by Adam Inglis

Garry Winogrand’s Lecture at Rice University

Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) was a groundbreaking American photographer known for his raw and dynamic images that captured the essence of post-war America. His prolific career and ability to depict the complexities of a changing society continue to inspire generations of photographers. In 1977, Garry gave a talk to students at Rice University in Texas. The almost two-hour Q & A session was an informal chat and Winogrand gave some challenging answers on thoughts about the medium.

How can a photograph be more beautiful or dramatic than the actual scene?

During the lecture, Winogrand reflects on the challenge of creating compelling photographs, particularly when capturing inherently dramatic subject matter. He acknowledges that the difficulty lies in making a photograph that surpasses the inherent interest of the subject itself.

I’ve been shooting a lot of football (for example). I’m trying to make interesting pictures of the action itself. You’re dealing with subject matter that is inherently — in itself — more dramatic. And consequently, it makes the problem of making an interesting photograph more difficult… So how do you make a photograph that’s more interesting than what happened? That’s really the problem… You photograph something beautiful. So what? How do you make a photograph that’s more beautiful than what was photographed? That’s really our problem in the end.

The key question becomes this: How can a photograph be more beautiful or dramatic than the actual scene itself? Winogrand emphasizes the importance of creating images that are more dramatic, interesting, or captivating than the original subject matter.

The word dramatic has to apply. It’s always about that. Is the photograph more dramatic than what was photographed? It has to be.

He cites the work of Weegee and Diane Arbus as examples, noting that their photographs succeed by either emphasizing the dramatic nature of their subjects or finding interest in the seemingly mundane subject matter.

You take Weegee at his best and why is his work really good? Or Diane Arbus at her best — and its always like two kinds of jive. When you have very dramatic subject matter or very dull subject matter. One way or the other it’s got to be more dramatic in the photograph.

Ultimately, Winogrand concludes that the pursuit of making truly interesting photographs is a challenging endeavor, requiring the photographer to surpass the inherent qualities of the subject and create images that are more compelling and dramatic.

Making interesting photographs is very difficult. The thing has to be more dramatic or more interesting — or else why bother?

Photographs are paradoxical

Garry suggests that a photograph alone does not possess inherent narrative ability. For example, a photograph of a cow mid-jump does not convey whether it is ascending or descending. The statement challenges the assumption that photographs can provide complete and definitive information without additional context or accompanying details.

From a photograph, what do you know? They don’t have narrative ability. A cow jumping – you don’t know if it’s going up or down from the picture. So why should you know where it was taken, from the picture? 

This statement suggests that photographs challenge our understanding and preconceived notions. Just as puns play with words, photographs question our perceptions and what we think we know. However, unlike literary forms of communication, photographs primarily capture and depict a specific moment in space and time from the perspective of a camera, rather than conveying complex literary ideas.

There’s a paradox. They’re not ambiguous. Yet you don’t know what’s happening. Ambiguous is almost the opposite of being specific. These things (photographs) are very specific. I can play games. I can say: what if I tell you every photograph, everything, has been cast, directed and posed. From the photograph, you cannot prove me a liar.

Winogrand emphasizes that in a photograph, the symbolic meaning and the visual representation of what appears to be happening are integral components of its content. It suggests that photographs have the power to challenge and question our assumptions about what we perceive and think we know. The narrative content that is conveyed or implied in the image is also an essential part of its overall content. In essence, this statement highlights the complex interplay between symbolism, visual representation, and narrative within a photograph, underscoring the layers of meaning and interpretation that can be derived from it.

In a photograph, the symbolic meaning, this is part of the content. What it looks like is happening is part of the content.. they question what you think you know. What seems to be the narrative content is part of the content.

Garry disapproved of Bruce Davidson’s portrayal of Black Americans, considering it exploitative and stereotypical.

It’s terrible (Davidson’s work). Philosophically or editorially, or any way you want to look at it. Morally it’s sickening. Photographically it’s a goddamn bore. It’s about his personal misunderstanding of Diane Arbus’s work.. Morally — it’s disgusting. It’s all about what the white middle-class liberal wants to think Blacks are like. They’re ready to tap-dance off the pages.. It’s disgusting work. 

Throughout his entire career, Davidson has been smart enough to know who to copy… who to misunderstand — I’ll put it that way. And he’s a very hard worker. That’s all. The result is garbage.

On SLRs Vs Rangefinders

Garry argues that SLR cameras coupled with longer focal length lenses are not primarily photographic tools but rather illustrative devices. They compel the photographer to consciously design and create an image, resulting in a more illustrative outcome. On the other hand, when using an SLR with a shorter focal length lens, such as 50mm, 35mm, or 28mm, the inherent depth of field allows for everything to be in focus.

The SLR (coupled) with a bigger (longer focal length) lens is not a photographic, tool — It’s an illustrative device. They force the operator to design and make a picture. In the end, basically an illustration. They’re not photographic tools, GENERALLY SPEAKING.

When you look through an SLR with a small (shorter focal length) lens, everything is in focus. That’s why they have those rangefinder patches in them. That’s why they put the split imaging on the ground glass.

When you use 50mm, 35mm, or 28mm lenses, you have to use them with rangefinders. They don’t function with SLRs. You’re buying a whole lot of mechanisms that you’re not going to use with small lenses.

The presence of rangefinder patches and split imaging on the ground glass aids in achieving this focus. It is argued that the smaller lenses are better suited for rangefinder cameras rather than SLRs because the latter possess mechanisms that are unnecessary for small lenses. Conversely, when employing a larger lens, like a telephoto lens, the viewfinder of an SLR allows the photographer to discern what is in focus and what is not, thereby influencing the design of the picture.

With a larger lens (ie: telephoto) you can see what’s in focus and what’s not. Put a 135mm lens on your Nikon and what you see in that viewfinder will manipulate you into designing a picture.

Using Format