|Harper's, February 2013|
Of the articles I've seen so far, Lyle Rexer's well written essay in Harper's is the most interesting. It's knowledgeable and heartfelt, and includes a few shots I'd never seen before. Unfortunately, unless you own a physical copy you may have a hard time finding it. I've put a PDF here on my server, which I suspect may be illegal. So check it out now before Harper's asks me to remove it.
Mother Jones entered the fray recently with a nice interview with Ted Pushinsky recalling his impressions of Winogrand. Winogrand's obsessive nature has been well-documented. It's part of his legend. But it was interesting to see the work ethic described by a friend who shot with him. I think the fact that Winogrand lived and breathed photography comes through strongly in this interchange:
MJ: So do you feel like anything rubbed off on you?
TP: Perhaps a work ethic. Not anything in the way of teaching a way of seeing. I feel like I developed that myself. But Garry worked hard. He got up and started shooting. I get up and maybe read the newspaper. He shot an awful lot. It made me think, maybe I'm missing out if I'm not shooting.Of course Winogrand articles have popped up in more expected places too. Tyler Green has a nice MAN interview here with Leo Rubinfein. Stephen McLaren reviewed the exhibit opening here, with interesting comments by Rubinfein and Paul Graham, and an even more interesting array of comments generated by readers.
Nick Shere took notes on Papageorge's SFMoMA lecture here. Like Pushinsky, Papageorge was struck by Winogrand's work ethic, his "almost Buddhist sense of vocation." Ironically this work ethic applied mainly to his non-professional endeavors. His non-work, in other words. In Papageorge's opinion, Winogrand's magazine photos made for money were awful. Which is understandable. Like so many photographers, it's the amateur work which forms his lasting legacy.
The recently relaunched Aperture 210 contains a great discussion about Winogrand between Philip Lorca-DiCorcia and Leo Rubinfein. Unfortunately it's not online and I don't own a copy, so I can't quote directly. But I spent a while studying it this week in the local bookshop (quotations here are paraphrased from memory). The general tenor is a converstation between skeptic (PLC) and convert (Rubinfein). Lorca-DiCorcia doesn't really understand Winogrand's appeal, or perhaps he sees it as an outdated mode. "Ask any student studying photography now about their inspirations," he says, "and no one will mention Winogrand". Which is probably true.
|Winogrand, 1977, Texas, by Don Hudson|
Lorca-DiCorcia complains that Winogrand was evasive in his public speeches. Most of his statements reduced to mysterious epigrams (many taken from this single public appearance) like "Nothing is as mysterious as a fact clearly described." What does that mean? Lorca-DiCorcia views this as the emperor having no clothes. But Rubinfein, who I think understands Winogrand as well as anyone except maybe Papageorge, correctly replies that it just comes down to photographing. Looking, seeing, making photos. Thus the seemingly simple quotes, which actually border more on zen than contemporary photography. Buddhist vocation indeed.
Walking around with a camera, no plans, trying to fill each frame with something profound. It's fucking hard! I think until you've tried it's very difficult to understand Winogrand. And unfortunately many photographers haven't, not to mention the general public. I don't think the SFMoMA show will hold much interest for those people. I mean, 300 photos of some guy shooting seemingly random snapshots. What's the big deal?
"I am a reasonably experienced photographer," sniffs one BBC commenter, "so I can spot a decent photo. I just think this set are OK, but in the main technically poor and of fairly uninteresting subject matter."
"Average for today," says another, "with even limited skills being compensated for via a cheap DSLR/50 mm and a couple minutes with any old photo editor. Magnificent for the times way back though."When I read these comments my first instinct is to cry, But Wait! You're missing out! But upon further reflection these were my exact reactions when I first encountered Winogrand maybe 20 years ago. His photos are admittedly something of an acquired taste. Henri Cartier-Bresson I got right off. His formality invites you right in. But Winogrand? His photos are more difficult. They're messy. They're plain. They're indirect. In short they look a lot like life itself. For many people that rawness is a problem. Photographs are supposed to be visionary. Clean. Edited. They're supposed to be a guy caught mid-air over a puddle, not some blurry figure laying in the gutter.
|Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles, 1980-83|
He died with 6,500 rolls unprocessed, or however many it was. Anyone who's shot film knows this is a ridiculous mountain. And that number now forms the backbone of the myth surrounding him. All of the sudden his quest looks less rational, more Quixotic. He's no longer Huck Finn. He's Ahab. What the heck was he after? What drove him? And more importantly, what's on that film? The idea that some overlooked gems have been locked away for 30 years is just too tantalizing. It's Vivian Maier on steroids, and the press has latched on.
Enter SFMoMA. For the first time someone --Rubinfein-- has looked at all those rolls, and the current show promises revelations. "Never Before Seen Photos From Legendary Street Shooter Garry Winogrand" pipes the Mother Jones headline, inaccurately. Harper's and Aperture spice their articles with a few new photos. And of course I showed some here which I thought were new (I discovered later that a few had been published in Aperture 210). But after all the hubbub has settled down and the "new" images recede inevitably into familiarity, what are we to make of them?
I suppose any miscellaneous pile of 6,500 rolls is bound to contain some nice images. That's what Winogrand's critics might say, that's it's just a matter of odds. And to some extent they're right. Based on what I've seen so far of the new images, the odds got longer as Winogrand's career progressed. There's some nice stuff but no real breakout hits. But by the end maybe it wasn't even about that. I think part of him no longer bothered with the image. It was mostly animal instinct. Move around, no plans, fill each frame. Repeat as necessary.
|Winogrand Flow Chart|
Most street photographers focus on people and Winogrand was no exception. But with him it was virtually exclusive. I can only think of a handful of his previously published images which don't show people, and they all show animals. His animal instinct at work again.
Why he wasn't drawn to shapes or shadows, even if just occasionally? Didn't he notice flowers or mountains living in Texas or LA? Where are they on his contacts? Even Kertesz and Frank shot the occasional still life. But not Winogrand. Out of 100+ new images in the SFMoMA show, only two are without people. Long odds.
|Garry Winogrand, Wind and Crib, Circa 1956|
I think Winogrand's attraction to photographing people was psychological. He liked to play with figures as compositional figures, but more importantly he liked to get inside their heads. Many of his photos are like X-Ray mindreadings. They burrow right into the thoughts of the characters. It's not easy to make photos like that without bogging down in sentimentality, without the thoughts becoming the primary subject. I see a lot of portraits nowadays concerned with that penetration, but they often leave the rest of life behind. Winogrand somehow combined X-Rays with surface level reality in a way that I think is rare. I know I can't do it.
That's it for now. I plan to check out the show in person in a few weeks, and this essay may continue after that point. In the meantime, keep an eye out for more general press attention.