Rare Interview With Gary Winogrand

by Steve Simon

From an interview by Barbara Diamonstein with Gary Winogrand:

BD: I've often wondered how a photographer who takes tens of thousands of photographs -- and by now it may even be hundreds of thousands of photographs -- keeps track of the material. How do you know what you have, and how do you find it?

GW: Badly. That's all I can say. There've been times it's been just impossible to find a negative or whatever. But I'm basically just a one man operation, and so things get messed up. I don't have a filing system that's worth very much.

BD: But don't you think that's important to your work?

GW: I'm sure it is, but I can't do anything about it. It's hopeless. I've given up. You just go through a certain kind of drudgery every time you have to look for something. I've got certain things grouped by now, but there's a drudgery in finding them. There's always stuff missing.

What If...

His color work is not as well known. The cover from his book, 1964; published long after his death.

I have always been a fan of the late, great Mr. Winogrand, and after seeing this 1982 Bill Moyers Video Clip, I thought about his work, and wondered what digital photography and a program like Aperture would have done for his work process. Imagine an organized and keyworded archive? Not that his process wasn't working for him in most other ways however.

In fact, he likely wouldn't have wanted to spend time in front of the computer. Colleagues, students and friends talked about him as an obsessive picture-taking machine. And the thrice married (with two children) Winogrand confirms:

"I don't lay myself down on the couch to figure out why I'm a photographer and not this or that. Whatever it is, I can't seem to do enough of it. It's a pleasure. What I found out, over photographing a long time - the more I do, the more I do. " said Winogrand.

Shoot, Shoot, Shoot

If you want to become a better photographer: shoot, shoot, shoot. There is no substitute.

Gary Winogrand was all about the shooting. When he died of cancer at the age of just 56, he left behind 2500 undeveloped rolls of 36-exposure 35mm film (mostly Tri-X), 6,500 rolls of developed, but not contact-printed film and another 300 apparently untouched, unedited contact sheets. That's a staggering number of images shot.

You can only imagine how a power shooter like Winogrand could have embraced the digital tools of today, and Aperture's processing and archiving possibilities. But Winogrand almost never developed his film immediately. He was in no rush to edit his film, and he makes a strong case for it. He said he deliberately waited a year or two in order to lose the memory of the take.

"If I was in a good mood when I was shooting one day, then developed the film right away," he told a class, "I might choose a picture because I remember how good I felt when I took it." "Better to let the film 'age,' the better to grade slides or contact sheets objectively". (From a Frank Van Riper Piece, see below)

Gary Winogrand's Leica M4, definitely "used".

More pearls from the Van Riper piece...

"Again we come to technique. Photographer and editor Mason Resnick recalls taking a workshop with Winogrand in 1976, ten years before the photographer died, and marveling at how Winogrand worked. He shot prolifically, Resnick recalled, often shooting an entire roll of film in the space of only one block, never breaking stride. And he was fearless, often standing in front of people to make their picture, yet always smiling or nodding at them, making contact, however brief, with his subjects - who amazingly, never seemed annoyed.

[An object lesson to all street shooters: engagement with a subject is always - always - better than, in effect, taking something without permission. Winogrand was a master at gaining this subtle, yet all-important, access.]

I'll leave my contemplation of what a photographer like Winogrand who never lived to see the paradigm shift to digital would have done with it, with this last powerful idea to think about when you're on your next shoot.

"I learned a long time ago to trust my instincts. You see? When I'm photographing, I wanna -- if I'm at the viewfinder and I know that picture, why take it? I'll do something to change it, which is often the reason why I may tilt the camera or fool around in various ways."


"You don't learn anything from repeating what you know, in affect, so I keep trying to make (the process) uncertain. The nature of the photographic process - it is about failure. Most everything I do doesn't quite make it. The failures can be intelligent; nothing ventured nothing gained. Hopefully you're risking failing every time you make a frame."

Aside from this video, much of the information on Winogrand posted here is from a great article by Frank Van Riper.

The video and the transcript from the piece can be seen @ 2point8, Michael David Murray's blog on Street Photography.

Click here, for a more comprehensive look at the life and work of Gary Winogrand.


2007-03-29 11:51:23
Gary Winograd's available-light work and street photography (along with the Zoo pictures) were just showing up in Popular Photography around the time I became interested as a teen-ager (in the mid-50s). There's no coincidence that my first real camera (a Practica FX look-down-through the hood SLR with manual everything) was loaded up with Tri-X that I boosted like mad.

I got to visit the Winograd reprospective at MoMA shortly after discovery of all those rolls of film that were not even developed.

Thanks for this post. It is wonderful to be reminded of this inspiration.

Bill Griffin
2007-03-31 17:04:57
A tremendous story for all of us to learn from. I feel compelled to use today's technology and just " shoot, shoot, shoot" as Gary advocated. I admit that I have become obsessed with the " how did it turn out " nature available with digital. How many of us have B&W processed negs that we've never contact printed. I hope to get them in Aperture this year along with a committment to shoot obsessively like Gary did. Maybe my child will find those little gems and bring them to print. In the mean time , can you spare a buck or two ? I wanna Leica M8 real bad.
Steve Simon
2007-03-31 18:16:57
I was just reading how the great Josef Koudelka, now 70, is shooting, shooting, shooting, because he can. Later, when he can't shoot like he used to, he will get down to organizing and printing all the work. That makes sense to me. Plenty of time to play with Aperture when we're old...
Jonathan Pease
2007-04-01 09:24:01
Thank you so much for this post.