny… look, I’m a New Yorker, and when I’m not in New York, it turn out that I’m always in another city.


[Audience Member]: Are you trying to say something with [your photographs]?

[Winogrand]: Did you hear what I said? I answered your question. I have nothing to say, and with pictures, certainly.

It's not that he's trying to be difficult. He's just tired of the audience playing catch-up. How many times must I explain it? we can hear him thinking, the photo is the central thing, before venturing further out on the limb. "Once the photograph exists," he says, "it has no relation to what was photographed."

No relation? Does he really believe that? It's hard to tell. It's tempting to think he's pushing the argument to its natural limit just to make his point. But taken at face value the statement is absurd. Of course every photograph has some relationship to the original scene. You photograph something to see what it looks like photographed. If there's no connection, why bother?

I think what he meant is that a photo needn't rely on that relationship for its meaning. You don't have to know what's happening in the scene, and in fact much of the time it's better not to know. I'm guessing that photojournalism probably bored Winogrand. Why try to describe a literal fact when the illusion of it is much more fascinating?

Reading the transcript was the first time I'd encountered any of Winogrand's ideas about printing:

[Winogrand]: ...In the shadow areas there should be information, it shouldn’t be dead, a hole in the picture, black. In the highlights there should be information, it shouldn’t be chalk-white.

[Audience Member]: Why not?

[Winogrand]: That’s what we’re talking about, were talking about, an “open print.”

[Audience Member]: Why do you say that though? I mean there are tons of people that consider themselves photographers who elect to have blacks with nothing in it.

[Winogrand]: Everybody is responsible for their own foolishness. And their own misunderstandings.

[Audience Member]: In other words, you don’t allow that?

[Winogrand]: It’s not up to me to allow, or disallow. I don’t run the show.

[Audience Member]: But you are… you’re not controlling anything, but you’re making a judgment.

[Winogrand]: On the basis of what I understand, that’s all. I mean, just take a look in this room, ok? Who is wearing anything black? Take a look at somebody who is wearing black. There’s light on it, what color is it, is it black? Or is it grey? Is there a black in nature?

[Audience Member]: Yeah?

[Winogrand]: No, sorry. When the lights are out, when there’s no light, it’s black. Take pictures then. Be my guest.

The truth was he didn't care much about printing, at least in comparison to the importance of the image. "Any competent printer can print for me," he says, "There’s not a game of interpretation.… the only decision is to… to try to keep it as open as possible. I shoot a lot, and if I could afford it, I would have somebody printing for me."

If I could afford it. He wasn't selling many prints then. Supporting himself through teaching, hired gigs, and book sales was tough. His financial situation comes up again when discussing his color work.

[Audience Member]: You say you’ve done a lot of color. How come you don’t do it any more?

[Winogrand]: Well that’s a long story. You know, it aaah, the materials are very limited, leave it at that. And so is my pocket book, considering what the materials cost, and that’s on top of them being very limited.

Before reading this I hadn't considered the extent to which his finances effected his photographic choices. Who knows, maybe he'd have hired someone to develop all those rolls at the end of his life? In any case it may have effected his decision to stick with b/w.

Winogrand wasn't alone. The cost of making good color prints in his era was a serious impediment to a whole generation. It's interesting to speculate about the influence of financial security on the history of 70s color photography. The initial pioneers —Eggleston, Shore, and Meyerowitz— each had the financial means to pursue serious color work, whereas people like Winogrand and others may have been held back by its relative unaffordability. Pure speculation here, but it's an idea I haven't seen addressed much.

Nowadays of course the tables are completely turned. The digital world has made color extremely accessible, while people working in b/w film find their material costs continually escalating. Now everyone is like Winogrand. Our collective fate is to die with thousands of pictures sitting unprocessed on some hard drive or other. That's the easy part. The trick is to say something worth paying attention to 35 years from now, whenagrand isn't worth nearly as much.


John Legweak said...

Re cost of color in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and its effect on practice, it’s something that I’ve run into again and again in my information gathering about “Color before the New Color”. I attended a very interesting panel discussion last year about Harry Callahan – definitely one of the American color pioneers – in which a number of his RISD students in the 60’s and 70’s reminisced about him, his personality, work habits, teaching style and so on and about the program that he ran at RISD with Aaron Siskind. After the meeting I asked one of the speakers, I think Guy Kayafas (a fixture in the Boston photographic community), why people seemed to have shot so little color back in those says and he said that it was cost pure and simple – especially for the printing.

His answer surprised me at the time, but I’ve since seen a fair amount of confirmation that it really was the case – at least for photographers of average (which is to say, very modest) means. In fact even the museums and galleries felt the pinch. I can’t track down the reference right now, but I recently read that a museum (MoMA?, Cleveland?) presented an exhibition of Helen Levitt’s color work back in this period in slide show format because it would have cost a huge amount to make prints. And it’s almost certainly for the same reason that the presentation of Gary Winogrand’s color work in the 1967 MoMA New Documents exhibition was also in slide show format (and was cut short when the projector broke – I learned this info from Kevin Moore, Starburst: Color Photography in America 1970-1980, Hatje Cantz, 2010, esp. footnotes 68 and 69 to Moore’s introductory essay).

There’s a whole history here that needs to be written while the participants are still alive and can answer questions and fill in details and offer a human perspective. The New Color is only half the story of the rise of color in serious photography and not necessarily the most interesting half. We need a better balance between how the curators and critics of the day saw color photography and how the photographers themselves saw it, and a more thoughtful, less dogmatic, view of what was pushing color photography forward and also holding it back vis-à-vis black and white photography.

jacques philippe said...

I did listen the original mp3 when it was published few months ago but it was a real treat to have it transcribed (especially for me non-native EN, I missed some Q&A in the audio). Just one thing I think is worth to mention is that the transcription "sounds" way more serious than what seems to have been the general vibe of the workshop. There was lots of laughter in the audio, and though Winogrand sometimes felt upset by some recurring questions he was quite relax and humoristic more often than not.

You made good points about Winogrand. I think his "straightforwadness" was pushed to the point that it became somewhat enigmatic (the photographs as well as how he would speak about photography).

chuckp said...

Re the cost of color - it was certainly true for me. It wasn't just that color printing was expensive - the cost of all of the chemistry was very expensive and had extremely short shelf lives. You also needed a darkroom with really good temperature control. Color enlarging filters were expensive. It was also not easy to manipulate - no real contrast control that you could do on a color print. Prints made from slides by most commercial outfits were hideous. Altogether it was a huge pain in the ass. Everyone I knew shot some color - always transparencies - and lamented that you could never get a print that even approached what the slide looked like. My standard defense, shared by many, was that B&W was somehow "truer" to experience.


MartinH said...

What's with the shitty adverts? I count 8 of them.

Blake Andrews said...

About the "shitty adverts", if you think carefully about what they're saying you'll realize they convey the illusion of literal description.

I thought it would be more fun to illustrate the post with direct references to Win-a-grand's name than with the same Winogrand shots we've all seen before. And also because I thought they looked totally crazy and jarring in comparison to the somber tone of the commentary, yet still made perfect sense.

John Legweak said...

I thought it was just behavioral targeting finding me no matter where I hid. I'm impressed that it's all a spoof. Hats off and better start editioning the prints before the dealers take control of your mind.

P.S. Great testimony Chuck. Exactly what needs to be collected.

Anonymous said...

Winogrand's problem with color was it's contrasty nature. This is what he meant when referring to the limitations of the materials. It wasn't well suited to his ideas about "Open" prints. I think if it weren't for this, he would have found a way to do more color despite it's cost.


jacques philippe said...

on 2point8 as well there is an excerpt from an interview of Stephen Shore and he relates how costly it was to process color back then.

"A couple. 8×10 color is very expensive. Back in the 70s it cost 15-20$ a shot for the film, the processing, and the contact sheet, now it’s twice that. And to do good work, you can’t just take pictures that you know are going to be good, cause then you’re never going to learn anything or experiment. So the economy came in that I didn’t take two of anything"

Now he spoke about 8x10 but the cost for high standard post-processing and printing should have been somewhat comparable for 35mm film. And as a matter of fact he points out that because of the cost you could not afford a high exposure/print ratio, which was contradictory to Winogrand's routine.

John Legweak said...

I just noticed that the Bruce Silverstein Gallery in NYC is about to open a show called "Beyond Color: Color in American Photography, 1950-1970". It should cover some of the ground that I feel like has gotten less attention than it deserves compared to the New Color of 1970-1980.

Another piece of the color puzzle is the Photorealism painting movement (or maybe better trend) which emerged in the 70's. In some ways it embraced pure surface "everyday" subject matter before photography did. When I look at the work now I instinctively see it as photography rather than painting - in particular as photographic images printed via an extremely labor-intensitive "alternative" process.

jacques philippe said...

"Another piece of the color puzzle is the Photorealism painting movement (or maybe better trend) which emerged in the 70's. In some ways it embraced pure surface "everyday" subject matter before photography did".

There was Edward Hopper before, whose work IMO prefigures that of many American photographers. Henry Wessel counts him as an important influence.

John Legweak said...

Yes, Hopper must have been an influence on a lot of photographers of this period, but I think he in turn was influenced by photographers of his own time and before. In any case his "way of seeing" seems very photographic.

Blake Andrews said...

What makes Hopper particularly photographic compared to others? You could name 20 painters that look "photographic" since that term can be just about anything. Even someone like Klee is photographic on some level.

John Legweak said...

My knowledge of art history is pretty superficial, but I think it’s clear that all figurative painters of the 20th century and maybe some of the earlier ones were influenced by photography and in many cases actually incorporated photography into their practice. But to my eye some painters have a more photographic eye than others. I think Hopper is one, with his sensitivity to commonplace architectural settings and preference for middle distance subjects. I think Eric Fischl is another, with his ultra-naturalistic transitional poses. (And he definitely works from photographs.) But in absence of direct testimony from the artists themselves and people that know (or knew) them, all we can do is interpret and speculate.

GaryS said...

I think a lot of photographers have acknowledged Hopper's influence.

Interesting show & book a while back...