“Just Shoot It” and They (Great Images) Will Come

There are many examples of inspiration that speak to the theory of getting through a volume of work to produce something worthwhile and satisfying. The whole idea of finding a theme was outlined in many of the passion postings, and photographer Robert Frank, arguably one of the most influential photographers or our time, devoted two years of road trips in 1955 and 1956 across the United States to come up with the content that became his seminal volume, The Americans. Mr. Frank took more than 27,000 frames with a Leica rangefinder camera, and eventually distilled that volume into the 83 photographs that make up the book.

There are 83 photos in Robert Frank’s The Americans. He shot more than 27,000 frames for the project.

But perhaps the poster boy for shooting volumes is street photographer Garry Winogrand. When he died of cancer at the age of just 56 in 1984, he left behind 2,500 undeveloped rolls of 36-exposure 35mm film (mostly Tri-X), 6,500 rolls of developed but not contact-printed film, and another 3,000 apparently untouched, unedited contact sheets. That’s a staggering number of images. Colleagues, students, and friends talked about him as an obsessive picture-taking machine.


A camera with a top shutter-speed of 1/8,000th of a second means there are 8,000 potential moments in a single second, making volume of frames essential in the haphazard, constantly moving, out of control world of the street photographer.

To photograph chaos in a coherent way, Winogrand melded intuition and chance with experience to capture serendipity in some form of visual order. His images juxtapose disparate visual elements in an organized, connected photograph that could not be orchestrated. His pictures often communicate complex scenes in a simple, easy to read way. To do this kind of work, shooting a volume is necessary because most times you click the shutter; it doesn’t quite work out.

“The nature of the photographic process—it is about failure. Most everything I do doesn’t quite make it. The failures can be intelligent; nothing ventured, nothing gained. Hopefully you’re risking failing every time you make a frame. I learned a long time ago to trust my instincts. If I’m at the viewfinder and I know that picture, why take it? I’ll do something to change it, which is often the reason why I may tilt the camera or fool around in various ways. You don’t learn anything from repeating what you know, in effect, so I keep trying to make [the process] uncertain.”

—Gary Winogrand, from an interview with Bill Moyers

Photographer Mason Resnick was a young student of Winogrand’s in 1976. He described the photographer’s high-volume techniques:

“He walked slowly or stood in the middle of pedestrian traffic as people went by. He shot prolifically. I watched him walk a short block and shoot an entire roll without breaking stride. He was constantly looking around, and often would see a situation on the other side of a busy intersection. Ignoring traffic, he would run across the street to get the picture. Incredibly, people didn’t react when he photographed them.” 

With 10,000 hours comes technical mastery. Winogrand photographed most every day and didn’t have to think about settings for his meter-less Leica; he knew them instinctively and was constantly tweaking the exposure as the light changed. He stood in front of his subjects, sometimes blocking their way, and shot, nodding and communicating with people all the while, and few noticed him. No one seemed annoyed.

Resnick continued:

“I tried to mimic Winogrand’s shooting technique. I went up to people, took their pictures, smiled, nodded, just like the master. Nobody complained; a few smiled back! I tried shooting without looking through the viewfinder, but when Winogrand saw this, he sternly told me never to shoot without looking. ‘You’ll lose control over your framing,’ he warned. I couldn’t believe he had time to look in his viewfinder, and watched him closely. Indeed, Winogrand always looked in the viewfinder at the moment he shot. It was only for a split second, but I could see him adjust his camera’s position slightly and focus before he pressed the shutter release. He was precise, fast, in control.”


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