Sunday, February 25, 2007

Garry Winogrand - Proof Sheet (PD 142) c. 1982-83

Figments of the Real World, Winogrand's massive, out of print 1988 MOMA monograph has been lying around the apartment now for almost a month. I keep meaning to take it back to the library (they know I have it, they keep calling) but I wanted to wait until I had a chance to scan a couple of the images before I dropped it back into circulation.

I'm not a big fan of Winogrand in general. His personal aesthetic, now pretty much codified into a genre called 'photojournalism,' puts a lot of weight on angling of the camera, wide angle distortion and the anecdotal mis en scene - things that don't (for me anyway) have much life beyond their initial visual jolt. There are notable exceptions in this book, pictures which I would happily point to as being among the best the genre is capable of - Dallas, 1964, Bronx Zoo New York 1963, Central Park Zoo New York City 1967 to name just a few (all taken in his early prime,) but it's the photographs that the artist took in the last few years of his life that really hold my interest; in part because I've never actually seen them.

At the time of his death, it was discovered that Winogrand had been sitting on 2,500 rolls of exposed, but endeveloped film, and an additional 6,500 rolls of developed, but unproofed, film. That's 9,000 rolls of film that he shot but never bothered to look at.

John Szarkowski, from his introductory essay:

"The last few thousand rolls are plagued with technical failures--optical, chemical, and physical flaws--in one hundred permutations. The most remarkable of these errors is his failure to hold the camera steady at the moment of exposure. Even in bright sunlight, with fast shutter speeds, the negatives are often not sharp. It is as though the making of an exposure had become merely a gesture of acknowledgment that what lay before the camera might make a photograph, if one had the desire and the energy to focus one's attention. seems that Winogrand was at the end of a creative impulse out of control, and on some days a habit without an impulse, one who continued to work, after a fashion, like an overheated engine that will not stop even after the key has been turned off.

In Los Angeles Winogrand made thousands of pictures of people who were too far away to be described in detail, perhaps to test how much could be conveyed in terms of posture, stride, silhoutte, autographic gesture. Often he would begin to photograph an attractive woman--or a woman that his long distance intuition told him was attractive--when she was still half a block away. Surely he was interested in the formal photographic problem: what was the greatest distance at which she could be convincingly described? Perhaps, consciously or not, he was also trying to make a photograph that would justly express the true relationship between him and her."

If we put aside Winogrand's obsession with 'attractive woman' for a moment, and consider that last sentence simply as a description of the photographer-subject relationship, I think it becomes really, really interesting. Is it possible that Winogrand had had enough wide-angle, dime store surrealism for one lifetime? Was he sick and tired of photographing strangers at a proximity that suggested that he was a part of their lives when he knew that he wasn't, and never would be? Did he have a new artistic vision near the end, but no precedent to encourage him in it's pursuit, the way that Frank and Evans had encouraged his earlier one? The part of me that is fascinated by those piles of unexamined contact sheets would like to think so. After all, as the strangers retreated further and further away in his photographs, the people that he did know were being brought closer.

"He...photographed his daughter Melissa, who was nine when he died, in a spirit that seemed more closely allied to ritual than to art. He photographed her each morning when he put her on the school bus. The filmmaker Taylor Hackford thought that the intent of these pictures was a kind of magic, that they were tokens of possession that would assure her safe return."

Could it be possible that, through these tectonic shifts in methodology, Winogrand was undergoing an honest-to-god sea change in his approach to his medium (a change that priviliged the act, not the results?) Is it an accident that the late contact sheets bear more than a passing resemblance to the medium-subverting projects of John Baldessari and Ed Ruscha? Was Garry Winogrand becoming--in his own stubborn, round-about, contrarian way--a conceptual artist?

My skeptical side suspects not. My skeptical side suspects, as Szarkowski suggests, that Winogrand was simply stuck on a kind of photographic auto-pilot; his daily act of shooting pictures now utterly detached from it's original impulse.

But one way or the other, there are several photographs in my own 100 Views that approach the act of photographing strangers in exactly the way Szarkowski describes, and while it's obviously still up for debate as to how aware Winogrand was of his own intentions near the end, I can't help but feel I now owe him the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps a nod of gratitude as well.