A great many keen photographers know little about the street photographer Garry Winogrand. A great many of those who do know something of his work dismiss him as a ‘machine-gunner’, because he admitted to burning vast amounts of film with no particular idea what he was ‘supposed to be shooting’.
Winogrand was driven by compulsion, some say, forcing him to select subjects and compose with uncritical randomness and then consign his film to ‘the pile’ (after which he went out to shoot some more). When he talked about photography and what he aimed to achieve, he became less, rather than more specific. He sometimes appeared evasive, playing intellectual games that failed to provide the listener clear answers to the questions they asked (there are greased eels that would be easier to pin down than a frenetic, meandering Garry Winogrand in an interview). So why is it that Winogrand is regarded by some people as one of the ‘great photographers of the 20th Century’?
He wasn’t commercially successful either. Many of his books ‘bombed’ and he is increasingly vilified by some on the basis of his ‘sexism’ and violation of people’s privacy. Some might say his ‘hit rate’ could just as easily be explained by sheer probability and that the real skill lies in those who later edited and curated his work….
The problem with all of this is that while some of his photographs appealed to me from the beginning, he is one of the few photographers whose work and world deepens for me the more I look at his photographs and listen to what he had to say about the act of photography. He is not a photographer a 5 minute interview can explain, but I will go out on a limb and recommend him as one of the most important photographers to read about. I say this because there are/were no others quite like him and he repeatedly goes back to basics and asks ‘what is a photography?’
Now, when I give figures to my earlier reference to his heavy shooting and inform you that his ‘unreviewed’ pile amounted to over 300,000 frames and his archive numbers about four million frames, my effort to convince you of his brilliance would appear to have become much more difficult. But what if our reasons for admiring the man are directly related to the criticisms? What if many of the criticisms completely miss the the point?
This video contains contains almost fifteen minutes of Winogrand on great form, touching upon every reason why his work and approach is something I believe we can all learn from. He is playful, clearly very confident and while appearing obtuse, I have never heard a photographer challenge so much of what we assume photography to be about in such a short period of time. And its not pretentious; not to me anyway.
As for the volume of images that Garry Winogrand produced, I wonder if such working methods were necessary to achieve what he was striving for. I feel that he was not just a street photographer, but a purveyor of bizarre, compelling photographs that challenged the very concept of what it was that he/we think we are looking it. I faced similar challenges with my project, The Disorder of Species, but on a lesser scale. I was looking for visual moments that would encourage a response that would in turn encourage a wider re-evalation of human-animal relationships. Like Winogrand, I was only able to work with reality to achieve this, making it extremely challenging indeed. I take my hat off to Winogrand and find that with each year that passes my admiration for his work only deepens.
What do you think?