Lessons from Winogrand

Several years before the first digital camera was invented, Garry Winogrand was the world’s first ‘digital photographer’. He shot almost one and a half million photographs in his lifetime. In his own words, he described a good night as “thirty-five rolls.”

Winogrand’s canvas was huge, it was life itself. His body of work, his way of seeing. Most photographers can be studied by looking at their important work, but to appreciate Winogrand, you need to see it all. The scale. The madness. The impatient eye. The relentless pursuit. The spectacle of the excess.

Unlike a lot of digital photographers who spray and pray, Winogrand made photographs for the sheer joy of making photographs. He would famously not look at his contact sheets for a year after he had shot them, to not be swayed by the emotions he felt while shooting. When he died at 56, he left behind 2500 undeveloped film, 6500 developed rolls that weren’t made into contact sheets and 3000 contact sheets—a colossal total of 4,32,000 images that he had ‘seen’, but not bothered to see. According to visionary critic John Szarkowski, Winogrand was less interested in photography, and more in living, and capturing life.

We tend to complicate our lives by stressing about awards and rewards, agendas and platforms, grants and festivals, styles and bodies of work. Maybe, one should photograph, primarily for the joy of photographing. To see, and to let it set us free.

First published in Better Photography magazine.

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