Garry Winogrand Video interview (some extracts from him & thoughts from me)

An Interview with Garry Winogrand - his quotes and ideas ...and some thoughts from me

To accompany the video appearing on the home page of this blog, here are some selected quotes from Garry Winnogrand's interview with Barbara Diamonstein from 1981 and some thoughts of mine (in bold) about his comments.

D: How would you prefer to describe yourself?
W: I'm a photographer, a still photographer. That's it.

D: If you don't like "street photographer," how do you respond to that other tiresome phrase', "snapshot aesthetic"?
W: I knew that was coming. That's another stupidity. The people who use the term don't even know the meaning. They use it to refer to photographs they believe are loosely organized, or casually made, whatever you want to call it. Whatever terms you like.

The fact is, when they're talking about snapshots they're talking about the family album picture, which is one of the most precisely made photographs. Everybody's fifteen feet away and smiling. The sun is over the viewer's shoulder. That's when the picture is taken, always. It's one of the most carefully made photographs that ever happened. People are just dumb. They misunderstand.

D: That's an interesting point, particularly coming from someone who takes — or rather, composes and then snaps— lightning-fast shots.
W: I'll say this, I'm pretty fast with a camera when I have to be. However, I think it's irrelevant. I mean, what if I said that every photograph I made was set up? From the photograph, you can't prove otherwise. You don't know anything from the photograph about how it was made, really.

But every photograph could be set up. If one could imagine it, one could set it up. The whole discussion is a way of not talking about photographs.

D: Well, what would be a better way to describe that?
W: See, I don't think time is involved in how the thing is made. It's like, "There I was 40,000 feet in the air," whatever. You've got to deal with how photographs look, what's there, not how they're made. Even with what camera.

D: So what is really important
W: Is the photograph.

D: ...is how you organize complex situations or material to make a picture.
W: The picture, right. Not how I do anything. In the end, maybe the correct language would be how the fact of putting four edges around a collection of information or facts transforms it.
A photograph is not what was photographed, it's something else.

The fact is, the speed at which successful examples of this type of photography are made, whether on location in the street or other settings, does make it difficult to 'calculate' with precision how a picture will look at  the time of exposure.

However, while there is very real (and actually quite necessary) imprecision built into the art of creating so called street photography (e.g. why bother if reality could be locked down and chance were eliminated?) images made quickly and with forethought are not  as a result de facto 'snapshots'.  

The word snapshot is used as a derisive word (which is why Winogrand reacted so swiftly to its mention) and meant to demean and belittle photographs that are taken rapidly and often in succession. 

Implying that anyone taking pictures quickly was somehow 'sloppy' or 'casual'. And that this method of creation could 'never' be the result of calculation or the product of pre-determined decision!


D: Does it really not matter what kind of equipment you use?
W: Oh, I know what I like to use myself. I use Leicas, but when I look at the photograph, I don't ask the photograph questions. Mine or anybody else's.

The only time I've ever dealt with that kind of thing is when I'm teaching. You talk about people who are interested in "how." But when I look at photographs, I couldn't care less "how." You see?

D: What do you look for?
W: I look at a photograph. What's going on? What's happening, photographically? If it's interesting, I try to understand why.

D: And how do you expect the viewer to respond to your photographs?
W: I have no expectations. None at all.

D: Well, what do you want to evoke?
W: I have no ideas on that subject. Two people could look at the same flowers and feel differently about them. Why not?

I'm not making ads. I couldn't care less. Everybody's entitled to their own experience.

How important are humor and irony in your work?
W: I don't know. See, I don't get involved, frankly, in that way. When I see something, I know why something's funny or seems to be funny. But in the end it's just another picture as far as I'm concerned.

D: When you looked at those contact sheets, you noticed that something was going on. I've often wondered how a photographer who takes tens of thousands of photographs — and by now it may even be hundreds of thousands of photographs — keeps track of the material. 
How do you know what you have, and how do you find it?
W: Badly. That's all I can say. There've been times it's been just impossible to find a negative or whatever.
But I'm basically just a one man operation, and so things get messed up.
I don't have a filing system that's worth very much.

D: But don't you think that's important to your work?
W: I'm sure it is, but I can't do anything about it. It's hopeless. I've given up.

You just go through a certain kind of drudgery every time you have to look for something. I've got certain things grouped by now, but there's a drudgery in finding them. There's always stuff missing.


D: When I was taking your photograph earlier today, with well-intended whimsy I tilted my camera in an attempt to make my own Winogrand. From what I understand, that's not how it's done. What is the meaning of the horizontal tilted frame that you often use? And is your camera tilted when you make the picture?
W: It isn't tilted, no.

D: What are you doing?
W: Well, look, there's an arbitrary idea that the horizontal edge in a frame has to be the point of reference. And if you study those pictures, you'll see I use the vertical often enough. I use either edge. If it's as good as the vertical edge, it's as good as the horizontal edge.

I never do it without a reason. The only ones you'll see are the ones that work. There's various reasons for doing it. But they're not tilted, you see.

D: How do you create that angle, then?
W: You use the vertical edge as the point of reference, instead of the horizontal edge. I have a picture of a beggar, where there's an arm coming into the frame from the side.
And the arm is parallel to the horizontal edge and it makes it work. It's all games, you know. But it keeps it interesting to do, to play.

Actually this conversation is a bit odd! They're having a formal argument about the  conventions of the picture surface. 
Conventions that largely relate to the history and language of painting as it has evolved over hundreds of years. 

Quite odd, when you consider that Winogrand's work was largely about re-defining experience and reality in terms of the language of photography. 

Think about it. Why should a slanted frame actually denote anything other than how the camera was held?


D: Several years ago a student did ask you which qualities in a picture make it interesting instead of dead. And you replied with a telling statement describing what photography is all about. You said you didn't know what something would look like in a photograph until it had been photographed.

A rather simple sentence that you used has been widely identified with you, and that sentence is: "I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed." That was about five or six years ago. And I know there are few things that displease you more than being bored. So I would hope that you have since amended or extended that idea. How would you express it now?
W: Well, I don't think it was that simple then, either. There are things I photograph because I'm interested in those things. But in the end, you know what I'm saying there.

Earlier tonight, I said the photograph isn't what was photographed, it's something else. It's about transformation. And that's what it is. That hasn't changed, largely. But it's not that simple. Let's put it this way — I photograph what interests me all the time.

I live with the pictures to see what that thing looks like photographed. I'm saying the same thing; I'm not changing it. I photograph what interests me. I'm not saying anything different, you see.

D: Well, what is it about a photograph that makes it alive or dead?
W: How problematic it is! It's got to do with the contention between content and form.

Invariably that's what's responsible for its energies, its tensions, its being interesting or not. There are photographs that function just to give you information. I never saw a pyramid, but I've seen photographs; I know what a pyramid or a sphinx looks like.

There are pictures that do that, but they satisfy a different kind of interest. Most photographs are of life, what goes on in the world. And that's boring, generally. Life is banal, you know. Let's say that an artist deals with banality. I don't care what the discipline is.
 

This distinction that Winogrand talks about, about the difference between photography as 'illustration' as a simple descriptive medium and photography as a tool for discovery is a critical one. 

And something that still eludes many/most ambitious photographers including famous practitioners. 

The full force of what he's saying in this interview about this critical difference in intent is something I'm personally still pondering and working through.


D: And how do you find the mystery in the banal?
W: Well, that's what's interesting.
There is a transformation, you see, when you just put four edges around it. That changes it. A new world is created.
 
D: Does that discreet context make it more descriptive, and by transforming it give it a whole new layer of meaning?
W: You're asking me why that happens. Aside from the fact of just taking things out of context, I don't know why. That's part of a mystery. In a way, a transformation is a mystery to me.

But there is a transformation, and that's fascinating. Just think how minimal somebody's family album is. But you start looking at one of them, and the word everybody will use is "charming."

Something just happened. It's automatic, just operating a camera intelligently. You've got a lot going for you, you see. By just describing well with it, something happens.

And therein lies the magic!

D: You were teaching in Texas then, so you had some familiarity with cowboys and the West. It's been said that those rodeo pictures don't tell very pleasant truths. The image of the cowboy hero is somewhat deflated. Was that your intent?
W: My intention is to make interesting photographs. That's it, in the end. I don't make it up. Let's say it's a world I never made. That's what was there to deal with.

The raw material of a lot of street photography is banality. 
The difficulty is working 'through' what's there to see more than simply 'surfaces'.

D: But one does select what one photographs, and what one doesn't
W: Well, if you take a good look at the book, it's largely a portrait gallery of faces — faces that I found dramatic. And some of those turned out to be reasonably dramatic photographs. But that's all it is, I think. They're in action; there's people dancing.
Plus some actual rodeo action and some other animal pictures, livestock stuff. That's the way we're living. It's one world in this world. But it's not coverage; it's a record of my subjective interests.

D: When Tod Papageorge was the curator of one of your exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, he observed that you do not create pictures of significant form, but rather of signifying form. What does that phrase mean?
W: I think that's what photographic description is about. That's how a camera describes things.

D: Throughout your work, there is a narrative voice, and an active one at that. Do you agree?
W: I generally deal with something happening. So let's say that what's out there is a narrative. Often enough, the picture plays with the question of what actually is happening.

Almost the way puns function. They call the meaning of things into question. You know, why do you laugh at a pun? Language is basic to all of our existences in this world. We depend on it. So a pun calls the meaning of a word into question, and it upsets us tremendously.
We laugh because suddenly we find out we're not going to get killed. I think a lot of things work that way with photographs.

His comment that 'the picture plays with the question of what actually is happening' is a tremendously powerful and subtle obervation. 

So much popular writing on photography continues to this day to assert the 'reality' of photography.  

When considered within the strictly scientific sense of the word, photographs at the actual time of exposure/creation contain neutral 'information'. 

The idea of obtaining 'reality' automatically as a consequence of taking photographs still seems somehow an implicit assumption.
  
Also the idea of any photographic 'artist' actively subverting a strictly documentary 'looking' sense of reality to create something 'playful' still seems, as an idea (30 years later) wonderfully fresh.



D: We've talked about the influence of people like Walker Evans and Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank, of course, on your work. How would you contrast your work to theirs?
W: I wouldn't. We're different, I think. With Evans, if nothing else, it's just in terms of the time we photograph. And my attitude to a lot of things is different from Evans'.

Let's say I have a different kind of respect for the things in the world than he does. I have a different kind of seriousness. This might be misunderstood, but I certainly think that my attitude is different. And generally the cameras I use, and how I use them, are different. The things that he photographs describe a certain kind of exquisite taste.
And let's say the things I photograph may describe a lack of that. You know what I mean? He was like a very good shopper.

D: And you?
W: I think the problem is different. I was thinking about him and Atget. The things they photographed were often beautiful, and that's a hell of a problem, to photograph something that's beautiful to start with, you see.

The photograph should be more interesting or more beautiful than what was photographed. I deal with much more mundane objects, at least. I don't really; actually, I deal with it all. I can't keep away from the other things, but I don't avoid garbage.

D: What general advice would you give to young photographers? What should they be doing?
W: The primary problem is to learn to be your own toughest critic. You have to pay attention to intelligent work, and to work at the same time.
You see. I mean, you've got to bounce off better work. It's a matter of working.
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