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What photographers can learn from Garry Winogrand

El Morocco, New York

El Morocco, New York, 1955 (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Garry Winogrand was out on the streets of New York snapping incredible pictures, day after day. Few can match his dedication – but all photographers can learn something from him, writes Stephen Dowling.

Few photographers have lived and breathed their art with the singular devotion of Garry Winogrand. In a career spanning four decades, the Brooklyn native stalked the New York pavement with a Leica camera and a wide-angle lens, capturing New Yorkers at intimate quarters. His pictures capture fragments of ordinary life in an America poised between confidence and crisis: laughter in the sun of a summer street, the tang of menace from a bandaged figure in a convertible, moments of unexpected surrealism on an afternoon in the city zoo.

Winogrand would spend hours on the street every day, shooting a dozen rolls of black and white film – 400 or 500 images, day after day. Thirty years after his death, only now are we seeing anything approaching an overarching view of his material. This week sees the launch of a new exhibition at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the first major retrospectives of his life’s work.

Trying to emulate Winogrand's punishing work ethic would be madness. But within his rich archive there is a wealth of wisdom for photographers to learn from.

Shoot, and shoot again
Winogrand's formidable archive didn't come from luck but from sheer hard graft. When he died in 1984, aged 56, he left behind an archive that almost defies comprehension: 2,500 rolls of undeveloped film, 6,500 developed but unedited rolls, and another 3,000 contact sheets (the negative-sized miniature images photographers printed to check their shots). This haul of 430,000 images was just the material Winogrand was preparing to edit; his archive is thought to contain more than five million images.

To approach photography with such diligence might be a form of madness. But a little of Winogrand's dedication would be a good thing. His talent and expert eye were nurtured by constant shooting. Photography is a technical exercise as much as an art form, learning to use light to your best advantage. That comes a lot easier if you're shooting regularly. It doesn't have to be hundreds of images a day, but it does have to be something that you hone constantly and consistently.

John F Kennedy International Airport, New York, 1968

John F Kennedy International Airport, New York, 1968 (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Be patient
Winogrand was a fantastically versatile photographer, but a lot of his most noteworthy work was taken on the streets – in New York especially. Great street photographers – the ones who get to know the areas where great pictures are more likely to present themselves – patrol these places like predators around a watering hole. Compare that to the way most of us shoot on holiday: a split-second snap as we walk from one place to another. Most of our pictures, as a result, are unconsidered moments, a snapshot of a city street or sight that we've probably forgotten we've taken five minutes later. The few minutes it takes to walk around something, wait for other elements to emerge, or the light to change, can turn something drab into a much more dynamic and interesting photograph. 

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1957 (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Get close
There are street photographers who approach their art with the eye of  a distant observer, shooting from a distance to capture candid moments. (The pioneering work of Magnum founder Henri Cartier-Bresson springs to mind). Winogrand was not one of them. His work has an urgency and energy that comes from being close – really close. The wide-angle lenses that he shot with add an artificial distance that belies his proximity to his subjects. Winogrand's postcards of post-war America were shot at close range, sometimes even at arm's length.

You would think this would be a great recipe for a bust lip. “Incredibly, people didn’t react when he photographed them," said photographer Mason Resnick in 1988, after watching Winogrand at work on New York's streets. "It surprised me because Winogrand made no effort to hide the fact that he was standing in [their] way, taking their pictures. Very few really noticed; no one seemed annoyed."

This is one of the easiest ways to instantly improve photography – just as you're about to take the picture, put the camera down and walk five paces closer to your subject. You'll be surprised just how many shots are instantly improved. 

New York, circa 1962 (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

New York, circa 1962 (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Think in black and white
Winogrand certainly didn't ignore colour; his archive contains more than a million colour slides. But he's best known, as many of his contemporaries were, for his black and white work. Partly this was because colour film development wasn't as advanced; black and white was cheaper, and easy to process at home. But this also forced photographers to see their images in monochrome, stripped of distracting colour, concentrating on form and composition.

Digital photographs are easy to convert into black and white using Photoshop, but it's also possible to set your camera so that the images are shot in black in white in the camera. Try it: spend a weekend shooting with the camera set for shooting and viewing in black in white. Even better – grab a film camera and some rolls of Kodak Tri-X, the film Winogrand used every day, which is still being produced. It's a film that creates deep blacks and crisp whites, and has a depth digital can't yet quite match. Shooting black and white forces you to consider what is in the frame you’re shooting, rather than being sidetracked by colours. It's also much better for shooting on overcast days, when the light is flat and colours become muted.

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles, California, 1969 (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

Don't be afraid to photograph strangers
Winogrand's pictures create an almost unrivalled album of American street life. Some – like his famous image of an interracial couple cradling baby chimpanzees in the zoo – were surreal, once-in-a-lifetime moments. Others – such as his picture of a laughing girl holding an ice cream in front of a store window – captured the everyday rhythm of American city streets. He never posed people; these are moments played out in public that Winogrand chanced upon. 

Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967

Central Park Zoo, New York, 1967 (courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

He had the technical skills to get in and out quickly, but Winogrand was also upfront about what he was doing. He was not furtive, taking a pic when pretending to do something else. He would follow it up with a smile.

"I like to think of photographing as a two-way act of respect," Winogrand once said. “Respect for the medium by letting it do what it does best, describe. And respect for the subject by describing it as it is. A photograph must be responsible to both. I photograph to see what things look like photographed."

Get close, and be confident. And if you're shooting people up close, make eye contact, and smile. Don't be furtive. Capture life up close and personal, and be open and honest about it.

Stephen Dowling is associate editor of BBC Future and has been a photographer for 15 years; he also blogs about film photography.

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