the art of straight photography

By | photography

You can only photograph what’s there, I think we agree on that. Not what’s in your phantasy. Some photographers have photographed “scenes from their phantasies” that they had to construct before these could be photographed. And as a black and white film photographer I’m not even thinking of  the “artistic” horrors of extreme photoshop manipulation… The constructing part – be it arranging people and things, or putting together things to suggest a non-existing reality – is in fact introducing another art form like performance or sculpture in its widest sense, then simply putting it on film. The photographer, in all his freedom [to quote William Klein: “anything goes”], nevertheless should realize this, so he isn’t fooled into believing such photography is the real “art photography”. The real “art” in photography is in my opinion in the elevation of the image from its purely representational “reality” level to a higher (non-anecdotal) symbolic function, which could be enigmatic or even of a metaphysical nature.

filmist and digitalist brazenness

By | photography

Looking at random street photography sites on the internet, it suddenly struck me that there is something of a tiny subcategory of pictures in which passers-by look very disturbed at the camera, and therefore at you, the onlooker. All of them seem irritated, or at least worried “what the hell is this for?” I don’t understand, are these uneasy pictures supposed to convey a deeper meaning (“look how worried people go through life”) or is the photographer merely showing us his “courage” (and in fact possible lack of respect and consideration for the other)? Personally I usually avoid these kind of looks, because I see no use for such images in the context of what I make, and I prefer not to upset people. Empathy and being able to read body language are essential. Shooting people no matter what I’m sure wasn’t what Garry Winogrand was thinking of when he said he “photographed things [read: people] to see what they would look like when photographed”. It’s proof of an unsettling egocentricity when the thing that interests you is to read the reaction on some stranger’s face to your brazenness. Apart from that, any filmist can take a whole film (for the digitalist: that’s 36 takes) in some 30 minutes in an average town center, if he dares photograph people at extremely short range in passing. But street photography is not for testing or proving courage, I hope.

Szarkowski misquoted on Capa

By | photography

“Every picture tells a story, don’t it”, Rod Stewart sings… Well…no, not if it’s a photograph. Garry Winogrand says there isn’t a photograph in the world that tells a story, and consequently he doesn’t have any storytelling responsability. He should know, he has taken a few in his lifetime. A photograph shows what something looks like…to a camera. Szarkowski agrees; the great MoMA scholar was a personal friend of Winogrand (it was him who first recognized the photographer’s importance, and in fact genius), and must have discussed this subject with him.

In “Photography: a Critical Introduction” (third edition) edited by Liz Wells there is an almost Freudian misquotation of the text written by John Szarkowski from “The Photographer’s Eye”: “The great war photographer Robert Capa expressed both the narrative property [sic] and the symbolic power of photography when he said “If your pictures aren’t good, you’re not close enough.”  This should have read “narrative poverty” since this is the point Szarkowski is making! To a lot of people it really remains very hard to believe there is no story in the photograph, and we don’t find the clear cut truth most of us seem to find so comforting. “Your photograph is like a little story” is still considered a compliment, since people assume that’s what you are striving for; and it’s not nice to ask, “what story…”

refill (still can)

By | photography

Yesterday, when photographing in a crowded street, I noticed some youngsters’ curious looks when I opened the back of my Contax, took out the cassette by the film end sticking out and put in an undeveloped film from my pocket stock. Is this already becoming an exotic sight in this digital world, I thought. And would they consider it old school, nerdy, maybe cool… Anyway I love working with these Leica, Contax or Nikon cameras and hope that film will stay around, so I can keep doing my photography the way I like.

As my film was nearing the number of 36 exposures I always hoped that I would not be running out of film at the very moment it “got interesting”. I also remember the horror of a camera malfunctioning or a film breaking inside because of the winter temperatures once. Good thing I often take a lot, and it happens very fast, so that I do not remember every lost picture. Those are the risks of analog photography, but I love working on film. Sometimes, when you want to make sure you don’t miss any opportunities, it helps to work with 2 cameras. It gives more certainty and you have another 36 to go before you have to reload. Winogrand’s remark “There’s nothing happening when I’m reloading” may sound silly but the fact is that the photograph you haven’t made does not exist, except maybe in your imagination. Better to concentrate on what must be done, i.e. reloading! To every other photographer who likes analog, I’d like to say, keep pushing that film.

illusions & phantasies

By | photography

“I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they make me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, I look at some magazines (our press). They all deal in illusions and phantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves […..], we have not loved life.”

© Garry Winogrand, quote from Guggenheim grant application 1964.

Szarkowski quote: symbolic, not narrative

By | photography

“The compelling clarity with which a photograph recorded the trivial suggested that the subject had never before been properly seen, that it was in fact perhaps not trivial, but filled with undiscovered meaning. If photographs could not be read as stories, they could be read as symbols. […..] The great war photographer Robert Capa expressed both the narrative poverty and the symbolic power of photography when he said, “If your pictures aren’t good, you’re not close enough.”

John Szarkowski “The Photographer’s Eye” (Museum of Modern Art  © 1966)

Szarkowski on Winogrand

By | photography

“Winogrand has made chaos clearly visible; he has disciplined it without breaking its spirit. It is not supremely difficult to make a clear picture of a truism, and it is easier still to hold up a mirror to the maelstrom and call it art. But to see and set down with acuity the flickering meanings that illuminate the menagerie we perform in – this is a creative miracle.”

© John Szarkowski (1925-2007), former curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, in his Afterword to “The Animals” (MoMA 1969);  great mind, a master of language and one of the few real connoisseurs of photography- he taught us all because he understood…

Winogrand – street photography quote

By | photography, street photography

Garry Winogrand, my favorite photographer and doubtless the greatest street photographer ever, nevertheless hated that term as he hated categorisations in general. Here are some more interesting quotes from his famous interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein: …”I think that those kind of distinctions and lists of titles like “street photographer” are so stupid. […] I’m a photographer, a still photographer. That’s it. […] People are just dumb. They misunderstand.”

[…] “I’m pretty fast with a camera when I have to be. However, I think it’s irrelevant. I mean, what if I said that every photograph I made was set up? From the photograph you can’t prove otherwise. You don’t know anything from the photograph about how it was made, really. […]  The whole discussion is a way of  not talking about photographs. [What is really important] is the photograph.”

Asked what he wanted to evoke with his photographs, he answers: “I have no ideas on that subject. I’m not making ads. I couldn’t care less. Everybody’s entitled to their own experience.”

Garry Winogrand (tv interview by Barbaralee Diamonstein ©1981 “Visions and Images”, Rizzoli Int. Publ. Inc.)

more Winogrand quotes

By | street photography

“When I’m photographing I see life, that’s what I deal with.”……….”I frame in terms of what I want to include, and naturally, when I want to snap the shutter.”……….”If I’m at the viewfinder, and I know that picture, why take it? I’ll do something to change it…”……….”I get into situations where there’s a lot of activity, more things can occur to me to try.”……….”Reality is the photograph itself…”

(Garry Winogrand interviewed by Bill Moyers on tv show, © 1982. Read more: navigate by clicking red tags below)

These are some alternative Winogrand quotes for you. The usual quotes (and misquotes!) can be put into a greater perspective, I think. Being a longtime street photographer myself, I have selected those words in which I recognize the approach that has inspired me, hoping to show that his ideas, though often provokingly formulated, were much deeper than some people seem to grasp.

wiki street

By | street photography

Whoever is confused about the definition of street photography, may be inclined to look it up in the pages of Wikipedia. I personally was shocked to see some less-than-mediocre color photographs, having nothing in common but the fact that they were obviously taken of people outdoors, and a meaninglessness next to non-existance.  These uninspired photos were intended as illustrations for a short, imprecise attempt at defining street photography, followed by extended ramblings about overcoming shyness !! [shy?- don’t even try!] , being invisible, tricks, the “right” equipment [can you imagine paints, brushes, or canvas being mentioned in an article about, let’s say: impressionism], and endless legal considerations, all of which reads more like “photography for dummies” than a serious article about photography (as art). This would put off and discourage anybody ever wanting to take a picture that might include (oh, the horror…) a complete stranger.

Could somebody (with more patience, and more knowledge of Wikipedia than me) please take the time one of these days to update this Wikipedia article about street photography, and balance its various aspects in a way that makes more sense. I think of a serious photographer rather than a legal adviser…  Some Garry Winogrand quotes would fit in fine, I think, as would a few real street photographs for a change!