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24 Dec 2014

Can the Camera Shape the Photographer?

A conversation with Mike Aviña, Chris Farling, David Horton, Hector Isaac and Tom Young

A recent magazine ad for the Fujifilm X-T1 said, “The camera you carry is as important as the images you make.” But among street photographers, it is not cool to obsessively discuss “gear.” We take that for granted – cameras are just tools. While that is true, there is no better tonic for “photographers’ block” than a new camera or lens. Some photographers have truly found their vision when they switched to a certain camera. Back in the pre-digital days you had a camera. It was either a Leica, or an SLR. And you kept it forever. Today with so many choices of equipment, a photographer can pretty much find the perfect camera to suit their shooting style and personality. Or is it the other way around? In this post we hope to discover how the equipment a street photographer uses influences what their pictures look like.

 

GA
Chris, you were shooting with an Olympus E-P1. Your work was solid and gaining some notice. Then you bought an OM-D E-M5 in the spring of 2012 and it seems like your vision really blossomed. I immediately noticed the quality of your work ramp up several notches and that trend continues. Do you feel that you held a vision that the OM-D finally released? Or did the new equipment present possibilities the E-P1 didn’t… i.e., eye-level viewing, fast autofocus, etc.

Chris Farling (CF)
I don’t want to diss the E-P1 overmuch in that the E-P1 itself was a quantum leap over the fully automatic mode-style shooting of the digital point-and-shoots that I had owned over the previous decade. When I committed to ponying up the $$$ to buy the E-P1, I made a parallel commitment to being more serious in my study and practice of photography. It was with the E-P1 that I really dug into controlling aperture and shutter speed and exploring different focal lengths and lenses. I’m actually glad I started with a camera that had some clear limitations (no VF, iffy sensor, slow AF, & poor high-ISO), much the way you need to play the $&@! out of a student horn before moving onto a more powerful but perhaps more complicated or less forgiving instrument in music. Everyone starting out wants to buy some perfect camera that will make them a brilliant photographer overnight, but the paradox is that it’s only through working around limitations that you grow and develop good habits. If you start out with everything handed to you, it can breed in you a certain laziness and you’ll most likely get bored and frustrated.

The E-P1 was also my first experience using fixed prime lenses and that more than anything helped me to “see” as a street photographer would and to be able to pre-visualize frames to some degree. It was really a wonderful camera to experiment with and learn on and I don’t think I will ever sell it.

GA
So you’re saying that a more basic camera can provide a better learning experience?

CF
Exactly. It really did liberate me when I upgraded to the E-M5 along with the Oly 12mm f2 lens because I had much of the basics in place from the E-P1. Most of the gains weren’t surprising in that I knew what I wanted out of this new camera and what advantages it held over the old one. I honestly can’t imagine needing a more powerful camera in the foreseeable future.

GA
That was a pretty wide lens to start with! Just what are those advantages the E-M5 gives you?

CF
The one thing that I want from a camera more than anything else is versatility. And I include the lightweight form factor of the m4/3 system as a key part of that versatility. Not for me the heavy necklace of an SLR… I like to be able to shoot quickly and reflexively and so I don’t even want the camera to be on a strap. The E-M5’s EVF was a real boon to helping me execute better edge-to-edge compositions. I for one really like having all the settings info available in the EVF, though I know many prefer optical ones. The touchscreen, which allows you to tap a focal point or even to release the shutter directly, added even more flexibility. The almost instantaneous AF (as well as the simple zone focusing capability of the 12mm lens’s pull ring) meant that I could depend on my own sense of timing and reflexes and not worry that the camera wouldn’t respond when I was ready. The E-M5 helped me to learn more about on- and off-camera flash. Perhaps the most useful thing, surprisingly enough, was simply the extra customizable dial and button, allowing me to have immediate tactile access to virtually any setting I would want to change quickly in anticipation of the next shot. Also, it bears mentioning that the rich Olympus JPG quality from both cameras has influenced my color sensibility.

As much as I like the E-M5 and feel that it has helped me develop and execute my vision, I’ve since adopted the APS-C sensor Ricoh GR as my principal camera, reserving the E-M5 for special situations where I want the different lenses or the weatherproofing. In many ways, the Ricoh is a step backwards in quality and features, yet it is so perfectly portable and well-designed in its flexibility (a real photographer’s camera) that those advantages trump all other considerations. Plus there’s that awesome TAv mode that let’s you specify both aperture AND shutter speed… I find the Ricoh is the perfect camera for my style of quick close-in shooting with a fixed 28mm-equiv. and I suffer little when adapting it to other types of shooting.

Click for a gallery of images by Chris Farling

Click for a gallery of images by Chris Farling

GA
So with the E-M5 you became accustomed to the convenience of customizable dials? That would make the GR a logical move because, since the line’s inception, it has been praised for its flexible interface. As DP Review said, “We’ve often referred to the Ricoh interface as arguably the best enthusiast-focused interface on a compact camera.”

David, you followed a similar path as Chris, moving from an E-P2 up to the OM-D E-M5. Among this group of photographers, you used the focal length closest to what is considered a “normal” lens: 20mm (40mm equivalent). There is less margin for framing errors than with a 28mm or even 35mm. As a graphic designer, tell us how the precise eye-level framing of the OM-D has influenced your photography, especially with the 20mm lens.

David Horton (DH)
When I first started dabbling in SP, I was using a Canon G9 which has a 35mm default lens. I liked that length a lot. When I moved to the E-P2, I opted for the Panasonic 20mm (40mm equiv.) because it was considerably faster than the 17mm Oly lens* (34mm equiv.) and it received considerably better ratings and reviews.

GA
*You mean the Olympus 17mm f2.8 Pancake, correct?

DH
Yes. Oly’s first 17mm prime did not have very good performance especially in the corners. Although I used the Pany 20mm almost exclusively for over a year (and was very pleased with the IQ of the lens), I often found the focal length limiting. I wished it was a little wider.

The primary reason I moved to the EM-5 was speed. Although I adapted to the slow autofocus of the E-P2, I was missing more and more shots. Although the add-on EVF on the E-P2 was acceptable, it was a bit cumbersome. I shoot exclusively through a viewfinder. So the ergonomic design of the built-in viewfinder on the EM5 was also very appealing. What I didn’t know until I received the camera is that, to benefit from the increased speed of the EM-5, you also had to have one of the newer Oly lenses. At the time I bought I camera, the fast Oly lenses only existed in 12mm and 45mm lenses. The 12mm (24mm equiv.) was too wide for me. I waited for at least three months for the rumored 17mm 1.8 lens to come out. (It was my dream lens.) I preordered it and got it as soon as it released. I’ve used it exclusively since the day I got it. The combination of the EM-5 and that lens is extremely fast.

The other thing I like about the EM-5 as opposed to something like the Fuji X100 (which I also considered) is the ability to change lenses. Although I rarely do, it’s nice to have that option. I always carry the 45mm 1.8 Oly lens (90m equiv.) with me too, just in case.

Click for a gallery of images by David Horton

Click for a gallery of images by David Horton

GA
It is nice to have the ability to change lenses, particularly when on a trip, even if you don’t do it often.

Mike, you have used quite a variety of equipment, from Leica M3 to Sony RX1 and many things in between including compact P&S’s and the Ricoh GR. I know that you are a dedicated student of photography with a deep curiosity about what is possible. Does this explain your variety of equipment? You seem to always come back to shooting b&w and I have the impression that, ideally, film is your medium of choice and because of that much of your digital work looks like film.

Mike Aviña (MA)
I’d like to challenge the conventional wisdom of sticking to one camera and one lens. There is a time and a place for sticking to a narrow set of gear. When you get completely accustomed to one focal length and one camera the gear does become more intuitive, you can set up shots and frame them before you pull the camera up to your face because you know where to stand at what distance to include given elements. That said, smaller cameras have certain advantages: deep depth of field, very fast autofocus, and tilt-screens. There are world-class photographers that have discovered and exploited these advantages. I just purchased a published book shot entirely by phone–the images are superlative. I’ve made 12” by 16” prints from an LX7–they look great.

To answer your first question–yes, I prefer film. The dynamic range of film and the separation of subjects one can achieve with shallow depth of field on a fast lens is a necessary creative tool. I have never used complicated post-processing to add blur to digital images; this is a method that ends up looking artificial. A wide, fast lens on either a full-frame sensor or over film is therefore a must-have. Shallow depth of field however is only one tool and not one I use all or even most of the time.

GA
Arguably, you can come pretty close having a digital image file look like it was shot with film in post processing. But the methodology of shooting film is a whole ‘nother animal.

MA
Film versus digital ia probably better left for another discussion! I also have an abiding love for small, pocketable, point-and-shoot cameras. As others have mentioned above, small cameras are easier to haul all day. In addition, shooting like a tourist, with innocuous little shots framed through the LCD rather than a viewfinder, is often more effective than pulling a big rig up to your face and clacking away. Even with a small rangefinder, people react more when you pull a camera up to your face than they do to an apparent tourist snapping casually with the LCD. I tend to frame faces off center; when using a wide angle lens this means people are often not sure they are in the shot because it isn’t clear you are shooting at them. The shooter and the subject have a complicit agreement to the fiction–the photographer is shooting something else; the subject ignores the shooter as long as it isn’t too intrusive. This helps one work close in crowded spaces. Having a bundle of different tools allows flexibility and simultaneous exploration of different creative options.

GA
You make a very good point Mike. Why shouldn’t we use whatever tool best suits the situation? Some of our peers carry dslr’s with a zoom lens mounted that will cover most scenes. Maybe one of them will comment to the pros and cons of a zoom.

Interesting path you have followed Chris… from LCD framing, to eye-level framing, back to LCD framing. I found myself “borrowing” the small Samsung EX2F I bought for my wife and became addicted to the tilt screen. I find that I am very comfortable shooting from waist level and I really prefer the perspective of that PoV, rather than “looking down” at everything from my 6’2″ eye level.

How hard was it to adjust back to the loose framing of the GR’s LCD screen versus the precise eye-level framing of the E-M5? The concrete canyons of NY offer some shade to better see the screen, but how do you frame in bright sunlight when you travel? How often do you use the optical viewfinder?

CF
I do use the optical viewfinder on the GR sometimes (in a way, it’s less obtrusive and noticeable than holding the camera out from your body) but I have a tougher time seeing all four edges of the frame in the viewfinder than I do with the screen. As wide as I generally shoot, I have to kind of scroll with my eye in each direction and that’s too limiting and slow for me. I also don’t like the tunnel vision that develops where you can’t receive new information about the way the scene is changing and what’s happening on the margins with your peripheral vision. With the OVF, you also don’t see the central AF point if you’re using that to lock AF and then recompose. It may seem like a minor point, but I’m also very left-eye dominant so I have to block my whole face with the camera when using the VF, even if it was a corner-mounted one.

GA
An interesting observation I have made is how most of us frame on an LCD using both eyes, but frame through an eye level viewfinder with one eye closed. Truth be told, for street photography, framing using any device is probably best done with both eyes open, but a hard habit to get into with an eye level viewfinder. I find an optical viewfinder more conducive to shooting with both eyes open and it gives you the advantage of seeing what is going on outside of, and about to enter or leave the frame.

CF
That is an interesting point about shooting with both eyes open. That may be what I like about using the LCD of the GR. Viewing the LCD in sunlight hasn’t bothered me too much with either the E-M5 or the GRD since the screens can be made pretty bright. Most of the time your own body acts as shade and, even when it doesn’t, you can still easily see which shapes and areas of light and dark correspond to what you’re seeing with the naked eye. I think it’s actually kind of cool having a slight degree of abstraction (less detail) when considering the composition, the same way a photo thumbnail is often easier to use for judging the effectiveness of a composition in editing than the enlarged version.

It’s also interesting that you say you prefer shooting from a more mid-body angle than always looking down at everything. Being 6’2’’, I have the same issue and, while using the 12mm lens almost exclusively for a year, I became cognizant of the great care one must take in controlling the perspective distortion with a wide-angle lens. Even having backed off to the 28-mm equiv. of the Ricoh, I still think that the default orientation with such a lens should be relatively straight on and not tilted excessively.

DH
My biggest gripe with the EM-5 is you have to rely too heavily on the digital interface. I wish there were manual knobs to adjust the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. Since I don’t use the LCD, I have it turned off. To adjust any of these settings, I either have to hold the camera to my eye and turn the knobs or turn the LCD on and adjust them. Neither option is ideal or fast enough. This is what I find so appealing about the X100 or a Leica. I also can’t wait until they design better battery life for these digital cameras. As Chris can tell you (from spending a day shooting with me), I opt to carry a number of batteries with me than worry about preserving battery life in the camera. I turn it on and leave it on. When I need to react quickly, I don’t want to have to wonder if the screen’s going to be black when I bring it to my eye.

GA
That’s what evolution has brought to cameras, David. With a basic film camera, like an M3 or Nikon F you have two settings: shutter speed and aperture… and, of course, focus (and film choice). Cramming so many features into a small digital camera leads to compromises.

Mike made a good point about not limiting ourselves to a single tool. Sometimes we tend to set unnecessary limitations for ourselves. Although we may at any given time favor a particular set of gear, I think most of us here have more than a single camera. We always have the option to change cameras if a project or different direction comes to us Having your equipment be intuitive is the most compelling reason for limiting equipment choices. When I saw you this last summer Mike, you were using the Sony RX1. The IQ is the obvious reason why this camera has a strong following. Is it your perfect camera? If not, what would be? The others can answer this as well.

MA
The M3 is, for me, more or less the perfect camera–I am just reluctant to keep spending the money on film. The chemicals also concern me. For an everyday digital shooter the Ricoh GR may be my favorite. The RX1 has laggy autofocus which hinders the advantage of the high IQ and beautiful rendering that the Zeiss lens offers.

Click for a gallery of images by Mike Aviña

Click for a gallery of images by Mike Aviña

GA
David, you mention that you use an eye level viewfinder exclusively–is that because you want precise framing? How come you didn’t gravitate toward a DSLR? There are plenty of choices in size and features to fit any budget and many SP’ers use them. Was it because you already had m4/3 glass?

DH
I certainly find my framing more precise and that’s certainly one of the primary reasons I shoot this way. Perhaps, the more significant reason is that I feel “more at one” with the camera and the subject(s). I shoot a lot of portraiture and even when I’m not shooting conventional portraiture, it’s very important that I’m in sync and “connected” with my subjects. Facial expressions and details are very important to me; these are impossible for me to see if I’m relying on a screen. Shooting with a screen is fine for shapes and loose compositions but it’s not very precise—certainly not precise enough for me.

The reason I’m not interested in a DSLR is size. I don’t like to draw attention to the camera and a DSLR certainly does that. I’m also not interested in lugging one of those suckers around the city on a regular basis. I will occasionally lust after the IQ of DSLR sensors but the trade off is not worth it to me. I’ve spent the day shooting with friends that use DSLRs and after a day walking 10 miles around a city, they are not happy campers. The smaller and lighter the camera, the more likely you are to bring it with you.

GA
Tom, you use a full-frame DSLR. While the 5D is not huge by DSLR standards, it is huge in terms of what everyone else here uses. Obviously it’s hard to be inconspicuous. How do you work around that? I would assume that the quality and precise framing a DSLR offers is important to the type of pictures you want to create.

Tom Young (TY)
There’s a number of different reasons I shoot with an SLR. For one thing, I don’t only shoot street. I also do weddings, events, the odd corporate photography gig. I even shoot landscapes! Egad! So while the 5D is a big rig, for many of the situations I find myself using my camera its size doesn’t really matter, and its image quality is definitely a plus.

But for my street work it can also be an asset. I shoot in a town that is really dark in the winter. During the darkest months, the sun doesn’t get up until after I get to my day job, and is already down again before I leave. And I dabble a bit with flash, but available light is generally my preference. I love the night, really, the strong contrast, dramatic brightness surrounded by black. The full-frame SLR lets me work in that environment and still get nice clean shots.

GA
I would imagine the high ISO image quality to be a must in the arctic. But how do you deal with subjects when they see you pointing that big honker at them?

TY
Hey wait a minute, Edmonton may be north, but it’s not the artic!!! I find that the right attitude is the key to remaining inconspicuous. People may be more likely to notice my camera because it’s big, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will care what I’m doing with it. When I first started shooting street, it seemed that people noticed me more than they do now, probably because I spent a lot of time sweating bullets about what I was doing. I really didn’t want to be noticed. And I assumed people would think it was odd. I hadn’t squared in my own head what my motive was. I knew what types of images I wanted to produce, but I didn’t have a clear sense of purpose. Best way to stand out in a crowd? Look embarrassed or uncomfortable while wielding a big camera, or worse, a small camera.

Click for a gallery of images by Tom Young

Click for a gallery of images by Tom Young

GA
That is excellent advice Tom.

TY
With experience, that fear has dropped way off for me. Now, when I pull out my camera, I’m pretty confident about what I’m doing. And while the odd person may raise an eyebrow, most people don’t seem to think anything is unusual about what I’m up to. I can only assume that means that I look like I belong in the landscape now. Hidden in plain sight, in a sense, despite the fact that I don’t really try to hide my activities any more. So I think the knock against SLRs being too big for street work is a little overblown.

Mind you, it probably helps that I’m not a terribly in-your-face shooter. If I was shooting Gilden-style, the big camera might tip people off before I could get close enough…

GA
A lot of photographers feel that anything longer than 50mm equiv, or even 35mm, is “against the rules” for street photography. How do any of you feel about that David? You sometimes use the Olympus 45mm f1.8 (90mm equivalent).

DH
I think many “rules” of street photography are pretty ridiculous. I try not to pay a lot of attention to the rules. I believe all that really matters is the success of the shot. Yes, there is an energy and authenticity that comes from a wider lens that is very appropriate for the street—there’s good reason most of us use them most of the time. But limiting yourself to that perspective exclusively is a bit short-sighted (sorry, couldn’t help myself). A lot of magic can happen when compressing images. It can be a very painterly way of seeing, especially with a large aperture. You paint with colors and shapes rather than objects or subjects. It’s a slower, more studied way of seeing. Saul Leiter is a perfect example of this. It all depends on the mood you’re trying to achieve, the story you’re trying to tell.

GA
You shoot with a Fuji x100, Hector. Am I correct in understanding this is your first camera? You don’t have previous experience with film? The x100 is a popular camera with street photographers. You mentioned that it took awhile for you to feel comfortable with it. I have heard other reports that there was a steep learning curve with this camera. How does the hybrid viewfinder help or limit your shooting style? Is a fixed focal length limiting… do you ever wish it was a little wider, or longer?

Hector Issac (HI)
You are correct, Greg, I had no previous experience with film or any other medium and the Fujifilm x100 was my first camera. Recently, I was asked by a friend… Why that camera? I didn’t have an answer. I still don’t, but I’m glad I got it.

For most of those coming with a broader photographic background, the x100 was a struggle, for me it was a love/hate situation that still exists. After my first try, I almost sold it, then it was left on the shelf for one or two months. It took me about another three to four months to get comfortable enough to get what I wanted. The main issue back then (cough cough) was the autofocus, well … it sucked, so I decided to learn to work manually and zone focus, rather than sell the camera and buy another… Best decision I ever made.

I’m a bit obsessive when I’m interesting in learning something, so my learning curve was rather steep given the amount of time I spent to learn my camera and about photography in general. The hybrid viewfinder helped me learn the camera’s frame lines, even if the lag was a problem.

GA
Thanks Hector. I have heard from others that the x100 has a steep learning curve. But those who master it love it to the point of becoming evangelists. Interesting choice as a first camera but it seems that diving in on the deep end and making the commitment has served you well!

There are many ways a photographer’s equipment choices shape the pictures they produce. Even though the street photography genre has been slow to embrace anything other than straight, unmanipulated images, today we have so many more choices in equipment and post processing than we did on the pre-digital era. While it should be easy to create a signature look, remarkably much of today’s street photography is fairly homogenous. We invite you to comment with your thoughts on the relationship between photographers, their cameras and the images they produce.

31 May 2013

Garry Winogrand at SFMOMA

New York 1960

New York 1960

 

the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a reputation for producing landmark photography exhibits. I saw the retrospective, Diane Arbus Revelations, a decade ago and it made a lasting impression on me. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which it was curated and produced. The exhibit featured 200 or so photographs, including many that had never been seen publicly. There was also a mockup of her darkroom complete with Nikon F and Rollei cameras, developing trays and marked contact sheets, all lit by safelight.
The soon-to-close Garry Winogrand exhibit at SFMOMA presents an equally comprehensive look at this photographer’s work spanning some thirty years. Guest curated by Leo Rubinfien, along with Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough, the exhibition contains many never-seen-before images. Winogrand died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 56 leaving behind some 250,000 frames of unedited film. Approximately 90 of the 200 plus photographs in the exhibit have been printed for the first time. Text1 at the entrance explains the provenance and preparation of the photographs on display. Prints made posthumously are all silver gelatin. There are no inkjet prints in the exhibit.
Free-standing glass topped island display cases in the gallery rooms provide insight into the photographer’s life. There are letters, family photos, magazines with work for hire, an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (with endorsement from Diane Arbus) and contact sheets. The contact sheets, which bear his editing marks, offer a telling view of his working method and selection process.
The photographs are presented by period (Down From the Bronx, A Student of America, Boom and Bust) and show the development of Winogrand as a photographer. Text throughout the exhibit reminds us of events of each period.

 

New York ca.1958

New York ca.1958

Winogrand was twenty years old when he discovered photography as his calling. At that time, the country was relieved to be finished with WW II and the postwar boom of the fifties, for many families, was the beginning of the move from cities to suburbs. Uplifted by the promise of peace and growing prosperity, wartime industries returned to serving the needs of the American public and technological advances born of the war found their way to consumer products and services. Families enjoyed leisure time together, rock and roll was born, and television presented a view of life that now only exists in Norman Rockwell paintings.
As the fifties gave way to the sixties, the innocence of the earlier decade was lost when president John F, Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. Throughout the sixties the US was embroiled in the controversial Vietnam War that tore the country apart. While political riots plagued college campuses, reaching a crescendo at Kent State University2 in 1970, social riots tore through major cities in the sixties. Assassination continued through the decade with Senator Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King both losing their lives in 1968, Still, president Lyndon Johnson promised the country “A Great Society.”

 

New York ca.1960

New York ca. 1960

The civil rights movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination based on race, sex or religion. The Cold War became ever more frigid and the possibility of nuclear annihilation was tangible (in high school I had a neighbor who built a bomb shelter). The role of the majority of women was as housewife and professional career choices for them were limited. One older female friend recently said, “if you wanted to work, you were either a secretary, receptionist, nurse or teacher.”
By the middle of the decade “hippies” were an established counterculture. They opposed established political traditions, hated the Vietnam War, and advocated peace, love and spiritual enlightenment. Since the 1960s, many aspects of hippie culture have been assimilated by mainstream society. From the Banlon and polyester days of the early sixties, when canned vegetables were a staple of American households, the back to the earth movement began. Euell Gibbons preached natural foods and we learned how to talk to our houseplants in the book, The Secret Life of Plants. We learned that you are what you eat and health and fitness entered the American culture. Organic farms and cooperatives sprung up in rural areas across the country. Celestial Seasonings introduced herbal tea and natural fiber clothing began replacing synthetics. The Beatles launched the first wave of the British Invasion and forever changed music and popular culture. The armchair traveler who had relied on National Geographic magazine for insight into foreign lands and cultures was replaced by a peripatetic society as air travel brought faraway places within reach of those who could afford it. For the rest, television provided a window to the world and for the first time we saw the brutal realities of war as we sat in our living room.
1967 marked the first major exhibit of Winogrand’s work. Along with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, the New Documents exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York brought attention to the three photographers and forever linked them together.

 

Dealy Plaza, Dallas 1964

Dealy Plaza, Dallas 1964

“I am surprised that my prints sell. They’re not pretty. They’re not those kind of pictures that people can easily put on their wall. They’re not that window on to a nice landscape or something.”

From the beginning Winogrand’s work showed few ties to the documentary traditions of the New York Photo League. Ironically, he was friends with Dan Weiner3 and considered him a mentor. It was Weiner who introduced him to Walker Evans’s American Photographs, the book that made such an impression on the young photographer. His eventual break from commercial work around 1969 allowed him to concentrate on his art and evolve into the pivotal photographer of the Twentieth Century that he ultimately became. At that time there were few, if any, galleries devoted to selling photography. Those art galleries and museums that did deal in the medium presented the established names (Weston, Steiglitz, Adams, Strand, etc.). The means by which “art photographers” supported themselves was through stipends from teaching assignments and grants, which together. barely provided subsistence living.

 

Los Angeles 1980-83

Los Angeles 1980-83

“I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe it well.”

Though the photographs in this exhibition should be viewed in context of their time, to say they are only of a historical importance is wrong. Winogrand was not a photojournalist. This work that he is best known for is not documentary photography. He felt no responsibility to be socially conscious. He was not interested in telling stories (although much of the time his pictures did tell stories for many viewers). He was not trying to make the world a better place through his photography.
In her San Francisco Chronicle review, Caille Millner states that Winogrand “was famous for never asking people permission before taking their photographs” and suggests that a generation of male photographers idolized him for his bravado. What Ms. Millner missed is that engaging people before taking their photo results in portraits, not candid street photography (a term which Winogrand disliked). When you ask someone to take a photo of them, they will most assuredly pose for you. Those people who accuse Winogrand
of being brash or pushy mistake his intentness of purpose. Exploring
photographic problems was a purely selfish pursuit and all consuming for him.

 

Los Angeles International Airport, late 1970's

Los Angeles International Airport, late 1970’s

“We know too much about how pictures look and should look. How do you get around making those pictures again and again?”

In the exhibit the pictures change after he received his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964. The lyrical approach to image making that he inherited from Walker Evans and Robert Frank gives way to complex, sometimes chaotic frames. This was one of the photographic problems he was exploring: how much information can a photograph contain before the content overwhelms the form? The 50mm “normal” lens was abandoned in favor of something wider; first 35mm then later, 28mm. This change of technique is striking in the presentation of the photographs.

 

Los Angeles 1980-83

Los Angeles 1980-83

“Frame in terms of what you want to have in the picture, not about making a nice picture, that anybody can do.”

Garry Winogrand was first to use many of the devices that modern street photographers take for granted today. By using a wide-angle lens, not only could he include more information in a frame, he also became part of the life of the street instead of being an observer from afar. True to the genre, today street photographers rarely use long focal lengths or even carry telephoto lenses. Before Winogrand, horizon lines in photographs were parallel to the edge of the frame. The tilted frame that is so commonplace nowadays was one of his “experiments” as he explored the possibilities of what photographs were and could be. The seemingly simple, snapshot look of his photos brings attention to his subjects and has rarely been done as eloquently. His commonplace subject matter was previously thought too mundane to be worthy of photographing; yet it is Winogrand’s process of selection that brings focus to the nature of our society itself. In order to not suggest specific meaning to his photographs, he titled them using only place and year. Like Cartier-Bresson, compositions were made in the viewfinder and negatives were never cropped when printed.
When still photography was introduced it was hailed as a medium that could capture a moment with irrevocable truth to be preserved for eternity. Winogrand knew that the tie between a two-dimensional photograph and what it depicted was questionable at best. The simple act of framing a selection of a scene could create new relationships between the elements of a photograph that did not exist in reality.

 

La Grange, Texas 1977

La Grange, Texas 1977

“When I’m photographing I see life.”

The early photographs are easy to relate to and bear a closer resemblance to existing documentary traditions in terms of subject and framing. While distinct from that of his contemporaries, they suggest the direction in which he was heading. The early photographs present scenes and subjects without washing them in sentimentality or opinion, or over embellishing them with style or form. By the time Stock Photographs was published in 1980, images might consist of a diagonal slash of content across the frame, or a somewhat blurred subject harshly lit by flash. Yet to say that certain stylistic approaches were indicative of a period would be untrue. The later work is certainly more somber…often more radical in composition. Early subject-dominated photographs tended to be carefree and detached. Later on they became introspective, as if promises had gone unfulfilled. Subjects seem to be involved with their own inner thoughts and problems. Was it Winogrand who changed, or was it the world? If he had a premonition about his illness, it would be difficult to pinpoint when it began to influence his photography.

 

Rodeo, Fort Worth 1975

Rodeo, Fort Worth 1975

 

Garry Winogrand has often been derided for not editing the work he was producing as the 1970’s got underway, leaving thousands upon thousands of images that he never even looked at. Even some of his strongest supporters, like John Szarkowski, felt that his talent had declined. Winogrand would rather be on the street taking photographs than looking at those he had already made. Photography in itself is a process of selection. In the later years shooting may have been as much as he was willing to commit to, leaving the final selection to others and for posterity to judge in the end. With a retrospective this large and many of the images never actually selected by Winogrand himself, we can only guess as to whether or not it represents a valid statement of his work. Credit is due to the curators for even attempting such a monumental task. To be sure, there are some less than strong images in the later period. Weeding out a third of the pictures would result in a stronger collection of images, but it would not tell us as much about the evolution of the photographer. A smaller exhibition would not include the wrong turns and experimentation that all artists deal with.
Looking back at videos of him working the street we can only marvel at how he made photography look so simple, yet created a body of work that is so complex and groundbreaking for its time that it created a whole new way of making and looking at photographs. His most lasting legacy must certainly be the vast archive of photography he left showing the sixties and seventies in America with honesty and an intensely personal vision that is unique. We will never know whether he was fooling us all when he said he took pictures to see what things looked like to a camera. If Winogrand were still alive, he would probably tell us, “look at the pictures, what do you see?”
We hope that SFMOMA will mount a Lee Friedlander retrospective in the coming decade, thus completing the trilogy of the 1967 New Documents exhibit that launched the careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. On June 2 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will close for two years for renovation. The Garry Winogrand exhibit will travel to Washington DC, New York, Paris and Madrid. The catalog is available as hard cover or paperback from the museum’s online store at www.sfmoma.org.

NOTE ON THE QUOTES

These quotes from Garry Winogrand are mostly transcribed from a two-part interview conducted by Bill Moyers in 1982 (see “Garry Winogrand” post in Archive for links), although they have appeared in other writings of and about the photographer. The Winogrand doctrine was revolutionary for its time: ” …there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ’em. They do not tell stories – they show you what something looks like. To a camera.” “All a photograph ever does is describe light on surface, that’s all there is.” To this day, people still get contentious when you tell them that photographs don’t tell stories — that a narrative involves the passage of time, not a frozen slice of it. While Winogrand is generally acknowledged as the author of this radical philosophy, I have recently revised my thinking. John Szarkowski’s book, The Photographer’s Eye, was based on his 1964 Museum of Modern Art exhibit of the same name, and first published as a book in 1966. The volume is divided into five sections with an explanation of each at the front of the book: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point. Bits of text in the book bear a striking semblance to the Winogrand doctrine; ” …photography has never been successful at narrative. It has in fact seldom attempted it.” “…the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story, but a picture.” This is the same language used by Winogrand. It appears that this way of thinking about photographs was something that evolved as part of the interaction between Winogrand, Szarkowski, Joel Meyerowitz, Tod Papageorge and others in that circle during the mid-sixties. Joel Meyerowitz4; says,” I can tell you that neither of us (Winogrand and he) had anything intelligent to say about photographs back then, a grunt of surprise or saying ‘that’ s interesting’, or ‘that’ s tough’…until John showed us what might be part of the dialogue we were all lost.” He adds, ” Szarkowski was the mentor to us all, and I firmly believe that his wisdom, through his exhibitions, writings, and private talks with each of us shaped the thinking of my and Garry’s generation.”

 

FOOTNOTES

1) The majority of photographs in this exhibition were printed by Winogrand or under his supervision by Thomas Consilvio or Paul McDonough. The rest were made after his death and unless otherwise noted, were printed in 2012-2013 in Tuscon, Arizona by Teresa Engle Schirmer. All are gelatin silver prints.In his last years, Winogrand put off developing his film and editing his contact sheets in favor of shooting. At his death he left behind approximately 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film and 4,100 more that he had processed but not reviewed, representing most of his production during the last six years of his life. Winogrand had allowed others to edit his work and print his photographs, however, and in preparing for its posthumous 1988 exhibition Garry Winogrand, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, develped. proofed and edited the work he left behind. That show included a small group of prints made by Consilvio from late images selected by John Szarkowski, director of MoMA’s department of photography, and by Winogrand’s friends and fellow photographers Tod Papageorge and Thomas Roma.

Many earlier Winogrand photographs also remained unprinted at his death. For the present exhibition, therefore, guest curator Leo Rubenfien undertook a two-year review of the bulk of 22,000-odd contact sheets in Winogrand’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tuscon. Over ninety posthumous prints made from Rubinfien’s selections and drawn from the full span of Winogrand’s career are on view here. The labels for these prints indicate whether Winogrand marked a given frame on its contact sheet, suggesting that he found it to be of interest.

2) On May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students were killed and nine injured when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. John Filo’s iconic photograph of the tragedy won a Pulitzer Prize. (Wikipedia).

3) Dan Weiner (1919-1959) studied painting at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute, eventually accepting a job as a commercial photographer. He joined the New York Photo League and developed an affinity for the work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. Following World War II, he pursued work as a photojournalist, refining his belief that the photographer has a moral responsibility to illuminate social ills and to comment on significant events in history. Weiner’s life was tragically ended by a plane crash while he was on assignment in 1959. (www.robertmann.com).

4) Personal communication.


REFERENCES

Evans, Walker, essay by Linclon Kirstein. American Photographs. 75th anniversary ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 2012.Kotz, Liz. “Damaged.” 21-28: Coleman, A.D. “Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand at Century’s End.” 31-37. The Social Scene. Ed. Stephanie Emerson. Los Angeles. The Museum of Contemporary Art. 2000.

Lifson, Ben. “Garry Winogrand’s American Comedy.” Aperture 86: 32-39. 1982.

Rubinfein, Leo. “Garry Winogrand’s Republic.” 13-61. Garry Winogrand. Ed. Leo Rubinfein. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2013.

Szarkowski, John. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Winogrand, Garry, introduction by Tod Papageorge. Public Relations. 2nd ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 1977.

Greg Allikas, May 2013

farm scene

Eileen and Garry Winogrand, Woodman, Wisconsin 1973
 

 

posted by Greg Allikas, May 31, 2013

12 Feb 2013

Writings

man & dog

kon’-tekst, noun

The interrelated conditions in which something exists or occurs.

Since the renewed interest in street photography there is a never ending discussion as to what exactly, street photography is. While a consensus is rarely reached, there are some givens. First and foremost, street photography is candid photography. By all standards, a photographer’s intervention in the scene being photographed is unacceptable. Street photography and documentary photography (and photojournalism) are bound together and can overlap. A picture can be both a documentary and street photograph. The fine line that distinguishes them is in perceived storytelling. Simply put, street photography asks questions, documentary photography provides answers (hopefully). Street photography has no responsibility to be compassionate or address social issues (although it may). It is the selfish expression of the photographer’s view of the world captured for his or her own pleasure. While there is a certain “look” to street photography, it is hard to define and continually evolving. While telephoto lenses are widely used in photojournalism, they are not in street photography.

A comment about the photo above brought to mind another characteristic of street photography: context. A photographer, who judging from his own photos is new to street photography, suggested that I do a vertical crop to include just the young man and dog. The soft puffy clouds, swaying palm trees and empty street contrast oddly with the focused gaze of man and dog, at what, we don’t know. It is the context that makes this more than just a photo of a man and a dog. The tranquil setting itself enforces the oddness of the man, the way he is holding the dog, and their fixed gazes. Imagine how different this photo would have looked with cars and people in the background.

A street photo can be as much about context as about subject. Often it is the context that is the reason for a street photo. The subject becomes secondary. It is this attention to context that separates street photography from documentary. For street photographers, managing context is often more challenging than subject. The more complex the scene the more difficult getting the elements into place becomes. While some street photography may look like random snapshots, choreographing a scene into a single still frame in a split second is challenging. It is also exhilarating when it succeeds.

18 Dec 2012

Street Photography: form vs. content

When I first began taking photographs it was pretty simple. I would see somebody or something interesting on the street and I would take a picture, The camera was loaded with Tri-X and had either a 24, 28 or 35mm lens on it. I didn’t know I was doing street photography and they weren’t even calling it that then. I had no intention of creating artistic images and any concept of style was founded on content. I don’t think that Winogrand, Freidlander, Arbus, Levitt, Erwitt or any of the pioneers of the genre ever thought about creating artistic photographs. In this new blossoming of street photography slick style is much admired.

In the first year of the SPNP project certain modern SP clichés became evident. We have the “people juxtaposed against advertising posters”, and “pocket of light”, many iterations of feet photography including “feet with colorful shoes against yellow road stripes”, pigeons are a recurring theme and reflections in windows are always a good way to fulfill any brief.

I stopped doing the SPNC briefs because I don’t want to be under pressure to have to take a certain picture. I want to shoot what I want to shoot. This past year a quote by Winogrand is sitting on my shoulder like a conscience; “How do you keep from taking the same pictures over and over again?” He went on to add, “When I go out to shoot I don’t have pictures in my head. I frame in terms of what I want to have in the picture.” That sounds deceptively simple. But he didn’t say “Look for dramatic light” or “Use diagonals and bold shapes.” Perhaps it is the absence of a consciously applied style that has made Winogrand’s work so enduring and monumental.

I have spent the past couple of years experimenting (with color!) and trying to see where I fit in between the content driven style of the past and the artsy style of the present. It has proven confusing. A few months ago I came up with the idea that maybe what Winogrand was getting at when he asked how we get around taking the same pictures all the time was at its point, an absence of style. In other words, people, their behavior and the world we live in is so infinitely variable that all we really need to do is decide what we want in the photographic frame and that when we apply certain ”style” we are in effect, making pictures that look like others.

Untitled
Last year this photograph by OakT really captivated me and I continue to refer back to it. While seemingly simple in its presentation it resonates with humanity and carries the weight of daily existence we all face. It is more than just a photograph. It’s visual anthropology. I came across a quote by Joel Meyerowitz this week that is another arc in closing this whole circle of thought; “Over the years I have seen that photography is too often about the pictures only. To me it’s always been about ideas and the ideas that pictures generate.”

15 Oct 2012

Art Versus Decency

The Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach has opened its exhibition of the five nominees for the inaugural Rudin Prize for Emerging Photographers. The award calls on five internationally acclaimed photographers to act as a nominating panel, each selecting one emerging artist who is at the leading edge of contemporary photo-based art and has yet to have a solo show in a museum. The winner of the prize, to be selected by the museum’s Photography Steering Committee and announced on December 4, will receive a cash prize of $20,000 and a solo exhibit at the Norton.

If you go to the exhibit expecting to see fine examples of photography, save for Eunice Adorno’s intimate photo essay, you will be disappointed. If you go expecting to be surprised at what is regarded as cutting edge photography, you will be quite pleased.

Adorno was nominated by Magnum photographer, Susan Meiselas. Her series of color photographs, titled “Las Mujeres Flores”, reveals the strict social traditions that define Mennonite women in northern Mexico. The work shows the craft of a photographer in control of her medium who has the facility to create a strong narrative with images. The group of photographs shows an understanding and respect for her subject.

Gabriela (Nin) Solis, also from Mexico, and Mauro D’Agati, from Palermo, Italy presented traditional photography as well. Solis’ work was black and white analog silver gelatin prints and D’Agato’s, color pigment prints. Solis was nominated by the esteemed Mexican photographer, Graciela Iturbide. Her prints were quiet pieces, many of them small, some cropped to square. They were studies of the effects of a superhighway construction project in Mexico. If the work possessed the visual strength of one of the Westons or the enigma of her nominator, we may have come away remembering it. But it did not. Her compositions have become lost in the hundreds of other images seen that day. D’Agati’s work represented a look at the underworld of Naples through the eyes of “Carmine”, but without being told, you would not know. A large collage of mugshots could have as easily been traffic violators as mafia players. The photographs lacked the intensity one might expect of the subject and as images themselves, looked like what you can find in online photo sharing websites. Both artists’ work depended on a written explanation to understand it.

I won’t even pretend to understand or explain Analia Saban’s mixed media work. The monochrome pieces involved scraping the gelatin off of silver gelatin prints and trailing it across an adjacent canvas panel.

I am certainly open-minded and I doubt anyone would call me a prude. Had I seen this selection of Sven Venø’s work at a gallery in Manhattan or San Francisco I would have reached the same conclusion and simply forgotten about it. One wall of his exhibit contained three large, realistic color photographs on aluminum, and to the right were three pedestals with running videos, each corresponding to one of the three still photographs. We were told one of the videos was eight hours long. Venø is the subject of his work, portraying different characters in much the same way as Cindy Sherman. In fact, her name was mentioned during the curator’s talk. At approximately 3×4 feet, it would hard to not notice Venø’s penis sticking out from his bluejean shorts. While I was not offended by the photograph, I didn’t see much point in it either. It was just a color photograph of a guy on a rope ladder with his dick hanging out. The English artist explains that his work explores the traditional roles of masculinity and that he does so by playing the part of the fool. I think most people know that a penis defines a male. This looks like exhibitionism masquerading as art.

The day after the preview and opening of the exhibit, I received an email from a fellow photographer I had seen there the night before. “Did you see the porn part of the exhibition at the Norton? After we heard the talk I walked around again…and there was a video on of a guy masturbating with an ejaculation and all…” I told her I had not seen that.

While the large still exhibitionist photograph did not offend me, the notion of the video certainly does. How does a parent explain to their child, or teenager, that a “real” man jerking off is a perverted act that should immediately be reported to the police, but a video in a museum of a man jerking off is “art”? Art that might be rewarded with a $20,000 cash prize!

A fear of perverts and pedophiles whipped up by the news media pervades the community. I have been told on numerous occasions by city security officers that I “cannot photograph children playing in Centennial Fountain.” Other photographers here tell of similar incidents in other public places.

Any discussion of obscenity involves community standards. What is appropriate for one city may not be for another. One has to wonder whether the new William & Sarah Ross Soter Curator of Photography, Tim Wride, believes the exhibit will be seen as a major coup for the museum, or whether he goes in to work every day dreading email from outraged museum goers. Perhaps the nasty bit of business is buried deeply enough in the eight-hour video that few if any will actually see it. We only hope the decision to be controversial does not cost the museum in the long run. With more great photographic art now than ever, it is surprising that the museum would exhibit something of such questionable taste and low moral standard.