In Association with

Masters of Photography
Garry Winogrand

Text excerpted from Winogrand : Figments from the Real World

John Szarkowski:


IN THE STREET PICTURES of the early sixties Winogrand began to develop two pictorial strategies that he found suggested in certain pictures in Frank's The Americans. The first of these related to unexplored possibilities of the wide-angle lens on the hand camera. The conventional conception of the wide-angle lens saw it as a tool that included more of the potential subject from a given vantage point; most photographers would not use it unless their backs were literally against the wall. Winogrand learned to use it as a way of including what he wanted from a closer vantage point, from which he could photograph an entire pedestrian (for example) from a distance at which we normally focus only on faces. From this intimate distance the shoes of the subject are seen from above, its face straight-on, or even a little from below, and the whole of the figure is drawn with an unfamiliar, unsettling complexity.

To pursue such a strategy while photographing people on the street means that the camera back is never vertical, as prescribed by classic procedure; if the figure fills the frame the lens will be pointed at the subject's navel, and the camera back will be inclined some forty-five degrees downward from vertical. In this posture any lens will violate our belief that we should see the walls of buildings as parallel to each other, but the wide-angle lens, because of its broader cone of vision, will exaggerate the effect, and destroy all sense of architectural order. To retrieve a kind of stability Winogrand experimented with tilting the frame, making a vertical near the left edge of his subject square with the frame, and then a vertical near the right edge, or a dominant vertical anywhere between. In the process he discovered that he could compose his pictures with a freedom that he had not utilized before, and that the tilted frame could not only maintain a kind of discipline over the flamboyant tendencies of the wide-angle lens but could also intensify his intuited sense of his picture's meanings...

It should be pointed out that Winogrand scorned technical effects, including wide-angle effects, and that he abandoned his attempts to use the extremely wide-angle 21mm lens because he could not control or conceal its attention-getting mannerisms. He said (repeatedly) that there was no special way that a photograph should look, and he could not abide a lens that made photographs look a special way.

Years later, when students (at lecture after lecture) asked him why he tilted the frame, it would give him pleasure to deny that it was tilted, meaning perhaps that the finished print was always hung square to the wall, or reproduced square to the page. He also said that the tilt was never arbitrary, that there was always a reason, which is true if one counts intuitive experiment as a reason. Sometimes he said that it was, on occasion, simply a way of including what he wanted within the frame, but his proof sheets make it clear that he would often tilt first one way and then the other, trying to find the configuration of facts that would best express the force of the energies that were his subject. Sometimes he suggested elliptically that he tilted the frame to make the picture square and secure.

Winogrand was uninterested in making pictures that he knew would succeed, and one might guess that in the last twenty years of his life, excepting his commercial work, he never made an exposure that he was confident would satisfy him. The most widely quoted summation of his position is surely his remark that he photographed in order to see what the things that interested him looked like as photographs. Like many of Winogrand's epigrams, this one seemed designed to infuriate the guardians of conventional photographic wisdom. On the surface it would seem to mean precisely the opposite of what Edward Weston meant when he said he wished to previsualize his finished print in every detail and tonality before he released the shutter. It should be noted however that Winogrand's remark defines a motive and Weston's a goal. It should also be understood that Weston defines a goal which, once attained, would be useless. An artist of Weston's restless, vaulting ambition could not have kept himself amused by manufacturing perfect replicas of pictures that were already perfectly finished in his head, and that could not reward him with surprise, or the thrill of success after doubt. Weston's statement and Winogrand's express a shared fascination, central to the work of each, in the difference between photographs and the world they describe, and in the possibility that the former may nevertheless, if good enough, tell us something important about the latter.

It is of course true that Weston could not have tolerated the condition of perpetual contingency that was the circumstance central to Winogrand's work, nor could Winogrand have hoped to previsualize a subject that interested him only if it was in the process of becoming something else. The motif was in principle inexhaustible as long as his attention held, so he would keep shooting and moving, revising the framing and the vantage point, and re-editing the component parts of his subject matter, hoping for an instant of stasis - a resolution so gently provisional that it would scarcely seem to halt the efflorescence of change.

Winogrand said that if he saw a familiar picture in his viewfinder he "would do something to change it" - something that would give him an unsolved problem. He would step back or change to a shorter lens, which gave him more facts to organize, and changed the meaning of the facts by changing the character of their setting. Winogrand had been consciously interested in the question of viewing distance at least since the mid-sixties, by which time he understood that closer is merely easier, not necessarily better. How small in relation to the total field can the most important part of the subject be and still be clearly described? Or, more precisely, how is the meaning of the most important part of the subject affected by everything else within the frame?...

The general course of change in Winogrand's ideas about photographic form can be seen in two football pictures, the first made in 1953 at a game between the New York Giants and the Cleveland Browns, the second twenty years later in Texas. The first is simple both in graphics and content, and concentrates the game to its most basic confrontation-ball-carrier and tackler. The description is broad and impressionistic, and the picture could be reproduced on a commemorative coin, with the inscription: Browns 7, Giants 0. The later picture may be the only football picture made from the sidelines in which all twenty-two players are visible. The style of description is literal and encyclopedic; the subject of the picture is not the drama of heroic confrontation but the excitement of chaotic violence. The meaning of the first picture seems perfectly clear; the second simplifies nothing but achieves nevertheless an ordered pattern of fact that we had not seen before.

It was of course a matter of luck. That is to say, Winogrand could not order the pattern into existence, or stop the twenty-five bodies (counting officials) in mid-flight to seek a better vantage point, or wait for a better light; nor could he even see, except in terms of general massing, the picture he was making, perhaps one of three made during the same play, while he was presumably giving some attention to the possibility of being hit at high speed by a half-ton of muscular young athletes. The picture was a matter of luck, meaning that one hundred other exposures attempting the same general idea - the idea of a picture that would seem to shake in its frame-might be failures, and show not the essence of chaos but merely chaos.

Most of Winogrand's best pictures - let us say all of his best pictures - involve luck of a different order than that kind of minimal, survivor's luck on which any human achievement depends. It is luck of an order that can perhaps be compared to the luck of an athlete, for whom the game is devised to make failure the rule and conspicuous success never wholly in the hands of the hero. The great Henry Aaron hit a home run 755 times in his career, but failed to do so almost 12,000 times.

As Winogrand grew older and his ambition grew more demanding, the role of luck in his work grew larger. As his motifs became more complex, and more unpredictable in their development, the chances of success in a given frame became smaller...


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