Pozos, Mexico 1990’s
Texas / Mexico Gulf Coast 2000’s
The Photographs of Geoff Winningham
The Brandon Gallery
December 12, 2014 - January 9, 2015
The following text is extracted from a conversation between artist Geoff Winningham and curator Lynne McCabe.
I asked our artist this month Geoff Wnningham to talk me through the breadth and scope of his Exhibition, In Place which is on view here at The Brandon form December 12- January 9. Read on for a fascinating insight into his process and a unique look at our city.
Lynne: The show is called In Place, so I have to ask, what comes first, do you find a site that you want to make work about or do you find yourself in a place that moves you to making work?
Geoff: I’m not sure how to answer that exactly, but I will tell you that places are important to me in part not just because they provide the material for my photographs but they are part of the process of exploring the world. I mean for me photography is more than anything else about exploring the world, finding things I love to look at, find interesting to contemplate as I photograph them and then as the vernacular phrase goes "taking them”, taking them with my camera. So its both an inquisitive act of wanting to explore and be curious about what the world looks like and an acquisitive act of taking things.
G: I was thinking as we were choosing the different places that would be in the catalogue, its interesting that it ends with Galveston, because Galveston is the first place that I photographed. When I was an undergraduate the thing that appealed to me and got me really involved in the art of photographing, was getting in my car and driving south, crossing over the causeway and finding myself on Galveston island I felt that I was in a foreign and fascinating place and it was this particular sense of place that drew me there in the first place.
L: You have been here for 42 years, is that right?
G: Well let’s see I came here in 1961 so that’s 53 years. I went away for grad school so I’ve been here for 50 years?
L: So you’ve been here half a century.
G: Oh my god yes I have!
L: So I’m just wondering, I cant think of any other artist in town who has documented Houston in the way you have, who has had this breadth of time and also this breadth of scope in Houston as a place of investigation and an unwavering one, how do you feel the changing face of the city has changed the way you interact with it as an artist and do you feel that part of your job is to record, as somewhat of an historian?
G: First of all I would say I have a very strong sense of history as I photograph. It is something that has grown in me over the years to the point that I feel that I’m almost constantly thinking when I look for example at the city, I’m almost a always wondering what this looked like 50 yrs. ago, I wonder what it will look like 50 years from now, its almost always in my mind.
L: Can you talk a little bit about your background? What brought you to the South and your journey through the South? You could have gone anywhere?
G: This is my part of the world. This is home. I was born in a town of about 5000 people in western Tennessee. Jackson Tennessee, that’s where I grew-up so you know the barns and the stores and the churches that you see in my Arkansas pictures- they were all around me. Western Tennessee is so much like Arkansas the only way you can tell the difference is to read the road signs. It feels just exactly the same.
The Wrestling matches, which was my first subject, I actually went to the wrestling matches in my hometown in-utero, it wasn’t until I told my mother at age 27 when I was putting my first book together. She said what are you doing and I said I’m making my first book mom and she asked what’s it about? And I said professional wrestling and she said oh my god! I’ve never told you this because your father was so ashamed but I used to go to the wrestling matches every Friday night and I would get so excited they would almost have to take me away and at that time I was pregnant with you.
G: Isn’t that crazy?
L: That’s so funny, it was in your blood.
G: I think when I walk in that place, the Houston Coliseum, those pictures are of professional wrestling but they are very much about the place that it happened. The wrestlers, the crowd around them, the light of the ring, the whole atmosphere of that place and that place, I think, really was truly in my blood.
G:I had wanted get to Houston because I had seen the movie Giant and I figured that that must be the center of the universe or at least the center of the world as I know it because it was so buzzing with human enterprise and activity and vitality. I had seen Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean act out that whole drama. When it came time to go to collage and there was a very good school to go to, I had my father take me here to look at it. I remember walking down Main Street thinking this is my place. This is my place.
L: When was that? What year was that?
G: That would have been the spring of 1960.
L: Wow. What a different town.
G: Well I felt at home here, partially because it was southern and if I had gone to Yale or Williams I think I would have felt very far from home. Here I felt at home, it’s a Southern town Houston. Now, Mexico’s a different thing. Mexico was my deliberate choice to try to find another world. I had photographed for ten years in Texas, I had done the three books about Texas popular culture, wrestling, rodeo, stock shows and then high school football and I could have gone on doing black and white 35mm studies of Texas poplar festivals and rituals but for better or worse I had this urge to do something very different. Its partially just an urge to do something very different with the medium, I don’t know how someone like Cartier Breson or for example, who photographed all their life with black and white, 35mm, wide angle lens, Tri-X film, everything the same. It’s a very smart thing to do if you can do it because all your work ties together so tightly but I’ve never been able to do that and in 1979 after my book on High School Football came out I had this desire number one- to learn color photography, number two to use the big view camera number three to get out of Texas. So I went out and bought a Deardorff Camera, a hundred sheets of color negative film and got in my car and drove to Mexico. It’s like exactly the wrong thing to do to give your work a kind of tight integrity but it filled me with excitement.
L: Do you think that we get to ever really get to escape? You have spoken very eloquently about how you are a Southerner and this is why you are documenting the vernacular architecture in Arkansas and Houston. Do you think we get to escape the places that form us? I’m wondering whether you feel your southern sensibility is what you bring to your pictures of Mexico? When you are trying to find another world you obviously take yourself with you.
G: Yes clearly you do.
L: When I look at your photographs one of the things that touches me about them in a very profound is the way that even though you don’t have very many people in your photographs when you, you use such a deft touch in capturing them There is something about… maybe I am over-romanticizing this as a Scott… there is something…perhaps a southern take on, not hospitality but humanity, or the way that we interact with one another, a sort of graciousness.?
G: Well I regard that as a real compliment. It’s interesting how photographers approach people as they photograph them. I am much more friendly in my approach. I like to think that my photographs are an affectionate likeness of the people I photograph.
L: This brings me to the picture of Lonnie and Donny, its such an incredible picture for me, not only because its very uncomfortable simply because I am implicated as a viewer but the thing that is so beautiful that transcends it from some sort of voyeuristic moment is that you see the reflection of all those people who are there and they have paid their money and who are viewing and you see this exchange and still you’re a little bit separate from it. To capture something like that is pretty impressive. To capture just that right, sweet spot.
G: That picture is right on the edge for me.
L: Its right on the edge? Can you talk about that feeling and when you took it? What that experience was like?
G: The picture came about by me photographing the Houston livestock show and rodeo and in that case I gave myself a particular challenge. I wanted to do a finished, complete study of that great civic cultural event in one year. I would go every day to as many of the many events that happen as part of the Livestock Show and Rodeo of Houston and I would do it as a photojournalist and almost try to make a complete study of this subject in one year. Which meant basically about 25 days of Stock Show and Rodeo. So I was all over the place. Everyday I was there almost from dawn to dusk and one of the things that interested me was the carnival. Because in addition to having the rodeo and the stock show there was this carnival, which is of course, is a kind of festivity you can find allover the world. There were there were giant reptiles and people faking it as people with two heads and Lonnie and Donny there was something very moving about looking in on there life. They were sitting there I think watching television.
L: They were watching TV
G: Yes, and you just felt like you were peeking in on their life, which I think in fact you were.
L: There’s this sign which Lonnie and Donnie have that says ‘Give generously to our farm’. which I find kind of amazing …let me first say I think there is something of an over simplification in our othering of people who have less than hetronormative bodies and gender expressions. For example the way that we castigate strippers as fallen women, not seeing their freedoms or them as entrepreneurs and …
G: It says- ‘Thank you for giving to our farm’.
L: Yes, ‘Thank you for helping us get our farm’. Which is so smart, as we the viewer immediately imagines this pastoral moment for them. It feels like they are totally playing us. They are sort of banking on our romantic ideas of ‘poor them’ that they should literally be shipped off to a nice farm to live out their happy existence and why wouldn’t they just go down the pub like everyone else? To me the beauty of photography is in that picture. It is so immediate in its complexity.
G: Well said.
L: I’m wondering if you can talk about the intentionality of being attracted to very popular cultural phenomena? You’re attracted to documenting what some people might regard as low culture, or low art, wrestling, stockyards, and high school football. Can you talk a little bit about that?
G: Let me tell you the honest truth about that. When I got started in photography right out of graduate school, I actually kind of had a grudge against art. I felt like it was a pretentious, fancy preoccupation. Ok? And photography was different. Photography was a miracle. Photography was something much more important that art. That’s how I felt and so I know that I consciously looked for things that were not art, like professional wrestle. Which people generally laughed at as being fake and being fixed? What a silly idea. What you are really talking about with professional wresting is folk theater of the most basic sort. I mean I convinced myself back in those days that if Shakespeare were alive he would be writing scripts for professional wresters because it was appealing to all people in the most basic and real way they came to find moral lessons and to understand human motives and how to deal with evil for gods sake. I was attracted to it for that, because it was vital and human and rich and explosively exciting to watch and photograph but also because it was the stuff of people. I moved from that to the Rodeo and the Stock Show and I wasn’t going around photographing… what would an artist deal with? Delicious bowls of food? Or luscious nudes
L: Or wilting flowers?
G: (giggle) I wanted to find the stuff of life. I remember hearing one very important arts patron here in town say when the Rothko Chapel was donated “These paintings are as close as we can come to having heaven on earth and I remember thinking, What? Those paintings are as close as we can come? The closest you can come to heaven on earth is in a crowd of people who are full of energy and excitement and people are yelling and pulling for things and you know that kind of human thing. So wrestling matches, livestock show and rodeo, and even high school football, which most people just took as something that boys wasted their time doing when they were in high school. Well it’s an American right of passage. But I must say that as the years have gone by and I’ve gotten older I’ve been attracted to less boisterous less ruckus things and now my idea of heaven on earth is a walk in a beautiful landscape and to try and find a peace of it that is alluring and beautiful and poised and perfect in color and form and take it and share it. So I’m a long way from that guy that who started with wrestling photographs.
One of the reasons I wanted to do this show is to put this wider range of photographs together and see how it looked together. So well see…