Learning Patience like Garry Winogrand

"You make better choices if you approach your contact sheets cold, separating the editing from the picture taking as much as possible."  -- Garry Winogrand

Photo: Garry Winogrand

Back in my undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota I heard about Garry Winogrand and for some reason never really paid attention to his work. I just knew of him as the eccentric guy who shot thousands of rolls of film and never developed them.  This was of course before the internet and before ease of access to information and photographs by and about people.  I was more interested in learning about Walter Iooss Jr. and Eddie Adams. After all I was a journalism major and art was only my minor.

Things have changed and as I have moved further away from the journalism world my focus has shifted to personal work and more artistic styles. Recently I came across an article by street photographer Eric Kim, titled "10 Things Garry Winogrand Can Teach You About Street Photography". In this lengthy article I found that I had missed something important by dismissing Winogrand's work.  

So what did I miss?  After all, wasn't he merely some eccentric with millions of photos and wild ideas about never looking at his own work? He died with more than 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film and another 6,500 rolls developed but never proofed. Why would anybody shoot pictures and never look at them?

He was waiting for the right moment. His ideas about waiting to review your work make sense. He was trying as best he could to remove his personal emotional attachment from an image before he decided if it was good or bad.  If you go to a concert and you have a lot of fun with your friends and you grab a quick snapshot with your phone and rush to share it, are you sharing it with everybody because it is a great photo, or just because it is a moment that you are enjoying and that happiness of the moment makes you feel the photo is good and worth sharing?  Winogrand understood this idea. He would wait months to look at his film, trying to let as much time pass as he could so that the specific events of that day and how he was feeling were not an issue when he edited through his work.

He was from the film age. You did not have the instant gratification of a digital screen to immediately view the images back then. It was a chore to get the images from potential nothings on a chemical coated strip of plastic to a realized photograph.  Would he work the same way today in the age of Snapchat and Instagram?  Would he use thick strips of gaffer's tape across the back of his LCD screen on his digital camera? Would he wait months or even years to share an image?  What would his Instagram feed look like?  

Regardless of his tools I would say he would still be waiting, trying to discern the right time to look at a photograph before deciding if it was good enough.

We have so much instant gratification in our frenzied lives today. Movies on demand, next day (and even same day) delivery, 24-hour news. When was the last time you slowed down though?  When did you live with an image you shot and digested it fully before deciding it was the one you really wanted to be out in the world telling the story you wanted to tell?  

Personally, I got sucked into the trap of editing in a hurry when I worked for the newspaper world. Soup the film, dry it in the film can with a blow drier so it could be done fast, rip through the rolls with a lupe on the light table, then scan the selected frame, type the caption and go on to the next thing. When we went to digital cameras in 2000 it got even faster. I never made contact prints for the newspapers after I left The Minnesota Daily. Just learned to edit from the negatives.  

Now it is years later and I ave overfull external hard-drives with more than 200,000 images. Images I know I will never need.  Images of used cars for car ads, out of focus sports images, fifteen similar shots of a large group, trying to get one good frame where nobody blinked.  I do not want to simply hit the delete button on everything.  Some of the images are interesting to me still.  Some are worth keeping.  So I have been picking away in spurts at these folders full of photo, sorted by month and year.  What Winogrand was doing makes sense. Not in a sense that works economically - to get paid for the photos the printers needed them that day - but his idea makes sense that time weakens that emotional attachment to the image.  I pull up a folder of images onto my screen and instantly I start seeing good and bad images.  At the same time there are often questions in my head: Where did I shoot that? What was the story? And the big one - is this worth keeping? 

Sometimes as I sort through these images I find things I have absolutely no recollection of having taken.  a few times it turns out I did not.  Working with other staff photographers I on a few occasions ended up with other people's images in my archives. It is interesting to go through the work and find myself that neutral about the image.  I am no longer excited about the image because the person was nice or rude, I am no longer looking at the images with the viewpoint of having had a fight with a editor that day or feeling good from a great bike ride.  

Sometimes it is a good thing to walk away from your work and let it sit.