Taking Pictures of Strangers, Part II: Garry Winogrand

Ransom Riggs

Last week, I confessed my weird love of wasting film on people I don't even know (with sometimes good, usually huh? results) and shared some of my work in Part I of what I hope is an ongoing series about street photography. Lots of readers had nice things to say, some raised doubts about the ethics of photographing strangers without their permission (especially in today's techno-paranoid world) and several people asked me about technique (how do you get over the initial fear of doing it?). We'll talk about all this and more in this installment, when we look at the work of Garry Winogrand.

Winogrand isn't the first, the most famous or even the best street photographer there ever was, but there's something unique about his work that's always made him one of my favorites. From the 50s to the early 80s he prowled the streets of New York, Los Angeles with his trusty Leica, taking photographs because he "wanted to see how the world looked in photographs." His style was aggressively informal: he focused and framed his pictures in a fraction of a second; often tilted his camera (resulting in canted horizons, a photography-101 no-no) and never had a preconceived notion of what he was going to find when he went out photographing.

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Photographer Mason Resnick did a workshop with Winogrand in 1976, and got a first-hand look at the master's street technique. Here's an excerpt:

We quickly learned Winogrand's technique--he walked slowly or stood in the middle of pedestrian traffic as people went by. He shot prolifically. I watched him walk a short block and shoot an entire roll without breaking stride. As he reloaded, I asked him if he felt bad about missing pictures when he reloaded. "No," he replied, "there are no pictures when I reload." He was constantly looking around, and often would see a situation on the other side of a busy intersection. Ignoring traffic, he would run across the street to get the picture.

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Incredibly, people didn't react when he photographed them. It surprised me because Winogrand made no effort to hide the fact that he was standing in way, taking their pictures. Very few really noticed; no one seemed annoyed. Winogrand was caught up with the energy of his subjects, and was constantly smiling or nodding at people as he shot. It was as if his camera was secondary and his main purpose was to communicate and make quick but personal contact with people as they walked by. At the same time, as he passed from shadow into sunlight into shadow again, he was constantly adjusting his meterless camera. It was second nature to him. In fact, his first comment right out the door was, "nice light--1/250 second at f/8."

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As far as the ethics of street photography were concerned, he clearly didn't consider it an ethical issue. Whether or not he was right in that is a matter for discussion, I guess, but certainly the law was on his side: he was making photographs in an obvious manner in public spaces, never trying to hide what he was doing, and I think we can safely say in retrospect that he what he was doing was important, inasmuch as we value documentary art.

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Above: Kennedy at the 1960 Democratic National Convention.

Below: Maine, 1980.

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Untitled, 1950s:

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The image, taken in a newly-built New Mexico suburb in the 1960s, is the cover of his book

Figments from the Real World


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New York City, 1968:

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Finally, a fascinating excerpt from an old Bill Moyers piece about Winogrand -- a rare treat in which we get to watch him in action on the streets, and hear him talk a bit about his own personal theory of photography (he's totally inscrutable):