Tuesday, March 12, 2013

More thoughts on Winogrand

Harper's, February 2013
The rush is on. Spurred by the SFMoMA retrospective, several articles about Winogrand have appeared recently, some in relatively unlikely places. For example, I don't recall Mother Jones or Harper's taking much of an interest in street photography before now, not to mention Huffington Post. The Bay Area local press has chimed in with nice articles here and hereWhat's next? Time? People? I'm guessing we'll see a spate of crossover reviews in the next few weeks before Winogrand once more settles into cultish obscurity. So we might as well enjoy his moment in the sun while it lasts. Bring on the press!

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
For me that gets to the nitty-gritty. Because basically what Winogrand was about is walking around with a camera looking at scenes. And trying to convert those scenes into interesting pictures. Pretty simple really. But for someone like Lorca-DiCorcia or, dare I say, many photography students today, that isn't enough anymore. 

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
For the general public one point of entry is Winogrand's prodigious output. He was so prolific he famously couldn't keep up with himself. And so that becomes the natural tag-line for general interest mags like Harper's or Mother Jones or Huff Post. SFMoMA estimates that he shot 20,000 rolls, a figure which probably rivals any other in history. Maybe Araki or Moriyama would argue? In the Aperture interview, Rubinfein estimates Winogrand's rate at 500 rolls per year --a large figure but still manageable-- in his early career before it spiraled out of control in later years. By the end he was shooting from the passenger seat on motor-drive, barely taking time to focus. An antecedent to Street View? To digital excess?

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
What's uncertain is how much of this is Winogrand and how much is Rubinfein. Are there non-people shots which haven't been made public? If so it's easy to see how they'd be held back, since they do not fit the rest of his ouvre. This is a chronic issue when looking at Winogrand's photos since he did not edit or champion most of his best-known work. Instead it's been shaped by various curators, first Steichen, then Szarkowski, Papageorge, Friedlander, Harris, Fraenkel, Stack, and now Rubinfein. I don't think Winogrand was totally unconcerned with editing, but he was so obsessed with shooting that any other task necessarily received less attention. Thus those 6,500 rolls in the closet were deferred indefinitely.

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.


Hernan Zenteno said...

Don't cry about those comments, we are a lot of people in this world and in some way is normal to find this kind of comments. Surely Philip Lorca Di Corcia can do very well photos for money. But I have more interest in Winogrand photos that in the images he did paying a hotdog to someone for pose or hiding some flashes to get a good light. In your recent interview with Liz Kuball I saw too some trouble about doing photos as job instead as some necessity. I do both and I am in trouble constantly cause is difficult to manage both, I think one of the best known photographer that can do well both is Elliott Erwitt.
Coming back to Winogrand trajectory maybe at last he develop some kind of Vivian Maier syndrome, some primitive need to frame and shoot without check later what he got. He wanted life in his photos, that is the reason he did all times photos of people doing things or animals and not abstract forms. Maybe he pursued so much to portrait life that he ended dedicating his life to act of portrait it. As if was an unconscious message of a message (metamensaje, sorry, English is not my mother language). You are lucky to see the show, I am very far but I give you many thanks for share all this articles of a person that call my attention every time I found some article about him. Saludos

Hernan Zenteno said...

Ops, when I talked about paying a hotdog or setting lights I referred to Di Corcia

Stan B. said...

A couple of things- the Guardian article on Winogrand leaves the impression that he never edited his work (very far from true). And Papageorge called the current show a "landmark" exhibition while at the same time asking, "Does it matter if someone else picked out the photos? No, not really." It came off more as apology as he shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes, than a statement of affirmation. Personally, I gotta wonder if that blurry, shoddily composed LA shot plastered on the back cover of the current SFMOMA catalogue serves to enhance his legacy.

chuckp said...

I'm always kind of bemused at the idea of Winogrand being in some way obscure. It seems to me that he's always been one of the most esteemed photographers to come out of the 60's. Time Magazine had a lengthy review of Public Relations when it came out in '77, and while his most iconic images were from the earlier years of his career - the mid 60's, let's say - they're still iconic. If I say "woman swimming with a pig" I think most photographers, or anyone else remotely familiar with the history of the medium will know exactly to what I'm referring. What's sort of interesting to me is the that his enormous output, without the corresponding personal editing is sometimes used as a cudgel - a variant of the thousand monkeys at a typewriter trope. Well, it's true that if we sift through a couple million images we're going to find a bunch of great ones. But this is one person! Operating with nothing other than a personal directive! However inchoate the compositions or viewpoints seem, there comes out of all that a truly complex and very personal sensibility, which you touch upon with your observation about the lack of people-less images. And a good part of the counterpoint to the barely sublimated argument that anybody who took that many shots would get a lot of good stuff is that nobody did! Even if there were nothing else to the story of his success (and I sure think there's a lot more) that would be enough to make him worthy of consideration. Michael David Murphy wrote a pretty good piece a few years ago about how Winogrand was a proto-digital photographer, which I think is on the money. But - and this is where the importance of this being photography is manifest - because he was "proto-digital" he created the one, true, monumental, personal, Balzacian document of the '60's that will, as time goes by (cue the violins) become the dominant visual reference of that era.

Blake Andrews said...

He is well known among photographers but I think he is obscure in the eyes of the general public. Ask a random person on the street and almost no one will have heard of him.

The proto-digital comparison is interesting. I think if he'd lived into the digital era his shooting would've been even more beyond control. So perhaps film saved him by at least putting some slight limits on his output.

I don't know which shot is on the back of the catalog. Is it the LA shot of the gutter figure? I don't like that photo very much but it sort of exemplifies where he was at mentally. No moment, no composition, no focus. Just the shutter saying "I shall be released!"

Stan B. said...

Yes, the gutter figure is on the back; perhaps great as a reflection of his mental state at the time- as for being a cover shot representative of his artistry...

Papageorge suggested he was every bit as obsessive in his editing process as he was in his shooting- which also speaks to his mindset towards the end.

Unknown said...

The Wikipedia defines the work ethic as follows: "Work ethic is a set of values based on hard work and diligence. It is also a belief in the moral benefit of work and its ability to enhance character."
I am not so sure that this really applies to Winogrand's personality. Being compulsive does not necessarily mean on has a work ethic.

GaryS said...

The editing issue is not that relevant to me and this is why... Maybe a lot of people have edited (or helped edit) the work for different projects throughout his career, but when we look at the work, what do we see? Recurrence of themes, a consistent form, a recognizable voice. Yes, if you gave the same stack of his proof sheets to 2 different people and asked them to pick the best couple of dozen pictures, you may get 2 different sets of photographs. But what you will get is 2 different sets of Winogrand photographs. You won't get a set of Winogrands and a set of Westons.

Stan B. said...

Agreed, but you're also likely to get work that an artist may not have wanted to be exhibited, or remembered by. Personally, I tend to go with Szarkowski who thought there just wasn't that much there in the remaining thousands of exposures. And maybe I'm just somewhat let down by the hype of the long awaited, never before seen, hidden treasures... Some of it is quite good, but much of it seems of interest for biographical purposes; in the end, it's just great he's getting another go around (as Papageorge seemed to suggest).

Blake Andrews said...

We can always wonder how Winogrand might've viewed his post-humous edits, or which photos he would've chosen given the chance. But I think with some photographers (Maier, Bellocq, etc) that's just part of the package. The edits and his photos are all wrapped up together by now, impossible to separate.

Compulsive. Driven. Obsessed. Maybe it's not the dictionary definition of work ethic, but the end result is about the same. He lived and breathed photography to the exclusion of many other activities. That's generally what it takes to achieve in any creative field.

GaryS said...

I hear what you are saying, but that doesn't bother me much either, at least in Winogrand's case. We are talking about someone who apparently was happy to have help with editing, who would frequently show up with a few hundred photos to show rather than 30 or 40, and someone who left no indication he would object to such treatment.

I've seen the new show and my opinion is that Rubinfien and Co. have brought something that was lacking in the MOMA retrospective. Aside from briefly addressing the unfinished work, did Szarkowski do much more than re-stage the well-known work in a familiar framework? The work was mostly presented according to subject themes (much like Winogrand's books), EI: Zoos, Rodeo, etc.
Rubinfien has pretty much disregarded these divisions in favor of addressing the work as a more cohesive whole (There is surprisingly little reference to Winogrand's books in the show). The many "New" pictures only seem to support this coherence, but also give viewers an appreciation for the depth of Winogrand's talent.

Blake Andrews said...

Cue Time article:


Philip said...

Your essay is wonderful. Thanks.

Unknown said...

Araki has a name for himself which is "PhotoManiac". Something I believe that Winogrand had too. I believe that at some point everything makes sense in the world for a photographer, the camera and its surrounding in perfect unison and its there for the taking and its a photographers duty to seize that and own it. (Sorry if it sounds like hippy S**t,) not the best at explaining my case through written word.
Blake be sure to give me a call when you come to S.F. I would like you to to see something.

Hernan Zenteno said...

All this make me think if the photographer vision is more tied to his/her own edits or the whole of the raw work. Yes, both are linked but there are a reason to only pick some frames and not to show all. The difficult that GaryS commented about Winogrand difficult to edit is because he did a lot of photos. He had difficult from the start to edit in camera. This don't mean that he wanted to show all. Edition is necessary and important in the way we show our work. Obviously I have a lot of interest in know all the other stuff but I tend to think, as Stan B., that is most for biographical purposes or curiosity about Winogrand's way of work.

Zisis Kardianos said...

By the way this is a good chance to remember who Leo Rubinfien really is, not just as a writer but as a photographer and this video is a fitting starting point.

Thank you for the profound and lengthy article Blake...and for the pdf.
More questions raised than answered but this is indicative of any worthy piece of writing.

Gary said...

Agree Chuck... we know more about Winogrand than we do about Friedlander.

Anonymous said...

Great conversation. I go with Chuck when he suggests that Winogrand is the pre-eminent photographer of the most convulsive period in modern American history. If nothing else, his output is an impeachable archive of what the American nation and its people fought for, played with, revelled in, gorged on on, fretted over and feared deeply. No need to look for his worth in the phsycological studies and photographic mania, it's all there in the archive. I wish I could go through it myself.....


Jacques Philippe said...

Very good writing Blake. I'm totally sold on Winogrand, no need to elaborate on that. I'm just back from my local bookshop and saw the big book recently published about GW. Was sealed and could not have a look. I understand it's the catalog of that SFMoMA exhibition. I'll probably buy it... Anyone has feedback ?

Blake Andrews said...

Jacques, I do not yet have the book but I've browsed a friend's copy. I would recommend getting it. There are some problems with it but in general it's a good effort. I'll have a more detailed review soon. In the meantime I think some other places online have written about it.