Photography is unique among the arts in that discards are both preserved and often indistinguishable from keepers. The print is the final state, but everything is stored as negatives. This also puts photography in the position where it is possible to have multiple edits of a photographer’s work which end up portraying the photographer in completely different ways.
—My post, Editing and Art
The logical next step will be to take the same approach to an individual photographer’s negatives—for example, re-making The Americans using different frames from those Robert Frank selected.
—My post, Government Documents
nick (@vossbrink) April 19, 2012
I’ve been surprised and pleased by the amount of discussion about the edit of the Winogrand retrospective. I was wholly expecting this to be a blockbuster show which people viewed as important because it’s supposed to be important, not because it’s actually good or interesting. And my chief expectation there was that the unseen photos would be presented as specimens which were good because they were by Winogrand.
I did not expect that a lot of canon photographs would be dropped and that a lot of the unseen images would be from unmarked frames* on contact sheets Winogrand had reviewed during his golden age. I also did not expect that the existing, famous collections would be broken up and not even really referenced in favor of the new edit.
*SFMOMA marked the posthumous prints very clearly. And also called out whether or not Winogrand had marked the frame on the contact sheet.
I was expecting “100+ new photos from a master plus his already-existing masterpieces.” Instead I saw a new, comprehensive edit of the complete body of Winogrand’s black and white street photography.
If you knew the old collections, you would see bits and pieces of them in the new edit. If you were hoping to see the old collections, you would definitely be disappointed with the new edit.
I on the other hand really like the new edit. It’s a single body of work now with various themes—women, couples, private moments, etc.—running through it.
I also love the implication of the new edit. But then I love the idea of re-curating any existing collection. I’ve been a Fred Wilson fanboy for over a decade now.* I really enjoyed Mark Dion’s exhibition at the Oakland Museum two and a half years ago which melded disparate aspects of the museum collections.
*I’m currently reading Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader. I got it for Christmas. I hope to finish by next Christmas. It’s brilliant so far.
And I’ve been very excited by the trend in photography over the past couple years into curation becoming acceptable as a creative act in its own accord. Last year alone brought Looking at the Land, I See Beauty in this Life, and The Last Pictures—three collections which credited the curator instead of the producer of the photos. The year before we had Vivian Maier and Charles Cushman and the discussion about whether or not they were legitimate artists because they hadn’t edited their own work.
What’s uncertain is how much of this is Winogrand and how much is Rubinfien. Are there non-people shots which haven’t been made public? If so it’s easy to see how they’d be held back, since they do not fit the rest of his ouvre. This is a chronic issue when looking at Winogrand’s photos since he did not edit or champion most of his best-known work. Instead it’s been shaped by various curators, first Steichen, then Szarkowski, Papageorge, Friedlander, Harris, Fraenkel, Stack, and now Rubinfein. I don’t think Winogrand was totally unconcerned with editing, but he was so obsessed with shooting that any other task necessarily received less attention. Thus those 6,500 rolls in the closet were deferred indefinitely.
The Winogrand show, by actually taking and reworking the work of an acknowledged master, is the “next step” I’ve been waiting for. We’re entering new territory here. Especially with art and its tendency toward specimen-based collections. Who is the artist now? Is Winogrand somehow less of an artist now? Should Rubinfien have been given more creative credit? Does this new edit replace previous works?
What are the ethics of this?
Erin O’Toole’s essay in the Winogrand catalog suggests that, because Winogrand tended to allow other people to edit his work while he was alive, and because he was a self-admitted non-editor, that this edit is okay. This is a decent point with regard to Winogrand.* He seems to have cared most about shooting and seemed perfectly happy leaving the rest to everyone else.
*Admittedly, the exact same logic could be used to put Ansel Adams photos on food packaging.
D: When you looked at those contact sheets, you noticed that something was going on. I’ve often wondered how a photographer who takes tens of thousands of photographs—and by now it may even be hundreds of thousands of photographs—keeps track of the material. How do you know what you have, and how do you find it?
W: Badly. That’s all I can say. There’ve been times it’s been just impossible to find a negative or whatever. But I’m basically just a one man operation, and so things get messed up. I don’t have a filing system that’s worth very much.
D: But don’t you think that’s important to your work?
W: I’m sure it is, but I can’t do anything about it. It’s hopeless. I’ve given up. You just go through a certain kind of drudgery every time you have to look for something. I’ve got certain things grouped by now, but there’s a drudgery in finding them. There’s always stuff missing.
But if he had a track record of wanting tight control over everything? What then? How ethical would such a show be?
We’ve all created something at some time in our lives. We all understand the sense of ownership we have over our creations and the gut-level resistance we have to someone else critiquing, commenting, or changing it. Especially if the change isn’t something which we’ve solicited (let alone agreed with).
Does something change after a person dies? Where are the lines once there’s no one to ask permission?
It’s disappointing to me that so few people rose to the defense of the artists’ intentions, and their spiritual and ethical “ownership” of their work. If someone peed all over your work, I’d come to the defense of you.
If you really admire an artist, a writer, a photographer, part of that admiration recognizes the importance of self-determination with regards to their own work. How many creative people had their legacy distorted by the posthumous publication of work they considered substandard, incomplete or not indicative of their style?
I totally understand the point of view that we need to protect and maintain some level of spiritual ownership by the original creators. I even sympathize with it. It feels correct. We should be allowed to set our legacies, right?
But I also think this point of view is crazy and ultimately limiting to everyone. Our collective creative output has to enter the public domain at some point so it can be reevaluated, remixed, and repurposed so that it can be relevant to another generation. Otherwise we end up with the the stale presentation of increasingly-irrelevant “museum pieces” which I was worried about seeing.
If art can’t be allowed to evolve as we evolve, it ends up dieing of neglect in a museum when no one can no longer explain the relevance.
None of the books Winogrand published while alive are still in print, and some like “Women are Beautiful” have prices that ensure they will only be seen by collectors. Even the best Winogrand books, published after his death, are expensive. (The best is “1964,” lowest price on Amazon is $260.)
The ironic aspect of this exhibit is that previously the Garry Winogrand rumor was the collection of 6,600 rolls of film very few had seen. After the publication of Rubinfien’s edit of this unseen work, the Garry Winogrand rumor is now the books he published during his lifetime. Rubinfien’s book, filled with many photographs Winogrand never saw himself, will be one of the best Winogrand books and certainly the most widely seen.
At the same time, we have to keep track of the different edits. Earlier edits should provide context to the subsequent ones. The last thing I want to see is the “director’s cut” phenomenon where each new edit is only intended to capture additional marketshare and pretends to be the “definitive” edit. They’re not in competition.
This is one area which I feel that the Winogrand exhibition missed a bit. It doesn’t really acknowledge the previous edits and kind of treads into “definitive” territory as a result.
I don’t want to give the impression that the question of re-editing is a photography-only thing. Remixing happens all the time in music world. I’ve already mentioned movies. And in literature, it’s often impossible to discern the relationship between author and editor.
If anything, the way that other media already acknowledge how multiple edits can co-exist together should point the way for the same sort of thing to happen in photography.