The Omnivorous Eye


There’s a great article about photographer Garry Winogrand in the most recent Harper’s. (You have to subscribe to view it online.) It describes how, when he worked up a little steam, he would shoot his work continuously, exposing roll after roll of 400ASA film, sometimes taking shots as he drove around the city, obsessive, compulsive, in thrall to the shutter button. The speed of the film enabled him to do much of what he did, which feels to me like something a Beat generation writer would have done, as well as a body of work Walt Whitman could have fallen in love with. The endless series of shots, often left in undeveloped rolls, reminds me of Kerouac with his continuous scroll of paper running through the typewriter, typing furiously and never looking back. His methods, shooting as a knee-jerk response to nearly everything he looked at, has an indiscriminate Zen-like spontaneity, a ceaseless flow of shooting as a fertile shadow of seeing itself. Almost as if Winogrand was simply trying to leave behind a lesson in mindfulness. As if he wanted to achieve that pinnacle of attention that Eliot attributed to James: the ideal of having a mind on which nothing was lost. His voracious impulse to record the world also reminds me of the polymorphous appetite familiar in Whitman and Ginsburg both for celebrating just about everything that is. OK, so I guess I’ve gone and turned him into a writer. He was just the opposite. There’s always a subject, but rarely a story, in his work. As always, go see for yourself on Google image.

Here are some quotes from Garry Winogrand. Replace “photograph” with “painting” and these comments have just as much significance, more often than not. These are wonderfully written, but his pictures don’t need words. They’re all about the visual and totally “against interpretation.” Sontag would have loved the guy:

  • “Photos have no narrative content. They only describe light on surface.”
  • “Great photography is always on the edge of failure.”
  • “Every photograph is a battle of form versus content.”
  • “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.”
  • “I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect. Respect for the medium, by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject, by describing as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both.”
  • “I don’t have anything to say in any picture. My only interest in photography is to see what something looks like as a photograph. I have no preconceptions.”
  • “There is no special way a photograph should look.”

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