Garry Winogrand and the theory of transformation

by John Neel

Couple - © John Neel

Couple – © John Neel


I love the works of Garry Winogrand. He is one of my many photographic idols. He has had a great influence on many image-makers including myself.

To understand Garry’s work is to understand Garry. His work is as complex as the world he shot. He was a brilliant image-maker who was in sync with his time. Garry worked within the extreme landscapes of human activity. His work, whether intended or not connected the dots that are about life and living.

His idea of transforming his subjects with a frame is an important lesson in how all-great photography works. It is also a lesson in how we as viewers need to look at photographic work.

The physical object is transformed by the framing. It is also transformed by everything that shares the frame. It has a lot to do with a relationship between the thing and the other things shown or implied by the particular framing. The totality of what is included creates a new relationship, which alters the way we think of those objects/subjects.

It creates a meaning that is different from what the object might actually be and different from what we might first realize. It takes on a new meaning, which alters the entire scene and transforms the entire implication of the framed subjects.

That difference is metaphorical. It triggers something else within the viewer. That something else is what photography is really about. It is a part of the reading.

I believe that is what Winogrand means by it being a transformation – by his statement about photographing the world to see what the world looks like photographed.

In spite of his claim sounding unforeseeable or haphazard, he is using his instinct, as well as his ingrained knowledge of his camera and lens as a way to control what he points his camera at.

The view that the camera sees is ingrained in his mind as he looks at his subject. He uses his camera to shoot from the hip, his shoulder, or his chest. But that is exactly what he sees in his mind. He is framing a set of objects within the known framework of his camera – a Leica rangefinder and a wide field lens. He knows what will be included by the focal length of his lens and through countless frames shot at different positions, held at different distances and focused at different points along his lens barrel.


Dress in Window - © John Neel

Dress in Window – © John Neel

After awhile, you don’t need to look through the viewfinder. You become the camera. I believe Winogrand was able to see what was framed without looking through his viewfinder. His camera was a Leica and his lenses were wide field primes. Those lenses create a view that is easy to sense once you shoot enough frames. You become familiar with the perspective and what will be caught in the cone of the lens.

Winogrand means that the image becomes something different as a result of its framing. I think he framed beautifully. I do not believe his work was haphazard. He knew where he was and anticipated the subject. He shot what he knew the camera would see. He counted on transformation and forced it through his timing and his quick adjustments of perspective and relationship with the things he wanted to include.

Don’t take his words to mean what you want them to mean. He was in control of what he saw in his viewfinder and his eye. He responded to something that was reaching the peak of its performance. He was aware of the instant that he found interesting.

Garry Winogrand was not a simple mind. He was not careless; He was a master at realizing a place and its potential. He was a photographer that knew his territory and what it had to offer. He responded to something that was reaching the peak of its performance. He was aware of an instant that he found interesting.

I believe his intention was to capture life as it happened and to reveal those moments in time that seem to have a heightened presence. It is the framing of a moment that has reached a peak of activity that explodes with humanity.

For myself, it is a wonderful way to photograph and an amazing way to see.



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