Join 3,555 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


"The nature of the photographic process - it is about failure."
January 6, 2013 11:31 AM   Subscribe

"The fact that photographs — they’re mute, they don’t have any narrative ability at all. You know what something looks like, but you don’t know what’s happening, you don’t know whether the hat’s being held or is it being put on her head or taken off her head. From the photograph, you don’t know that. A piece of time and space is well described. But not what is happening."
Legendary street photographer Garry Winogrand with Bill Moyers, 1982

While he was undoubtedly most at home shooting on the street, Winogrand also occasionally played the reluctant photography instructor with a gift for witticisms about the nature of photography. [Audio w/ transcript]
posted by Lorin (7 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
You can't hear it, but having observed your post, I'm now screaming as though Godzilla were stomping down the street.

I'm kind of excited.
posted by mr. digits at 11:59 AM on January 6, 2013


His comments about narrative are interesting. I see a lot of photography criticism that discusses whether the photo "tells a story." Yet as he says, that "all a photograph does is describe light on surface."

My background is in music and I've written pieces intended to convey certain stories or themes, like a piece based on David Mamet's dialogue rhythms or a piece based on the main character from The Old Man and the Sea laying back in his boat and dreaming about lions. It was always interesting to me how sometimes people would comprehend without prompting, other people would "lightbulb" when prompted, and still other people would tell me they totally didn't get it—and how difficult it was, sometimes, to predict one person's reaction to a piece based on anybody else's reaction to hearing that same piece.

In photography, visuals exist. Interpretation should be more straightforward and less like a Ouija board than it is with music or literary criticism. But it's not uncommon for a photographer to construct a shot to tell one story (theme, message, etc.) and then have an audience take a completely different story from it. It's happened to me. Assuming the photographer did succeed in depicting his intended story, was it a failure that he didn't also anticipate a different interpretation?

Take two different photographs, each intended to tell the same story. Both succeed, but one is crafted in a way that precludes alternate, contrasting interpretations. In almost any other context involving communication, we would say that one is more successful. Yet in art the definition gets all squishy.
posted by cribcage at 12:08 PM on January 6, 2013


I would say art in any medium is successful if someone takes away any interpretation at all beyond "huh, that was some sounds" or "look, a picture of a Ford." I'd even contend a piece which elicits many different emotions and interpretations among a group of people is more successful than a piece which everyone interprets in the same narrow way.
posted by maxwelton at 12:23 PM on January 6, 2013


Yet as he says, that "all a photograph does is describe light on surface."

Jean Dubuffet once said "the problem of painting is how to cover a surface in an interesting manner." I am not entirely sure if he was joking.

I'd even contend a piece which elicits many different emotions and interpretations among a group of people is more successful than a piece which everyone interprets in the same narrow way.

This is an idea that goes back to the old "Mirrors and Windows" paradigm. So it's not surprising that Szarkowski put Winogrand at the center of his critical interpretation of photography.
posted by charlie don't surf at 1:45 PM on January 6, 2013


Winogrand's comments on photography always struck me as a mix of tremendous insight and an utter disinclination to discuss photography intellectually. Watching him work, on the other hand, is something like watching a fish swim or some other wild animal in its natural habitat. While there are still successful street photographers in our time, there isn't the same space for his style of photography in the 21st century -- with the right to privacy on one side and totalitarian ideas of surveillance on the other -- but in his time he was the greatest.
posted by Lorin at 2:52 PM on January 6, 2013


and a new touring exhibition coming up as well, great stuff.
posted by sgt.serenity at 3:29 PM on January 6, 2013 [4 favorites]


I did not know that. Thanks for the tip.
posted by Lorin at 4:57 PM on January 6, 2013


« Older Sintermerte (Old Dan Tucker), En As Ik Achter Lig ...  |  Why You Won’t Be the Person Yo... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments