A Few Words on Patience

Photo Booth, Jason Reed, 2012

Photo Booth, Jason Reed, 2012

Rainer Maria Rilke on patience (and street photography)…

In a conversation a while ago among fellow Observe members, Jason Reed made an interesting comment regarding his move from London to the English countryside and how that affected his photography: “if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years since leaving London is that patience is as important in this game as luck.” That caught my attention for its timing, as I had been reflecting on that matter after re-reading parts of Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” – a correspondence between the Austrian author and young officer cadet and poet, Franz Kappus.

It’s been said before about how street and documentary photographers are able to create their own luck (a matter of attention, of being alert and open to the possibilities at all times). However, one should also be aware of patience in a deeper level. Not only the patience required for the long hours spent wandering and shooting – but also the time required for the work to develop and evolve. In one of my favorite passages of Rilke’s book, he writes: “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

I guess the reason that brought me again to Rilke’s words was a need to reflect on what I had accomplished in the last 4 years (the time since I got back to photography after a long hiatus) and on what to do next – a transition of some kind. I had edited my work for a new website, and took the opportunity to evaluate it, leaving room for uncomfortable questions, like, for example, about whether or not I had found my voice.

The process of finding one’s voice, though, is something that can only happen naturally. Therefore the importance of turning photography into a “habit”, according to one’s work schedule and daily commitments. Not all street photography practitioners are able to shoot everyday. Most, like Jason, don’t have enough opportunity to go out and shoot. In these cases, he notes, the process of finding a voice should happen at the pace that one’s shooting allows. “It can’t happen any faster than that”, Jason said. “Even if I wanted it to. I guess that’s patience and acceptance.”

I could relate to his thoughts on being patient as opposed to going insanely trigger-happy. “It would be tempting to wander off and shoot everything in sight”, he said, “possibly ask people to repeat a gesture, or even make images of random obscure scenes, then label it country street/fine art. In other words, explode the limits of the genre into something completely different to justify what I was doing. I won’t have it. I think we all need to stick to the essence of what started us down this road. And that takes patience.”

As Rilke would have said, yes dear sir. Jason seemed to be talking about patience as much as about trust, and the Austrian poet also wrote of how one should always trust oneself and one’s own feeling at all costs: “If it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing.”

I guess we should all search for a (re)birth from time to time. Since that conversation took place, I decided what to do next and left home to go on a long trip. It’s something I feel very lucky about, to be able to go on such a journey, mostly to take pictures. However, even in the privileged situation of being able to shoot everyday, I feel I should be patient sometimes, in order not to wander off, like Jason said. Inevitably, the time comes when shooting street photography randomly starts to feel empty, and the desire to be out in the world diminishes. It may not happen to everyone, I suppose, but it does to me. In those moments, I trust myself to slow down and go on a little retreat, wherever I am, to evaluate what’s been done and what might be ahead, to lay the camera down and be with my own thoughts for a while, or read a good book. The need to go out and photograph must be present, and it can only come from the heart. However, I believe the need can/should be fed. And silence and good books – not only photo books! – are two things that come in handy for that. I believe they may slowly feed the desire to go out to that point when it becomes urgent. And the fun may begin – again.

Speaking of good books, “Letters to a Young Poet” was first published in 1929, and since then it has inspired not only writers, but anyone who has ever felt the urge to create something. In what is perhaps its most famous passage, Rilke begs Kapuz to investigate the reasons that bid him to write: “Find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all – ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?”

Yes, momentary pauses to reflect on new directions are always helpful. Be that as it may, the practitioners of candid/straight photography must (italics on me now) go out and shoot. Shoot as much as he/she is able to. Above all, though, shoot as much as he/she needs to. As Rilke taught, it’s the necessity to write shoot that will move us toward something truthful: “A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgement of it: there is no other.” As long as that need exists and is constantly fed, all one has to do is to keep going – with trust and patience.

Marcelo Argolo

Embracing the The Near Win

In this evaluative age of social media and reality television, everyone seems to be an expert and everyone has a righteous opinion. Everyone can judge regardless of qualifications. As photographers, we are constantly competing for a share of recognition. How can we maintain a sane outlook on the disappointment of rejection, or the glow of a shallow success? Art curator and author, Sarah Lewis offers some insight into the process of mastering our craft and why falling short of our expectations can be a good thing in this TED talk from July 18, 2014.


The Critical Edit

Garry Winogrand recommended not looking at your contact sheets for a year. He felt that more critical editing decisions were made when there was some space between the edit and the act of taking the picture. This is good practice if you can stand to take the time. The way we edit our work has a deep influence on our art and is inextricably intertwined with the creative process itself.
When my parents were still alive they would take long cross-country motor vacations to visit my sister in California. My father would shoot plenty of slides along the way. When they got home there was of course, “the vacation slideshow”. We would sit through every slide, good, bad or underexposed. I would tell my father that if he only showed the best five or ten, people would think he was a great photographer. That too was good advice.

As photographers, what we choose to show or exclude from our output has a direct and important bearing on how our work is perceived. Other two dimensional artists are not as tied to show-not show, the edit manifests itself in what to include within the four sides of the rectangle. Of course this too plays heavily into photography and while it is generally called “composition”, deciding what to include or exclude from the frame is as much an editing process as deciding which photos to show and which to hide or discard.

Why is it that while we know that a critical eye serves us best, we give into the temptation to show marginal work? My list of excuses includes:
• I sort of like it, let’s see what others think
• On its own it’s not strong, but it fits my body of work
• “I really like this…a lot, I hope others do too.” Then when they don’t…”they just don’t understand it!”

The first is especially prevalent in today’s world of social media. It is tempting (and all too easy) to upload a picture to Flickr or Facebook for feedback from others. That’s great for photos of your niece’s new baby, but should we subject our artistic output to the masses for judgement? Can we trust the opinions of people who we know nothing of their qualifications at judging good art from bad art? Or does that not matter? Isn’t it ironic that we take classes and workshops from experienced teachers and study the work of established masters, then tacitly ask people, who may have no artistic ability at all, what they think of our work?

A firm and critical edit can go a long way toward eliminating the uncertainty of crowd opinions. The tougher we are on our own work the more conviction we will have in it.

Nick Turpin on editing

Tri-X contact sheet, 2009 Greg Alliks

Tri-X contact sheet, 2009 Greg Alliks

Garry Winogrand review

Garry Winogrand - New York, 1960 - Street Photography

New York, 1960

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a reputation for presenting landmark photography exhibits. I saw the retrospective, Diane Arbus Revelations, a decade ago and it made a lasting impression on me. I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which it was curated and produced. The exhibit featured 200 or so photographs, including many that had never been seen publicly. There was also a mockup of her darkroom complete with Nikon F and Rollei cameras, developing trays and marked contact sheets, all lit by safelight.

The  Garry Winogrand exhibit reviewed here, which ran a year ago at SFMOMA, will open at the National Gallery in Washington, DC on March 2. This exhibit presents an equally comprehensive look at this photographer’s work spanning some thirty years. Guest curated by Leo Rubinfien, along with Erin O’Toole and Sarah Greenough, the exhibition contains many never-seen-before images. Winogrand died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 56 leaving behind some 250,000 frames of unedited film. Approximately 90 of the 200 plus photographs in the exhibit have been printed for the first time. Text1 at the entrance explained the provenance and preparation of the photographs on display. Prints made posthumously are all silver gelatin. There are no inkjet prints in the exhibit.

Free-standing glass topped island display cases  provide insight into the photographer’s life. There are letters, family photos, magazines with work for hire, an application for a Guggenheim Fellowship (with endorsement from Diane Arbus) and contact sheets. The contact sheets, which bear his editing marks, offer a telling view of his working method and selection process.

The photographs are presented by period (Down From the Bronx, A Student of America, Boom and Bust) and show the development of Winogrand as a photographer. Text throughout the exhibit reminds us of events of each period.

Garry Winogrand - New York, ca. 1958, Street Photography

New York, ca. 1958

Winogrand was twenty years old when he discovered photography as his calling. At that time, the country was relieved to be finished with WW II and the postwar boom of the fifties, for many families, was the beginning of the move from cities to suburbs. Uplifted by the promise of peace and growing prosperity, wartime industries returned to serving the needs of the American public and technological advances born of the war found their way to consumer products and services. Families enjoyed leisure time together, rock and roll was born, and television presented a view of life that now only exists in Norman Rockwell paintings.

As the fifties gave way to the sixties, the innocence of the earlier decade was lost when president John F, Kennedy was assassinated in November of 1963. Throughout the sixties the US was embroiled in the controversial Vietnam War that tore the country apart. While political riots plagued college campuses, reaching a crescendo at Kent State University2 in 1970, social riots tore through major cities in the sixties. Assassination continued through the decade with Senator Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader, Martin Luther King both losing their lives in 1968, Still, president Lyndon Johnson promised the country “A Great Society.”

Garry Winogrand - New York, ca. 1960, Street Photography

New York, ca. 1960

The civil rights movement culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banning discrimination based on race, sex or religion. The Cold War became ever more frigid and the possibility of nuclear annihilation was tangible (in high school I had a neighbor who built a bomb shelter). The role of the majority of women was as housewife and professional career choices for them were limited. One older female friend recently said, “if you wanted to work, you were either a secretary, receptionist, nurse or teacher.”

By the middle of the decade “hippies” were an established counterculture. They opposed established political traditions, hated the Vietnam War, and advocated peace, love and spiritual enlightenment. Since the 1960s, many aspects of hippie culture have been assimilated by mainstream society. From the Banlon and polyester days of the early sixties, when canned vegetables were a staple of American households, the back to the earth movement began. Euell Gibbons preached natural foods and we learned how to talk to our houseplants in the book, The Secret Life of Plants. We learned that you are what you eat and health and fitness entered the American culture. Organic farms and cooperatives sprung up in rural areas across the country. Celestial Seasonings introduced herbal tea and natural fiber clothing began replacing synthetics. The Beatles launched the first wave of the British Invasion and forever changed music and popular culture. The armchair traveler who had relied on National Geographic magazine for insight into foreign lands and cultures was replaced by a peripatetic society as air travel brought faraway places within reach of those who could afford it. For the rest, television provided a window to the world and for the first time we saw the brutal realities of war as we sat in our living room.

1967 marked the first major exhibit of Winogrand’s work. Along with Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, the New Documents exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York brought attention to the three photographers and forever linked them together.

Garry Winogrand - Dealy Plaza, Dallas, 1964, Street Photography

Dealy Plaza, Dallas, 1964

“I am surprised that my prints sell. They’re not pretty. They’re not those kind of pictures that people can easily put on their wall. They’re not that window on to a nice landscape or something.”
From the beginning Winogrand’s work showed few ties to the documentary traditions of the New York Photo League. Ironically, he was friends with Dan Weiner3 and considered him a mentor. It was Weiner who introduced him to Walker Evans’s American Photographs,  the book that made such an impression on the young photographer. His eventual break from commercial work around 1969 allowed him to
concentrate on his art and evolve into the pivotal photographer of the Twentieth Century that he ultimately became. At that time there were few, if any, galleries devoted to selling photography. Those art galleries and museums that did deal in the medium presented the established names (Weston, Steiglitz, Adams, Strand, etc.). The means by  which “art photographers” supported themselves was through stipends from teaching assignments and grants, which together. barely provided
subsistence living.

Garry Winogrand - Los Angeles, 1980-83, Street Photography

Los Angeles, 1980-83

“I don’t have to have any storytelling responsibility to what I’m photographing. I have a responsibility to describe it well.”
Though the photographs in this exhibition should be viewed in context of their time, to say they are only of a historical importance is wrong. Winogrand was not a photojournalist. This work that he is best known for is not documentary photography. He felt no responsibility to be socially conscious. He was not interested in telling stories (although much of the time his pictures did tell stories for many viewers). He was not trying to make the world a better place through his photography.

In her San Francisco Chronicle review, Caille Millner states that Winogrand “was famous for never asking people permission before taking their photographs” and suggests that a generation of male photographers idolized him for his bravado. What Ms. Millner missed is that engaging people before taking their photo results in portraits, not candid street photography (a term which Winogrand disliked). When you ask someone to take a photo of them, they will most assuredly pose for you. Those people who accuse Winogrand of being brash or pushy mistake his intentness of purpose. Exploring photographic problems was a purely selfish pursuit and all consuming for him.

Garry Winogrand - Los Angeles International Airport - Late 1970's, Street Photography

Los Angeles International Airport – Late 1970’s

“We know too much about how pictures look and should look. How do you get around making those pictures again and again?”
In the exhibit the pictures change after he received his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1964. The lyrical approach to image making that he inherited from Walker Evans and Robert Frank gives way to complex, sometimes chaotic frames. This was one of the photographic problems he was exploring: how much information can a photograph contain before the content overwhelms the form? The 50mm “normal” lens was abandoned in favor of something wider; first 35mm then later, 28mm.  This change of
technique is striking in the presentation of the photographs.

Garry Winogrand - Los Angeles, 1980-83, Street Photography

Los Angeles, 1980-83

“Frame in terms of what you want to have in the picture, not about making a nice picture, that anybody can do.”
Garry Winogrand was first to use many of the devices that modern street photographers take for granted today. By using a wide-angle lens, not only could he include more information in a frame, he also became part of the life of the street instead of being an observer from afar. True to the genre, today street photographers rarely use long focal lengths or even carry telephoto lenses. Before Winogrand, horizon lines in photographs were parallel to the edge of the frame. The tilted frame that is so commonplace nowadays was one of his “experiments” as he explored the possibilities of what photographs were and could be. The seemingly simple, snapshot look of his photos brings attention to his subjects and has rarely been done as eloquently. His commonplace subject matter was previously thought too mundane to be worthy of photographing; yet it is Winogrand’s process of selection that brings focus to the nature of our society itself. In order to not suggest specific meaning to his photographs, he titled them using only place and year. Like Cartier-Bresson, compositions were made in the viewfinder and negatives were never cropped when printed.

When still photography was introduced it was hailed as a medium that could capture a moment with irrevocable truth to be preserved for eternity. Winogrand knew that the tie between a two-dimensional photograph and what it depicted was questionable at best. The simple act of framing a selection of a scene could create new relationships between the elements of a photograph that did not exist in reality.

Garry Winogrand - La Grange, Texas, 1977, Street Photography

La Grange, Texas, 1977

“When  I’m photographing I see life.”
The early photographs are easy to relate to and bear a closer resemblance to existing documentary traditions in terms of subject and framing. While distinct from that of his contemporaries, they suggest
the direction in which he was heading. The early photographs present scenes and subjects without washing them in sentimentality or opinion, or over embellishing them with style or form.  By the time Stock Photographs was published in 1980, images might consist of a diagonal slash of content across the frame, or a somewhat blurred subject harshly lit by flash. Yet to say that certain stylistic approaches were indicative of a period would be untrue. The later work is certainly more somber…often more radical in composition. Early subject-dominated photographs tended to be carefree and detached. Later on they became introspective, as if promises had gone unfulfilled. Subjects seem to be involved with their own inner thoughts and problems. Was it Winogrand who changed, or was it the world? If he had a premonition about his illness, it would be difficult to pinpoint when it began to influence his photography.

Garry Winogrand - Rodeo, Fort Worth, Texas, 1977, Street Photography

Rodeo, Fort Worth, Texas, 1977

“There is nothing so mysterious as a fact clearly described.”
Garry Winogrand has often been derided for not editing the work he was producing as the 1970’s got underway, leaving thousands upon thousands of images that he never even looked at. Even some of his strongest supporters, like John Szarkowski, felt that his talent had declined. Winogrand would rather be on the street taking photographs than looking at those he had already made. Photography in itself is a process of selection. In the later years shooting may have been as much as he was willing to commit to, leaving the final selection to others and for posterity to judge in the end. With a retrospective this large and many of the images never actually selected by Winogrand himself, we can only guess as to whether or not it represents a valid statement of his work. Credit is due to the curators for even attempting such a monumental task. To be sure, there are some less than strong images in the later period. Weeding out a third of the pictures would result in a stronger collection of images, but it would not tell us as much about the evolution of the photographer. A smaller exhibition would not include the wrong turns and experimentation that all artists deal with.

Looking back at videos of him working the street we can only marvel at how he made photography look so simple, yet created a body of work that is so complex and groundbreaking for its time that it created a whole new way of making and looking at photographs. His most lasting legacy must certainly be the vast archive of photography he left showing the sixties and seventies in America with honesty and an intensely personal vision that is unique. We will never know whether he was fooling us all when he said he took pictures to see what things looked like to a camera. If Winogrand were still alive, he would probably tell us, “look at the pictures, what do you see?”

We hope that SFMOMA will mount a Lee Friedlander retrospective in the coming decade, thus completing the trilogy of the 1967 New Documents exhibit that launched the careers of Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand. On June 2 the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will close for two years for renovation. The Garry Winogrand exhibit will travel to Washington DC, New York, Paris and Madrid. The catalog is available as hard cover or paperback from the museum’s online store at http://www.sfmoma.org.
Note on the bold-faced quotes.
These quotes from Garry Winogrand are mostly transcribed from a two-part interview conducted by Bill Moyers in 1982 (see “Garry Winogrand” post in Archive for links), although they have appeared in other writings of and about the photographer. The Winogrand doctrine was revolutionary for its time: ” …there isn’t a photograph in the world that has any narrative ability. Any of ’em. They do not tell stories – they show you what something looks like. To a camera.” “All a photograph ever does is describe light on surface, that’s all there is.” To this day, people still get contentious when you tell them that photographs don’t tell stories — that a narrative involves the passage of time, not a frozen slice of it. While Winogrand is generally acknowledged as the author of this radical philosophy, I have recently revised my thinking. John Szarkowski’s book, The Photographer’s Eye, was based on his 1964 Museum of Modern Art exhibit of the same name, and first published as a book in 1966. The volume is divided into five sections with an explanation of each at the front of the book: The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time and Vantage Point. Bits of text in the book bear a striking semblance to the Winogrand doctrine; ” …photography has never been successful at narrative. It has in fact seldom attempted it.”  “…the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax but a visual one. The result is not a story, but a picture.” This is the same language used by Winogrand. It appears that this way of thinking about photographs was something that evolved as part of the interaction between Winogrand, Szarkowski, Joel Meyerowitz, Tod Papageorge and others in that circle during the mid-sixties. Joel Meyerowitz4; says,” I can tell you that neither of us (Winogrand and he) had anything intelligent to say about photographs back then, a grunt of surprise or saying ‘that’ s interesting’, or ‘that’ s tough’…until John showed us what might be part of the dialogue we were all lost.”  He adds, ” Szarkowski was the mentor to us all, and I firmly believe that his wisdom, through his exhibitions, writings, and private talks with each of us shaped the thinking of my and Garry’s generation.”

1) The majority of photographs in this exhibition were printed by Winogrand or under his supervision by Thomas Consilvio or Paul McDonough. The rest were made after his death and unless otherwise noted, were printed in 2012-2013 in Tuscon, Arizona by Teresa Engle Schirmer. All are gelatin silver prints.

In his last years, Winogrand put off developing his film and editing his contact sheets in favor of shooting. At his death he left behind approximately 2,500 rolls of exposed but undeveloped film and 4,100 more that he had processed but not reviewed, representing most of his production during the last six years of his life. Winogrand had allowed others to edit his work and print his photographs, however, and in preparing for its posthumous 1988 exhibition Garry Winogrand, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, develped. proofed and edited the work he left behind. That show included a small group of prints made by Consilvio from late images selected by John Szarkowski, director of MoMA’s department of photography, and by Winogrand’s friends and fellow photographers Tod Papageorge and Thomas Roma.

Many earlier Winogrand photographs also remained unprinted at his death. For the present exhibition, therefore, guest curator Leo Rubenfien undertook a two-year review of the bulk of 22,000-odd contact sheets in Winogrand’s archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona, Tuscon. Over ninety posthumous prints made from Rubinfien’s selections and drawn from the full span of Winogrand’s career are on view here. The labels for these prints indicate whether Winogrand marked a given frame on its contact sheet, suggesting that he found it to be of interest.

2) On May 4, 1970, four Kent State University students were killed and nine injured when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire during a demonstration protesting the Vietnam War. John Filo’s iconic photograph of the tragedy won a Pulitzer Prize. (Wikipedia).

3) Dan Weiner (1919-1959) studied painting at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute, eventually accepting a job as a commercial photographer. He joined the New York Photo League and developed an affinity for the work of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. Following World War II, he pursued work as a photojournalist, refining his belief that the photographer has a moral responsibility to illuminate social ills and to comment on significant events in history. Weiner’s life was tragically ended by a plane crash while he was on assignment in 1959. (http://www.robertmann.com).

4) Personal communication.


Evans, Walker, essay by Linclon Kirstein. American Photographs. 75th  anniversary ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 2012.

Kotz, Liz. “Damaged.” 21-28: Coleman, A.D. “Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand at Century’s End.” 31-37. The Social Scene. Ed. Stephanie Emerson. Los Angeles. The Museum of Contemporary Art. 2000.

Lifson, Ben. “Garry Winogrand’s American Comedy.” Aperture 86: 32-39. 1982.

Rubinfein, Leo.  “Garry Winogrand’s Republic.” 13-61. Garry Winogrand. Ed. Leo Rubinfein. San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2013.

Szarkowski, John. The Photographer’s Eye. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966.

Winogrand, Garry, introduction by Tod Papageorge. Public Relations. 2nd ed. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. 1977.

AUDIO A conversation with docent and museum visitors

Greg Allikas, May 2013

farm scene - Eileen and Garry Winogrand, Woodman, Wisconsin, 1973

Eileen and Garry Winogrand, Woodman, Wisconsin, 1973


Observe - Street Photography Collective

“I only wanted Uncle Vernon standing by his own car (a Hudson) on a clear day, I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on the fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and 78 trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”
—Lee Friedlander

Observe is the union of a small group of photographers, all of whom find a common passion in the “generous medium” that Friedlander sums up so perfectly.

This collective represents not only a further stage in our individual development but also our combined contribution to the diverse community of photographers around the world, past and present, who inspire and educate us with their extraordinary talent, experience and commitment.

We welcome you and hope that you enjoy what you find in these pages—now and in the future.