Lessons From Photographer Garry Winogrand on Creative Flow

Jason Forrest
Feb 6 · 7 min read
Garry Winogrand, “Los Angeles” 1969 © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

It’s 1970 and Photography has been turned on its head by a new generation of whip-smart artists shooting the grimy streets of New York City. Three photographers, Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand stand out in a movement that impulsively shoots small-format cameras from the hip. Each photographer captures black and white images ripped from the world and casually captured in the frame in their own unique way.

Garry Winogrand is a hard-boiled son of the Bronx, his working-class father was a leather worker and his mother made neckties. Winogrand had a unique eye — but more than that — a unique perspective. His images capture raw emotion in a 1/1000th of a second.

Garry Winogrand

Compulsively shooting all day, every day, Winogrand’s hungry eye pushes the photographic composition beyond what was thought possible. His need to constantly be immersed in the photographic moment — the creative flow if you will — outpaced his ability to even develop the film. When he died in 1984, he left 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film behind. A few years later all those rolls of film were eventually processed by the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and 56 posthumous prints were controversially presented at the Metropolitan Museum in 2014.

from The Animals @ the Estate of Garry Winogrand

I was introduced to Winogrand’s work in art school. My professor, Phil Moody, projected slides from his first book “The Animals” on a piece of board inside the class darkroom with the lights off. Winogrand’s black and white images looked like snapshots but clearly were not. The casual framing brought the world inside the frame instead of cropping it away. The gritty black and white images brimming with humor, the Animals clearly more human than the passive zombies posing for their entertainment. I was hooked.

Creative Flow: Winogrand on artistic problem solving

It’s 1970 and Winogrand visits the Rochester Institute of Technology where he is interviewed by the teachers and students. Transcribed in 2012, a small statement at the beginning of the interview describes “The format was identical on both occasions: Winogrand, without comment, showed slides of his latest work and then answered questions from the student audience. All in all, he talked for over five hours.” Here’s how it starts:

RIT: …Now, it might be due to my own ignorance or something, but could you give me like a straight answer as to what you’re trying to say in that photograph?

GW: I have nothing to say.

RIT: Nothing to say? Then why do you print it?

GW: I don’t have anything to say in any picture.

RIT: Why do you print it if it has no meaning?

GW: With that particular picture — ah, I’m interested in the space and I maybe can learn something about photography. That’s what I get from photographs; if I’m lucky, I can learn something.

RIT: Then you’re trying to reveal something about space?

GW: I’m not revealing anything.

RIT: Then what do you think is the purpose of the photograph if you’re not revealing anything.

GW: My education.

RIT: Then what’s the purpose of that? That’s what I’m trying to find out.

GW: That’s the answer. That’s really the answer…

So begins what I find to be a most remarkable conversation. Winogrand strikes a unique stand that is extremely hard to pin down and doesn’t waver. Photography — as a concept — is both a physical process (he’s quoted elsewhere as “photography is what things look like when light falls on them”) and creative discipline. For Winogrand, the mindset of seeing through the camera is somehow caught between the two. Defining what is photography becomes a near-objective argument, while the urge to see through the artistic eye of Photography becomes an inner journey to selfishly become absorbed in the world. I guess that’s not an easy concept to get across.

GW: My only interest in photographing is photography. That’s really the answer.

RIT: In other words it isn’t social comment, it isn’t ah —

GW: When you photograph — there’s [sic] things in a photograph. Right?

RIT: Yeah.

GW: So this can’t help but be a document or whatever you want to call it. It’s automatic. I mean if you photograph a cake of soap, in the package or out of it, it goes without saying —

RIT: But that’s not what you’re concerned about. I mean, your concern is photography.

GW: That’s it. And I have to photograph where I am.

The students and teachers are all struggling to keep up and this is what gets me about this interview. Both sides are essentially talking past each other, yet they are really, really trying hard to make the connection. Winogrand puts in the time. The interview is long. The students are desperate to make sense, but they are too attached to discrete concepts.

GW: Listen, it’s interesting; but it’s interesting for photographic reasons, really.

RIT: What are photographic reasons?

GW: Basically, I mean, ah — well, let’s say that for me anyway when a photograph is interesting, it’s interesting because of the kind of photographic problem it states — which has to do with the . . . contest between content and form. And, you know, in terms of content, you can make a problem for yourself, I mean, make the contest difficult, let’s say, with certain subject matter that is inherently dramatic. An injury could be, a dwarf can be, a monkey — if you run into a monkey in some idiot context, automatically you’ve got a very real problem taking place in the photograph. I mean, how do you beat it?

I believe Winogrand to be describing basic visual interest as a combination of graphic composition and semiotic content, but the fact that he positions this as a ‘contest’ is extremely interesting. The creative act of photography becomes a test of navigating between the two sides of design and meaning. The engagement in that mental space becomes captivating. It’s what some call “flow” other’s “focus”, but it’s a distinctly different mode of thinking than what we normally do in our day-to-day.

This 1982 video showing Winogrand shooting on the street really proves my point:

Video should begin at 4.50 © Michael Engler Filmproduktion

He says: “The way I put it is that I get totally outside of myself. It’s the closest I come to not existing.” This is probably the best example of creative flow that I can think of. For Winogrand, getting outside of himself is to be lost in the act of looking.

In the transcribed interview, Winogrand always returns to the act of photography as a ‘problem’. I have always considered the creative process to be essentially problem oriented. Each creative act not only has certain constraints in medium, dimension, expense, time, etc, but also constraints in terms of what kinds of ideas you are trying to convey. As we create we constantly make micro-choices about each aspect of what we’re working on. It could be what color pen or a type of plastic, or do you use #E7E7E7 or #F0F0F0? Each tiny choice, a sort of hunch to see what might happen. These micro-choices form a chain of events that will eventually lead to the creation of something that provides an “answer” to the creative problem.

Untitled, from “Women are Beautiful”, 1981

GW: I never shoot without using the viewfinder — Oh, yes, there’ll be a few times, — I may have to hold the camera up over my head because for just physical reasons, but very rarely does that ever work.

RIT: Are you conscious of that?

GW: Of what?

RIT: Of sort of an off-kilter thing happening?

GW: Oh, yeah, sure. I pretty much know what I’m doing.

RIT: Is that an attempt to solve a photographic problem?

GW: Generally it’s to make one. Another reason can be just because physically I might have trouble to get what I want to include in [the frame] in, you know, just physically. And that’s a good reason.

RIT: I’m wondering what, like, your concern with this is. Why photography?

GW: I told you before. It’s, ah — the thing itself is fascinating. The game, let’s say, of trying to state photographic problems is, for me, absolutely fascinating.

Gary Winogrand, “Peace Demonstration, Central Park, New York City 1970” 1984

The catch with getting into the flow is that once you’re there it’s addictive. Winogrand’s addiction to creative flow is “as close as I can get to not existing”, but a more popular way of expressing flow is to “get lost” in the creative problem-solving. Weighing these micro-decisions absorbs you in a way that is so gratifying that you’ll likely want to exist more in this space over time.

Flow is kind of hard to describe if you’ve never felt it, but as an artist for more than twenty years, I can attest that making time for my creative flow is essential to my well being and happiness. Stumbling across Winogrand’s unusual take on flow really helped me understand his compulsion with image making, and helped me reflect on my own passions.

I’d highly suggest that you check out the original interview. It’s long, but the story is there to see.


The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

Jason Forrest

Written by

Electronic Musician, UX Designer and Contemporary Art enthusiast. https://twitter.com/Jasonforrestftw Contact:https://www.jasonforrestftw.com/


The Journal of the Data Visualization Society

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