Below is the video for my talk at the Third Object-Oriented Ontology symposium, which I delivered remotely by video. I intended the video as the way to experience the content, but upon request I’ve also posted a transcript of the material for those who prefer to read it that way. For a larger sized video, watch on Vimeo or select the full-screen option below. For discussion, see my blog post of the video or the post at photography blog PetaPixel.

The photographer Garry Winogrand famously said, “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” Despite frequent, approving citations of this aphorism, few creators and critics take it seriously.

Often called one of the great street photographers, Winogrand is best known for portraying American life in the midcentury with a “snapshot aesthetic”—visits to the zoo, street protests, press conferences, airports, rodeos. As the author Barbara Diamonstein once said of him, Winogrand’s pictures “celebrate ordinary events, and transform them with precise timing and framing into astute visual commentaries on modern life.”

But Winogrand betrays this interpretation. In fact, he seems generally uninterested in events and commentaries (he once refered to Martin Luther King’s 1963 Birmingham campaign as “that bus thing”). “As far as photographing goes,” says Winogrand, “all I’m interested in is pictures, frankly. I went to events, and it would have been very easy to just illustrate that idea about the relationships between the press and the event, you know. But I felt that from my end, I should deal with the thing itself.”

Winogrand rejects the “snapshot aesthetic” characterization. The ordinary snapshot is really nothing of the sort. It’s “precisely made” rather than accidental, “Everybody’s fifteen feet away and smiling. The sun is over the viewer’s shoulder. That’s when the picture is taken, always. It’s one of the most carefully made photographs that ever happened,” he explains. The same goes for the name “street photographer,” which suggests the careful attention of the Cartier-Bresson-style decisive moment.

Garry Winogrand made photographs of the things themselves. Lots of them. Over 300,000 unpublished images were found after his death, along with 2,500 undeveloped rolls of film. He took them indiscriminately, using rangefinder cameras and zone-focused wide-angle lenses so he didn’t have to fiddle with his equipment. His works are not commentaries, they are precisely the opposite. Garry Winogrand makes photographs not to capture what he sees, but to see what he will have captured. That’s what it means to take photographs to see what the world looks like in photographs.

People, events, and social conditions aren’t in Winogrand’s photographs so that they might become his subjects, as in Susan Sontag’s evidentiary, memorialist, participatory photography. Instead they are there just because they were there. Because light bent through an aperture onto emulsion. Because Winogrand is a person and people sometimes find themselves at press conferences and zoos and rodeos. Just because.

The people and events are there as a kind of exercise. A temptation. Is it possible to see beyond them, beyond the pilot, and the cowboy, and the rhino to see the flourescents and the dirt and the chain-link? To grasp the photographs’ ontology as flat like its surface? This requires work.

Yet, it doesn’t much matter what kind of image you choose. That’s why Winogrand took so many, so indiscriminately. Look at the image: what’s in it? What else? This process of cataloguing being in a context, which I call ontography, is particularly durable in photography, that medium that so disinterested Deleuze and others for its lack of flux.

The images published on offer another perspective on Winogrand’s misunderstood challenge. It’s a website that curates photographs of pictures from the past in the present. Photographers orient a photo with the space in which it was taken years earlier and recapture a scene with the scene in it, like a mise-en-abyme.

These photos do exactly what Diamonstein and Sontag want photographs to do, to create human experiences: a first day of school, a wife since passed away, a moment of concentration. They are touching and heart-wrenching, documenting age and loss and regret and gratitude. But they are also more than that, or they can be if we force ourselves to see them the way Winogrand encourages.

A Dear Photograph is photographed to see what a photograph looks like in a photograph. It’s ontographically helpful because it ruptures the sentimentalism that it also produces. All the human memory and vulnerability and experience is still there, but with a strange loop that pulls inanimate things up to the level of human surfaces:

The doorjamb

The empty summer lawn where the fall leaves collect in autumn.

The paint on a shed

the thumbs that hold photographs

the indifferent asphalt

the park bench that cradles without caring.

the bricks unsusceptible to sorrow.

Object-oriented ontology is a first principles philosophy, one that adds a focus on individual entities to the rejection of the human-world correlate. The “orientation” in Triple-O normally modifies “ontology,” which is oriented toward things of all types and scales. That’s the abstract part of the metaphysics, and we need it. But we also need the concrete part, the metaphysicians practice. Object-oriented ontology is thus not only the name for an ontology oriented toward objects, but a practice of learning how to orient toward objects ourselves. And, mise-en-abyme-like, how to orient toward object-orientation.

It’s too hard for most viewers to take Winogrand’s project seriously, because they’re too busy looking for social commentary in his photographs to see them for what they are: pictures that help their viewers see things in pictures. The object-oriented ontology project is just as simple, yet still just as hard: to see things in pictures and everywhere else too. To see the world of things as things in a world, rather than our world, with things in it.

published September 14, 2011