Tag Archives: Garry Winogrand

Garry Winogrand Had It Easy! (A Serendip of San Franciscans, Part 2, 11 March 2015)

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Good Evening:

So did Gordon Parks. So did all of those New York photographers in the post-WWII era who roamed the streets, letting their cameras dangle at their side, using what I call The 30 Shot technique to capture the lives of ordinary people around them and proving that neither they nor their lives were ordinary.

In those days, people looked around themselves, they engaged themselves in the world around themselves. In many photographs from that era, the subjects look directly into the camera, which makes me suspect that very large ones drew people’s attention.

Today, people on the street do not engage themselves in the world around themselves.

Market Near Van Ness, San Francisco, California, 3:01 p.m., 11 March 2015.

Market Near Van Ness, San Francisco, California, 3:01 p.m., 11 March 2015.

They absorb themselves in their own.

This is not a nice thing to do to second-rate hack amateur photographers such as myself.

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:17 p.m., 8 March 2015.

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:17 p.m., 8 March 2015.

How does a second-rate hack amateur such as myself capture The Decisive Moment as described by my boy the HC-B (Henri Cartier-Bresson, or however he spelled his name) where no decisive moment exists for the capturing? These next three pictures took less than 30 seconds and captured scenes no more than 50 feet apart from each other.

San Francisco City Hall, 12 March 2015.

San Francisco City Hall, 12 March 2015.

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What the heck is interesting in these?!

Cell phones have not become the photographer’s friend, they have become our enemy. Sure, it feels good to know that when you need a camera you already have one, and yes, the best camera in the world is the one you have in your hand right now. The trouble is that cell phones, especially the ones smarter than us, make our potential subjects less interesting because their faces look downward, you can hardly see them..

Look at these two.

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:19 p.m., 8 March 2015

Upper Haight, San Francisco, California, 2:19 p.m., 8 March 2015

Yes, they are friends, yes they are together, and yes they are hanging out with each other on a perfect weekend afternoon in the Upper Haight, but are they really together, are they really hanging out with each other–or are they hanging out with their phones and treating each other like accessories?

See what I mean?

Never mind that people nowadays do not present themselves as ideal subjects for random street photographers–even if that does pose problems for second-rate amateur hacks. They live in of the most interesting cities on by far the most interesting known planet in the universe (know anywhere else you might find chocolate ice cream or a duck-billed platypus or chocolate duck-billed platypus ice cream?)–and yet they do not live in suitably interesting fashion.

Missing out on the world in which they live means more than just missing out–it also means almost getting themselves killed. Yesterday I espied a woman who walked into Market Street traffic against the light and nearly walked into the bus taking me home from work. She had no idea that cars swerved around her, and I strongly believe she never saw nor sensed the 50 foot long bus into which she nearly walked.

Come on people. Put the phone down.

And smile. I might be taking your picture.

Vonn Scott Bair

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Garry Winogrand Has Warped My Mind, Part One: or, The 30 Shot, 10 November 2013 (Weekly Photo Challenge: Habit)

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Good Evening:

Garry Winogrand has warped my mind. This post is his fault, unless you like the photos, in which case I have to give him all the credit.

If I had looked at my subject as I photographed her I would not have taken the first picture of this post. What the heck is going on here?! In the past I would have deleted the shot from my point-and-shoot without a second thought, but a recent exhibition of Winogrand’s career has changed how I think about the art of photography.

Market Street Between 10th and 11th , 8 November 2013

Market Street Between 10th and 11th , 8 November 2013

The retrospective of his work at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art has totally flummoxed everything I ever believed about how to take photographs, and now I want to copy his style, with the oddly cropped people, the odd tilt to his compositions, the blurriness, all the mistakes he made that somehow came out as art.

I have made a habit of practicing what I call “The 30 Shot,” a street photography technique for capturing scenes from an unusual angle with a maximum chance of not drawing the attention of your subject. Once again, I must stress that I did not invent the technique, pro photographers have used this techniques for decades (it even appeared in the movie Z).

1: Just let the camera dangle by your side at the end of your straightened arm (in my case, this puts the lens roughly 30 inches off the ground) and run off a bunch of snaps with or without looking at your subject. 2: Check your pictures and delete almost all of them, saving only the ones where you captured the target. 3: Then edit (or not) the results on your computer. Sometimes I get mind-bogglingly lucky:

Homeless Person Selling Copies of The Street Sheet Newspaper, 8 November 2013

Homeless Person Selling Copies of The Street Sheet Newspaper, 8 November 2013

I wasn’t looking at this person when I took the picture. About 50 feet earlier, I realized that I had a potentially decent shot, got the camera ready, and snapped 5 quick pictures as I walked past. 4 were worthless, and I discarded them. This one didn’t need much work. I converted it to B&W–that’s all. No straightening, no cropping, nothing else. And in case you wondered, the answer is yes–I have sometimes discarded every single shot of a particular scene. I live in San Francisco; I will always find another picture around the next corner.

The next shot (taken today) might be finished, might not. Check it out:

Lovers on Haight Street, Lower Haight Neighborhood, 10 Nov 2013

Lovers on Haight Street, Lower Haight Neighborhood, 10 Nov 2013

The straightforward conversion to B&W in iPhoto did not suffice. I also had to sharpen the focus, improve definition, and reduce the “temperature” (whatever that is) to -100 (whatever that means). However, I have not straightened the shot, nor have I cropped it. Thanks to the unusual angle of The 30 Shot, the results look more interesting than a conventional picture with a conventional composition. Further experimentation needed, but I rather like this one.

Since I rarely look at the subjects I photograph, the pictures sometimes accidentally have the same sort of unusual built-in cropping that appears in Winogrand’s work. Like this one.

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The snap lopped off the top of the head of the person in the back and not only that, I accidentally tilted the lens yet again, but yet again, for reasons I can’t explain the result doesn’t seem so bad. I could be deluded, of course (how many photographers are ever the best judge of his/her own work?), but trying to straighten it cuts off too much of the already cropped head.

However, in one respect I do break with Winogrand; I do not think that black-and-white is inherently superior to color. Sometimes color tells the story better. Consider that first picture at the top of this post. In B&W, it becomes hard to tell what has happened–which means that yes, I published a photograph that I personally consider inferior. Let’s go back to the original color version of the scene.

Hot Dog Vendor Inflating Balloon on Market Street, 8 November 2013

Hot Dog Vendor Losing an Inflated Balloon on Market Street, 8 November 2013

Suddenly it all becomes clear, and it becomes clear because of how the bright blue of the escaping balloon stands out in contrast to the drab environment. I did not intend to capture the balloon at the exact instant when it blocked the woman’s face, and if I had been looking I would not have taken the shot for that reason. But the other two shots were complete misses (I don’t pretend that I’m anywhere near as good as Winogrand), so I had nothing else to use.

And the result is interesting. I don’t ask for much more of my photographs.

Just interest me.

And interest you.

I hope I succeeded.

Vonn Scott Bair

The 30 Shot (Weekly Photo Challenge: An Unusual POV)

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Good Evening:

What do you do when you want to take a photograph? Chances are that you lift your camera up to your eyes, zoom in or out depending upon the shot, maybe fiddle with a few other controls, and then snap the shot. For this post, I request that you consider a different take on taking pictures, creating a different POV using a different POV.

Wait, Did I Just Take a Picture? Haight Street in Front of McDonald's, 27 August 2006

Wait, Did I Just Take a Picture by Accident? Haight Street in Front of McDonald’s, 27 August 2006

For a long time, I’ve wanted a means of taking/performing/committing street photography inconspicuously, without anyone realizing that a photographer (gasp!) lurked in the vicinity. Took me a while to realize that I always had such a technique available. Occurred in the photograph above, occurred in the photograph below.

Cigarette Break at the End of a Rough Day, San Francisco, California

Cigarette Break at the End of a Rough Day, San Francisco, California

I sometimes snapp pictures by accident–an involuntary twitch of the right forefinger, and the shutter closes. In the past, I had reflexively, without thinking, deleted them from the camera and/or my computer. But a few months ago, I took in the Garry Winogrand exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art shortly before it closed for renovations.

Stunning experience. Winogrand often did on purpose what I had done by accident (and had always assumed was a blunder). What had always seemed a dumb but temporary waste of pixels had constituted a major part of the work of one of those great photographers I had never heard of because I know so dang little about photography. Then I remembered a scene from the Costa-Gravas movie Z in which a photojournalist interviews the widow of the assassinated politician, sneaking photographs of her with a camera that seems to dangle uselessly at his side. I figured out that one can take pictures without even looking at the subject!

I call it The 30 Shot–largely because I have no idea what term professionals use.

The technique requires a small point and shoot digital camera with a very large view finder window. I zoom out as much as possible and use the default Landscape setting, then just let the camera dangle at my side. The lens hangs roughly 30 inches above the ground, hence my name for the shot. But the technique proved very difficult for me to learn and led to a lot of hopeless but deletable mistakes. I took all of the following shots in the past few days using a Nikon CoolPix S9100. I have not edited any of them for reasons I’ll mention later.

The biggest mistake: simply missing the shot.

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Yes. I would call that a miss.

Another problem I encountered consisted of horribly tilted angles that even editing in iPhoto couldn’t cure. I finally solved this through practice. Find a long stretch of flat road (think that’s easy in San Francisco?), with a brick or cinder block wall, something with long straight lines running parallel to the ground. Practice walking while pointing the camera at those lines and keeping it both steady and untilted.

The goal is to develop what actors call muscle memory. Try to remember the stress on your wrist and fingers as you hold the camera level. Once you do that, you can take pictures without looking at your subjects knowing that the results will turn out level or more often, almost level but easily fixable. Something like this.

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Not a masterpiece of course, but with cropping, correcting the tilt, and adjusting the light and dark areas (actually, I’m thinking B&W), should be an acceptable picture.

If you walk past a sitting subject, take a batch of shots, one quick one after another. Some will slightly miss:

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One or two will prove usable.

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Correct tilt, bright and dark spots, get rid of that bleeping pigeon, and I’ll have another adequate shot. I took 6 pictures of this gentleman rooting through his bad and deleted 4. No regrets–and no regrets are a vital part of The 30 Shot because believe me, you will miss far too many great shots.

I’ve learned a couple of other interesting techniques: first, that you don’t want take a shot as your foot hits the ground because it produces blur (unless you want the blur for artistic effect); and you can twist the camera around so that you take pictures of subjects directly behind you without even knowing what you’re photographing. Such as this man:

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A good example of the virtues of zooming out as much as possible. When I edit copies of this picture, I can crop it many different ways to produce many different new pictures. Megapixels are meaningless most of the time; I have no idea why people obsess over them (the sensor and the lens are far more important). Cropping is the one time when I do want the megapixels; however, even here the “mere” 12 megapixels I have are more than good enough for editing purposes. An 8×10 or even a 9×13 will look good.

Potentially, my mistakes can prove a lot of fun, and that is a very good thing because I make a lot of mistakes, no, I make a LOT of mistakes. Precision of expression is good. Whenever I practice The 30 Shot, I end up deleting 60-80 per cent of the pictures because they are truly hopeless. Not a problem. My definition of A Real Photographer is someone who can take 100 pictures, upload them to a computer, study each one carefully, edit each one as best as possible–and then delete all 100. Obviously, I am not A Real Photographer.

But the mistakes will sometimes amuse me.

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This next one deserves some photographic love and affection and tender loving care. I wanted to photograph a young couple walking their hyperactive Shih Tzu, but three of the shots missed badly (and I deleted them), while the fourth yielded this:

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Look at how her posture almost exactly mimics the man reflected in the glass! Can you also see the reflection of a second man’s legs in the marble? Similar posture! This is a Garry Winogrand type of shot, very typical of his late period work where he would ignore the rules about including the entire person in the picture. I think he actually The 30 Shot or another technique akin to it. No, no, of course I’m not even close to his level of quality, but I think Winogrand took a lot of shots using a similar technique. Of course I’ll convert to B&W because I’ve never seen a Winogrand photograph in color, and I’ll crop the left and bottom edges a bit. If presentable, I will present the finished results in a later post.

I do think that all of these shots would have been even worse had I taken them at eye level. Something about keeping the lens 30 inches above the ground seems to produce better angles and therefore results, esp. when the objets d’art are sitting. I can’t explain why. Please don’t think I’m trying to teach you anything, because I have no idea what I’m doing. Really, I don’t want to teach; I want to share how I’m learning. This post represents me as a student, not a teacher.

The final shot–perhaps–has the most potential.

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Let us not kid ourselves; right now the photo is a complete mess. Total disaster. The shadows are too dark, the whites are too bright, and you can’t tell that’s her helmet she’s removing from her head. But the composition, and the story it tells of their relationship at that moment in time (more like that millisecond in time) means that I might have (accidentally, of course) captured Henri Cartier-Bresson’s beloved Decisive Moment.

And that is why I have edited none of these photos so far. I’ve concluded that my previous commitment to “editing in the camera,” while a good idea, should have never become an absolute rule. All of the professional photographers I know edit their pictures, believing that taking the picture is only the beginning, not the end. So I will take this messy collection of bad photographs and teach myself how to edit them.

Presenting the results later–assuming I have anything worth presenting.

Vonn Scott Bair

Weekly Photo Challenge: The World Through Your Eyes – Editing Your World

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Good Evening:

First, a huge emphatic THANK YOU! to photographer Ming Thein for a great introduction to some (just a few!) of the elements of taking good photographs. Sorry for the shouting. One curious aspect of this great article: it made me think of some of the issues not covered in very much detail. Specifically, two: the eternal debate between color vs. black & white; second, the question of editing the picture after taking it.

I believe that one of the most important ways a photographer can show the world through his/her eyes consists of the editing done in post. Two reasons why: first, I’ve seen the output of professional photographers who have massaged their RAW files in Lightroom and Photoshop, and when I see the results in 16×20, sometimes I literally gasp; second, I’m very weak at editing so I assume it must be important.

In recent weeks, I’ve tried to capture my world using the tactics of Garry Winogrand, the most amazing photographer I’ve discovered since Sebastiao Salgado. Interesting paradox there–trying to see the world through my eyes using someone else’s techniques and style. Here is an unedited color photograph I took today from the observation tower of San Francisco’s De Young Museum:

DSCN6207Not a bad shot, capturing a couple looking to the west of San Francisco during the Magic Hour at 7:17 p.m. Note the two sets of reflections, one in the window, one on the floor. I stood on the other side of the tower, facing east, with my Nikon Coolpix S9100 (Landscape Mode) dangling at my side pointed backwards. Classic clandestine street photography. The shadows on her clothes and hair are a little dark, and the sky a little bright. However, since I wanted to experiment with Winogrand’s style of photography, that meant I had to convert to black & white. Presenting the first attempt:

DSCN6207_2I used iPhoto on a copy of the original (and I always try to use a copy–sometimes I even succeed!). First, I reduced Saturation to 0% to get black & white. Second, I reduced shadow by 20% to get a little more detail from their clothes and her hair. Third I reduced brightness by 35% because I thought the background sky was too distracting. Now something else distracted me: the diagonal shadow at the bottom and the two supports and their reflections at the extreme right and left of the picture. So I cropped.

De Young Observatory Tower, Ninth Floor, San Francisco, CA, 21 June 2013, 7:17 p.m.

De Young Observatory Tower, Ninth Floor, San Francisco, CA, 21 June 2013, 7:17 p.m.

This works for me. At least for now. Once I really learn editing I can go back to the original file. Here, all the attention rests on the couple and their reflections, the shot captures the mood, and you can instantly recognize the nature of their relationship (look at where they’re touching). I won’t pretend it’s great, but it is one of my better recent works.

And therein lies the paradox. To show the world through my eyes, I had to make the world completely artificial–because the world is not all black and white.

Vonn Scott Bair