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Losing One's Way

Now and then I'll find myself shooting pictures for no apparent reason. In the past it would happen with a motor drive and a pocketful of Tri-X begging to be burnt. Before you know it, you've got a dozen strips of worthless film snaking through the wash tank while praying there's a usable frame hiding somewhere on the last roll.

Quantity seldom equals quality, yet occasionally I still find myself spraying and praying. Hoping that somehow a picture will happen without me having to engage my brain.

If anything, shooting digital helps to keep me under control. The chore of just having to look through all those frames is usually enough of a deterrent for me. Still, I did hit the buffer of a Canon 5D once while shooting last Monday. It surprised me. Gotta keep that brain working.

So what does it mean when I guy shoots 2,500 rolls and doesn't even bother to develop them? What if he has an additional 6,500 that haven't been proofed, and another 3,000 contact sheets that haven't been looked at? This is what Garry Winogrand left when he passed away.

I've never been a huge Winogrand fan. I respect his work and what he accomplished. I've also learned a lot about photography by studying his work. I guess what I'm saying is that I'd be hard pressed to choose more than two or three of his frames that I'd want to hang on my wall. Maybe that's not a fair measure, but it sums up my feelings.

What I'm trying to learn from Winogrand today is how does that happen? How do you go from the process of thinking, seeing, and capturing an image to the simple mechanical operation of traveling around and snapping frames in a haphazard manner?

Maybe the real problem is how to avoid falling into that trap.

In the past, people would talk about this huge "body" of work, all the unprocessed and unlooked at film that Winogrand exposed in his latter years as an impressive accomplishment. As if he saw so much that he somehow just couldn't get around to actually processing the film. He was just too productive and too busy. Sadly, that wasn't the case. In reading John Szarkowski's forward to Winogrand Figments From The Real World, it becomes clear that Winogrand was just pushing film through the camera at this point.

So how does that happen?

There are about 25 images in the "unfinished work" section of this book, and two or three are pretty nice, but can they be "good" or even worth looking at if the creator couldn't even be bothered to look at them?

Winogrand did have a tendency to pull away from his work once he put it out there and letting it survive on its own, but that's work that he decided to show. Presumably he thought it was actually worth sharing to begin with and was strong enough to speak for itself.

Don't get me wrong, the book is worth owning. It is a retrospective that is a very good introduction to Winogrand's work. The reproduction is pretty good too. I'm just suggesting that one of the main lessons to learn from it is how an artist can loose their way.

If you want to see him captured at the height of his talent, I prefer Winogrand 1964


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Tom Leininger

This book blew me away at age 20. For me, "Figments" is what "The Decisive Moment" or the "The Americans" were for earlier generations. When I got "1964" I realized that this was his year, period. It is also clear that when he lost it, it was a fast down hill slide. But there are a few images like the from Luling, Texas that show an actual difference from the earlier work and are solid on their own. Winogrand taught me that you can do more with one camera and lens, film or digital, than you can with two and every millimeter from 16-200.


Great post. Winogrand is a compelling figure, no matter what you think of his work. I don't know if it is true, but my photo teacher in college described Winogrand as having garbage cans filled with exposed, but unprocessed film. This imagined image stays with me, and informs my reactions to his actual images. I love his work, and as a photographer who struggles with getting out the door to go and shoot something, I admire his prolificity, if not his follow through.

David Bennett

The way I heard it, and I think it was from reading Gary Winogrand's own words, is that he didn't look at the stuff he shot until a long time after he shot it, so that he lost the memory he had of when he shot it.

In that way he had lost the feelings he had invested in the moment, and by losing that memory and those feelings he could see the shot for what it was, rather than what his investment in the moment told him and perhaps tried to convince him it was.

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