Winogrand leaves one-third of a million unedited frames behind
If ever a photographer lived up to George Bernard Shaw’s description that he was like a codfish that lays a hundred thousand eggs in the hope that one will come to fruition, it was Garry Winogrand. He was one of the most prolific shooters I ever met, and if he hadn’t burned up several 36-exposure rolls of film before lunch, it was hardly a working day for him.
More parsimonious photographers may have considered him a reckless spendthrift. André Kertész, for example, prided himself on his ability to make every frame count. But that wasn’t Winogrand’s way: he surveyed the world with Rabelaisian gusto, seeing pictures everywhere, in everything. Often working with a wide-angle lens, he would cram the frame with seemingly random juxtapositions of elements, yet was able time and time again to impose precise form upon the chaotic flux of existence. But for every frame that satisfied him he exposed many, many that didn’t.
It got a bit out of hand. He used to joke about how his shooting outstripped his ability to cope with the follow-through. “You wouldn’t believe how far behind I am,” he told me once. “I’ve got bags of
film I haven’t even developed yet.” I had no reason to think he was exaggerating, but the full truth, when revealed, was even more astonishing than he had indicated.
After his death from cancer in 1984, Winogrand left not only the extensive, important body of work with which the world is acquainted, but also some 7,000 rolls of developed (but unproofed and unedited) black-and-white 35-mm film plus about 2,700 exposed but undeveloped rolls stashed away in plastic garbage bags. Assuming most of this hoard consisted of full 36-exposure loads, we get a total figure of about one-third of a million frames which the photographer had never seen even on a contact sheet! Surely it’s a case for the Guinness Book of Records.
What should and could be done with this huge lode of unmined images? Winogrand’s widow, Eileen, and some of his friends proceeded on the assumption that the best thing would be to preserve it and make it known to the public. In particular it was important to process the undeveloped film, some of which already was more than two years old.
John Szarkowski, Director of Photography at New York’s Museum of Modern
Art, a personal friend of Winogrand and an enthusiastic supporter of his work, obtained a SI4,000 grant from Springs Industries to commission Winogrand’s printer to complete the developing and processing, which has now been accomplished. Also, as just recently announced, Szarkowski has scheduled a major exhibition of Winogrand’s last work to open at MOMA in 1987 along with a book, the text for which Szarkowski hopes to complete this year.
Rumors regarding the quantity of Winogrand’s unedited work have been circulating for some time, and now have been dramatically substantiated. The situation raises esthetic and ethical issues. By what right is anybody entitled to make creative choices for Winogrand, and is it fair to the memory of his work to posthumously edit these pictures and present them to the public?
Charles Reynolds, an experienced picture editor and long-time friend of Winogrand’s, believes it would be an unwarranted imposition. “The first decisive moment is when you push the button,” Reynolds says. “The second decisive moment is when you select a frame from the contact sheet for printing. I think to take that choice away from Winogrand would emasculate his shooting.
“In my opinion more than 50 percent of Winogrand’s art derives from this second decision, from selecting the frame on the contact sheet . . . I don’t say you should destroy the film. Perhaps you keep the negatives and contacts on file for graduate students to research . . . But I would never, never publish one. I think Garry’s ghost would come back to haunt you.” Szarkowski obviously doesn’t see it that way. In a recent interview he said to me, “You ask is it fair to choose for him? Sure, if you make it clear that it is your choice. The question is one of honesty in labeling, it seems to me.”
There was no mandate from Garry Winogrand as to how to proceed, according to Szarkowski. “I think we all— Eileen, some of Garry’s friends, and myself—simply assumed it was essential to preserve and present the work.”
When I talked with him, Szarkowski had seen only a few of the newly proofed images. “I don’t know the thrust of that late work,” he said. “I don’t assume that a person’s work necessarily gets better every day. I don’t know what is in that enormous collection. The content, the value, and the meaning of it isn’t going to be decided by me in the next year.
“What the work means and the quality of it is something that will be established by a consensus that is going to take a long time and a lot of people,” Szarkowski continued. “But I see no problem as long as there’s no confusion between the pictures that we know Garry thought were his best work and those that other people think add something to his oeuvre.”
Some of Szarkowski’s peers in the museum field don’t agree with him. When Weston Naeff, curator of photography for the Getty Museum, heard about the grant to develop and proof the Winogrand material he commented, “Well, I suppose that’s nice, but if it had been me I wouldn’t have developed that film . . . Because we wouldn’t know which ones he liked and which ones he didn’t.”
Szarkowski agreed. “We don’t know with any degree of certainty, although I suspect that some of us could make a pretty good guess about the ones he might like.” Szarkowski then asked Naeff what he would have done with the film. Naeff thought hard for a moment and then answered, “I think I’d have had it frozen.”
Lee Friedlander, another Winogrand friend, would not recommend casting the negatives into any such cryogenic limbo. “The work is there, and it would be a pity for it not to be seen,” he said.
“Of course nobody knows what Garry would have selected, but I think somebody like John Szarkowski would be well qualified to make a choice. But it’s important to label such images as not the photographer’s choice.”
I join the party of show and tell. However, I foresee a problem in maintaining that honesty in labeling. Once printed, exhibited, and published, a photograph has a way of taking on a life of its own. No matter how scrupulous the efforts in the beginning to identify non-Winogrand choices, this distinction may become blurred and practically eliminated over a period of time as the photographs pass through many hands. Thus, despite the best of intentions, some distortion of the legacy of Winogrand’s work may occur. Unfortunate, but in my opinion this is a small price to pay for an opportunity to see what this important talent was doing in those last two years of his life. O