Tag Archives: Garry Winogrand

Credit where credit is undue

Temple Scene

Is the untrained eye, the average viewer, able to objectively judge the quality of a photo depicting Japan? I believe therein lies great difficulty. Those unfamiliar with country, culture and people, and as an additional factor a lacking an ability to reflect on the perception of the world in front of them, these viewers will have no chance to withstand the bias that appears to be inherent in a photograph with a Japanese subject matter.

To illustrate this assertion, visit a popular online forum or bulletin board and look for posts similar to “Photos from Tokyo” or “I went to Japan with my XYZ camera” and the included photographs. You will find that no matter how stereotypical or overworked the subject matter, no matter how unoriginally and conventionally executed and presented, most, if not all, respondents will reply with comments like “great shots”, “Japan is amazing”, “your photos really make me want to go to Japan” and suchlike. What is this magic that can turn the banal into such collective eye candy?

The answer is that these photos meet prior expectations and preconceptions, reaffirm already existing views and assumptions about what is seen in the images. Garry Winogrand, the spiritual leader of all photographers struggling to battle these preconceptions, had no problem walking into new situations and pick out his distinctive viewpoints anyway.

Q: Do you find it easy to go into a strange place and just start taking pictures?

GW: No problem. You know, you’ve heard that photographers talk about how they want to know the place better and so on — they’re really talking about their own comfort. Let me put it this way — I have never seen a photograph from which I could tell how long the photographer was there, how well he knew it. Or if you want to talk about the photographer as a person, maybe — I mean, you can take Diane Arbus’ pictures. How do you know from the photographs — forget all the rhetoric — from the photographs, that she didn’t rush in and make’em, bank, and rush out, like a thief? You know, kick the door open? They’re really talking about their own comfort.

Q: So you don’t think you have to take some time to find out what the place is like, and so forth?

GW: From my experience — I start shooting. I look. I don’t have to know the language, I don’t have to know where to get a good cup of coffee.

“An interview with Garry Winogrand” (By Charles Hagen, published in Afterimage, Dec. 1977)

While Winogrand’s reasoning is totally valid, one cannot simply apply his conclusion to each and every photographer. His rationale is based on an essential prerequisite of prior mental work and a resulting realisation of consciousness: firstly, to be aware of one’s own expectations of what the photo will look like, or at least about a presence of preconceptions about what the subject matter is about. And secondly, having enough courage, mental strength and willingness to move beyond these initial mental images to seek true originality. “When it looks familiar in the viewfinder, I am not pressing the shutter”, Winogrand once stated. Many photographers lack these critical qualities and that is why we see so much unoriginal and derivative work. There is little in the world that has not been photographed, yet there is always room for new points of view onto the same thing.

Kyoto, JapanAsk people around you about their image of Japan and it is almost certain that their view is positive and full of fascination. Perhaps one could even say excessively positive. The West not only loves Japan, it also seems to love to love Japan, almost unconditionally and in a hyper-realistic way. The intensity of this sentiment is only matched and reciprocated by the way how East loves the view of the West, especially America. Japan, that exotic place in the Far East, with all its strange and unfamiliar ways, and while at the same time being such a tremendously appealing culture. What is not to like? A continuously and conveniently maintained stereotypical image of zen, purported spirituality, high-tech alongside tradition, unusual customs and behaviours, manga creatures and samurai honour — the list goes on.

In my opinion, these previously shaped and principally irrational positive views are so strong that the content of any photo depicting the actual subject is becoming all but irrelevant. The mediocre photographer has the wind in his back on this journey, and with an equally biased audience like this, he can hardly fail. It gets a little harder to detect if the photographer is a good craftsman, but when taking away the effects of technique and reducing it to the basics you are likely to come to the same conclusion. Show these photos to someone more familiar and aware of Japan, the place in the real world, not based on fantasy and imaginations from second-hand accounts, the real quality of photograph really starts to become apparent. The complication, however, is that you may not notice it yourself at first. You might even have to fall into the trap before you can realise that there is one. The photos used to illustrate this post are all mine, taken not too long after moving to Japan.

I am surprised that my prints sell. They’re not pretty, they’re not those kind of pictures that people easily put on their walls, they’re not that window onto a nice landscape or something. They aren’t.

I don’t have pictures in my head, you know. Look, I am stuck with my own psychology. With my own, uh, with me. So I’m sure that there’s some kind of thread, whatever, but I don’t have pictures in my head.

Garry Winogrand with Bill Moyers, Creativity, WNET, 1982

Several weeks ago I received an email from what appeared to be a established and exhibited European photographer about a series of photos taken in Japan. The email did not explicitly request any feedback, although when someone sends you their web site address pinting out specific work I suppose you are expected to at look at it. And I did. I even took the time to provide a response, but while writing it became clear that this was not what the photographer wanted to hear (abbreviated for clarity):

Those of us living here permanently see images like yours in front of us on a daily basis. Perhaps elsewhere, where these cityscapes are uncommon, these vistas are more engaging than for us, but in effect these photos are the equivalent of showing cobbled streets and brick buildings to Londoners or the Eiffel Tower to Parisians.

I expect a good photograph to be a revelation to me, which could be about the subject matter or the photographer. In most photographs that I see and were taken in Japan I find myself longing for far more of these revelations; or wanting to feel them more intensely.

Take away what the picture is of, and you will find what it is about. If there is anything left, this net result should be a universal substance of quality, the photograph’s essential content and its consequent value.

Given the general reception, Japan is such a forgiving subject. It seems easy to take good and interesting photos in Japan and of Japan that find an excitable and responsive audience. It is, however, extremely difficult trying to break beyond the obvious and create a meaningful visual record of time, places and people. While this may be true for every place in the world, the deceptively easy visual accessibility of Japan may make it just that little bit harder than elsewhere to produce great work.

Living by it

Hexar RF with 35 cron

In my Islanders post I said that every photographer can learn something by trying out another than their usual format once in a while and while at the time of writing it I did not have the intention in mind to do this myself, a new 35mm rangefinder came my way (originally intended for our Camera Spare Part service) and I could not resist trying it out, especially since my Leica M6 has been in repair since July last year.

I cannot really tell — yet — what I have learned from turning away from the large format photography I have been doing almost exclusively for one year now. However, I already know it is refreshing in so many ways, not least because you simply don’t feel it is “serious” what you taking photos of (if there is or should be such a thing). You just play around and take the mind into different spheres from what you are normally used to. It probably doesn’t even matter what route you go down, film, digital, whatever, as long as it is somewhat new to you and lets your mind wander down new paths, be open to some surprises on the way. Photography just seems to be that kind of pursuit; It’s all about not being bored.

In the current issue of Nippon Camera is a rundown of cameras that Daido Moriyama used for various books or projects. There are SLRs, compacts… every series seems to have a different camera associated with it. While this may appeal to some gear heads, I think it is significant in a way, but totally meaningless in another — apologies for being vague here, but I hope you get the idea.

And here is another quote to leave you in the spirit:

There is always a spirit of experimentation with photography. You never settle on one particular way of working, I don’t think.

Photo above by John Sypal’s Tokyo Camera Style

About the choice of lenses

Q: Do you find that you are putting less in the frame now, with the new lens?

GW: I don’t really know; I just take pictures, and they look almost the same to me. I really don’t know how to answer that question. The only real difference is, with a 28, racking it out as far as it’ll go, let’s say in terms of a face, there’s a lot less space, with a 35mm, left. It’s an interesting little difference. The minute you back up a little, then it becomes a question of how far you’ve got to back up. So with a 35 you’re probably going to back up more, usually. Or you’ll do things without feet… I really don’t want to look at contact sheets that are going to look the same as a 28. Even if I could do that with a 35, by changing the distance or whatever. It’s all about not being bored.

Q: Again, just to keep the problems interesting…

GW: Yeah. And the only way you can do that is finding out how much you can get away with, you know? It’s true.

“An interview with Garry Winogrand” (By Charles Hagen, published in Afterimage, Dec. 1977)

One of the things that I like about Garry Winogrand and makes me revisit him again and again are his plain and simple truths. No attempts to promote photography into the realms of philosophy and studied intellectuals, just plain observations accessible to anyone who can spare a few thoughts on the matter. A lot of people would disagree, of course, but I find this is rather suitable to certain types of photography and in a way to the mass-appeal of photography itself.

Before I bought my new lens I was struggling with the idea whether or not I should add another variable element to my way of working. I had a set of lenses for my Canon, and just sold most of them. More lenses, more choices… less simplicity, greater confusion and loss of focus on the task at hand. Then I realised that my considerations towards lens choice were not based on the right assumptions. A few days later I came across the above quote and it all made sense to me again.

In the past I based my choice of lens on something external – the subject. For example, the kind of subject, its size would dictate what equipment I would need to capture it. I started to really dislike changing lenses while facing a situation. It felt like an inappropriate burden, chasing after something, although I am not sure what. Standing there and trying to accommodate what is in front of the lens while juggling focal lengths does not seem the right thing to do. Unless you are a professional on an assignment of course, but that is a completely different set of deliverables compared to the amateur or artist.

So he is right: it is just about keeping things interesting, for yourself. It is a mind game after all, and this is just one of the cheap tricks. So what I do now is to pick a lens that I feel like working with for the day or so and let me work the situations I encounter with that setup. This is completely different, and surprisingly liberating.

No preconceptions

The title of this post is a quasi-quote from the artist and legendary street photographer Garry Winogrand. It has become my main mantra of late, not only about photographic matters, but about life in general. It is a very difficult objective to keep an open mind, especially since I think that the interpretation of experiences and resulting conceptions are very closely bound to human nature, a natural way to make us feel emotionally safer. Brands and advertising, for example, exploit this longing for familiarity and make us reach out for packaging and colours we have seen before.

In itself, there is nothing wrong with this. However, there are certain times, if not most of the time, where we should be self-aware of our preconceptions, if only to prevent us to become easy prey for stereotypes and prejudices, positive and negative. Maybe we have heard something similar several times from from different sources. Or we have heard fractions of facts and our creative mind tries filling in the gaps. The purpose of this is to help making sense of the world in one way or the other, if only temporary. Would we feel the full effect of knowing that we know nothing, we would probably go crazy.

It is in this period of thought, where an email from a friend reaches me, and I am surprised that it discusses a very similar thought that I have been having and have recently articulated in an article for the German-Japanese Society of my hometown. Many people think of Japan by imagining sushi, temples, geishas and other “typical” things. While of course these things exist here, they by no means represent Japanese culture. In fact, I think they are rather offensive as they simplify and distort reality.

In my photos I am trying to show aspects of daily Japanese life, any and all aspects I personally come across. And even though I am not trying to exclude sushi, temples and geishas, unlike others I am also not looking for them. I capture what presents itself to me, and those obvious Japanese things are just several of many, many other things that make up the puzzle of this country. I can’t say I have succeeded, but just like they say in British news when they don’t know for sure: “The Police are keeping an open mind.”

I am quoting – with permission from the author – an article written for Tibetan Review:

Shattering the Shangri-La Stereotype: Tibetans re-branded
Continue reading No preconceptions