Geoff Winninghman: In the Beginning
By Wendy Watriss
The growth of contemporary photography m Houston parallels, in many ways, the career of one of Houston's best known photographers, Geoff Winningham. Winningham came from Tennessee to Houston as a Rice undergraduate in the early 1960s. He became involved in photography by what he calls a "process of elimination'' discarding one academic field after another. Although there was very little photographic activity in Houston then, Winningham credits three people at Rice with fostering his decision to turn lo photography as a career; Charles Schorre, who introduced him to a wide range of photographic work; Larry McMurtry, who showed him Cartier-Bresson’s The Decisive Moment; and Gerald O'Grady, a Rice English teacher who helped convince him that photography was a legitimate and important medium of expression.
After Rice, he received a Master of Science degree from Chicago's institute of Design, where his interest in documentary photography was subjected to the more abstract and experimental approach of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. He returned to Houston to teach at the University of St Thomas. He then became a seminal figure in the development of one of Houston's first photography programs, The Rice Media Center.
WW: How did you come to make your photography career in Houston?
CW: When I got out of graduate school after two full years there, the question was whether to stay m Chicago or lo go somewhere else. I remember people telling me if I were to leave Chicago and go back to Houston where there were no quote unquote serious photographers. Id dry up. Well, I preferred the notion of drying up to that of being absorbed m a large group of photographers. But the final decision was based on two things: I got a job offer here at the University of St. Thomas, which was starting the Media Center. The other thing was that I found in my visits back to Houston things were economically possible here that were not possible in Chicago. In Houston, there was the attitude if you've got a good idea we'll help you do it." In Chicago you couldn't walk into a bank and say I want to start a photography gallery, and I want to borrow some money, but in Houston I did it. There was a fundamental difference in attitudes in Chicago and Houston. What really brought me to Houston and kept me here was the fact that, in Houston, I could try things.
WW: How would you describe the photography community in Houston when you came?
GW: There were all these pictures that hadn't been made: in the streets, in the houses, everywhere. That's how I remember it There were a lot of people who thought they might be interested in photography, and very few had ever had a course anywhere. Photography had begun to be recognized by a few institutions as a medium to be collected and exhibited, but nobody had started doing it here. In the late 1960s there wasn't a photography collection anywhere in Houston. There was no institution exhibiting photography.
WW: How did the Media Center develop?
GW: Well, first it was at the University of St. Thomas. A critical thing that happened was that Gerald O'Grady, who had encouraged me in photography, developed an interest in film. He got to know Jean and Dominique de Menil and convinced them that part of the art history program they were developing at St. Thomas needed to be related to filmmaking. In the summer of 1968 the de Menils made the decision and commitment to start The Media Center. My perception was that it was an initiative of O'Grady to do it. He hired Stan Vanderbeek, then James Blue, to teach filmmaking, and me to teach photography. We converted a couple of old houses that were then in the middle of the St. Thomas campus to classrooms and lab facilities. Things happened very quickly I remember going in one weekend, sketching how this house should be transformed into a teaching facility, and the next week it was done.
We started off our courses m the summer of 1968. There was a wonderful spirit about the whole thing. I remember I had a doctor, a couple of interesting housewives, a lawyer, and a lot of St, Thomas students. The classes were about the same size as they are now — fifteen to twenty students. My own approach to photography, particularly then, was very panchromatic. I held on to my own tendencies of what might be called documentary picture taking, but at the same time I was just coming away from Chicago and Aaron Siskind, Arthur Siegel, Wynn Bullock, I had an appreciation and some instinct for the very manipulated, very pictorial work. I think I was a more sympathetic teacher to all strains of photography than I ever was later. I encouraged people to do highly manipulative things, very experimental things technically, and would also have assignments in documentary photography. And I could show and talk about photographers in a very wide range.
WW: Was anyone else teaching photography seriously in Houston?
CW: No, there was the Houston Photo Club in Rice Village, but there were no other courses at all. No university courses. The Museum of Fine Arts hadn’t shown photography since the 1940s. In that first academic year we had a very, very rich program; in the fall of 1968 and spring of 1969 we had a lecture series that included John Szarkowski, Nathan Lyons, Peter Bunnell, Robert Frank, Jerry Uelsmann, Frederick Sommer. I was not only getting to hear but to meet and deal with those people
WW: Did the lectures bring in a lot of people who weren't in your class?
GW: No, not a lot. The average audience would be 55-75 people. The idea that Robert Frank was speaking here, and probably wasn't speaking anywhere else that year, was sort of lost on most people. I remember when Frank was here he was trying very hard to sell prints, and I bought ten from him, from The Americans series. He had a guy back in New York printing them and then he'd sign them. He was taking orders, trying to sell them at $25 apiece.
WW: Did you have any exhibitions?
GW: Yes, we had an astonishing exhibition, a selection from the Museum of Modern Art, a collection of about 60 prints chosen as a cross section of the museum's collection. Everyone from Cartier-Bresson to Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon to Robert Frank.
WW: What brought those people down to a new institution, and why would MOMA do such a show?
GW: First of all, there weren’t many people offering honoraria for lectures in photography. Second, if you could assemble such a distinguished group of people, once you got a few, other people seemed to follow. Also. Joan de Menil was on the board of the Museum of Modern Artr and was on the photography committee. I don't remember much response to the exhibition. I remember the opening. We had a good crowd, but the papers didn't review it. There were no reviews of shows. We had a series of photography shows at St. Thomas. When Jerry Uelsmann came to speak, we had a Jerry Uelsmann show. He went in the darkroom with my students and made the prints. It was an amazing demonstration.
WW: After a year the Media Center went to Rice. Why?
GW: It came about as a result of the frustrations the dc Menils had with St. Thomas as a place to grow because of the limitations of the St. Thomas administration. Amazingly, the decision to move came very quickly, like January or February, 1969. By March, the decision was made and ground was broken for the Rice Museum. By summer it was in place, and by fall it was rolling.
O'Grady was not hired at Rice. His contract had not been re-newed at Rice after his first three years there, and that's when he came to the art department at St. Thomas. He didn't go back to Rice, but I was hired and James Blue was hired.
WW: Who actually ran it those first years?
GW: James Blue ran the film section and I ran the photography section. The two didn't have much overlap except in our individual work. It was |James’s operation and my operation, with Rice kind of permitting it all to happen.
WW: Did you design your own Curriculum?
GW: Yes. It wasn't anything revolutionary. For years there were just two photography courses, beginning and advanced. I began as I still do with a view camera, partly because people don't ever have a chance to use a view camera again. The other reason is that it slows people down, causes them to take things one step at a time. I've always begun with a series of very static, contemplative assignments to make people take pictures slowly and learn the craft, and then introduce roll film to loosen them up.
The essential thing, then and now — is that I've tried to integrate three aspects of teaching into one course: to teach the technical aspects of photography, the craft, while introducing some sense of the history of photography and its traditions, monuments, and the famous figures and their work, and finally to criticize the work in process, trying to get people accustomed to talking about and being critical of their own and their classmates' work. In the advanced course, I let people pursue independent projects. I wouldn't presume to suggest to people after a year of photography what they should photograph. That's a problem at least equal to the problem at how you photograph: What do you photograph? How do you do it? A marvelous story is told about Diane Arbus, by Lisette Model. She said Arbus came to her after class one day at the New School and said, "Well, what should I photograph? Model said, "That's your problem, darling." If after two full semesters of photography, someone cannot pick a subject with some passion, I think they should drop it. if not permanently, at least for the time being.
WW: What was your philosophy about what you wanted the photography program to be and how has that changed?
GW: I don't think it has changed. My primary idea, partly dictated by the circumstances, was that we were not offering a photography degree — this would not be a place you would come to become a professional photographer. Rather, we would have a course offering open to undergraduate students and others where they could learn photography in the context of other subjects. Undergraduates that we teach are very seldom art majors. And I enjoy teaching people of different ages. If there's been any big shift, it's been in the past five to six years as the Media Center has really developed its continuing education program. It's not unusual to have someone age 40, 50, or 60 come in and say, "I really want to learn to photograph because I really want to do this or that." And I can really get excited about that. I would not want to be part of an art factory. The world of art is a lot less interesting to me than the other worlds around it.
WW: Was there a difference between your and Blue's commitment to community involvement?
GW: I'm sure there was, but I'm not sure I can verbalize it well. First of all, James was more mature and had gone through a lot as an artist. I was twenty-five years old when I began teaching at St. Thomas and had come out of graduate school with a strong sense that I couldn’t let my own career drag and wanted to get on with it very intensely. James had gone through a period of Hollywood photography, a period of doing documentary films for the USIA. and had all that experience behind him. And he was at a mid-life time when he was examining that experience and what he really wanted to do with all that knowledge and back-gound. So that's very different. Secondly, I think James was a person with very keen sensitivity to social issues, and I've never really been like that. So we were very different in that respect. But the interesting thing was that four or five years after we began, we found we had a tremendous amount in common: primarily that we both loved straight photography or filmmaking, if you will, and neither of us wanted to establish an art school, either in film or photography. We wanted to draw upon the public: James because of the social issues that came with those people. For me, because it brought new influences, ideas and backgrounds into rny photography classes. Both of us saw style, aesthetics, as something that should be felt but not seen in the work — that it should be contained within the work in an almost invisible way. The term that I often use is that style should be transparent. James admired Walker Evans. When we had a little show of Walker Evans from the Farm Security Administration files. James walked through it and understood immediately why I would love those photographs.
WW: Let's go back chronologically.
GW: During the first five years, the photography program was largely supported by the de Menils. After five years, the university took on the commitment of supporting the Media Center. Things scaled back a bit. The character of the place changed after the first two to three years at Rice. There was that burst of expansion at St, Thomas and at first at Rice. The first year at Rice we had a major exhibition. Photography into Sculpture, from the Museum of Modern Art. and that occupied the whole building. It was photography that had become three dimensional, and had been put on three dimensional objects. Peter Bunnel was the curator for that show.
Then we started having major photography shows at the Rice Museum. I think photography at the Media Center very clearly influenced the Rice Museum, which is to say, Dominique de Menil. I think to some degree her eyes were opened by some of the things we had. I remember the look in her eyes when she walked around an Aaron Siskind show we had. With her interest in the abstract expressionists. I remember her walking through the Media Center, through that little mezzanine gallery and seeing Siskind's pictures for the first time and looking at the dates on them and just kind of being amazed.
There were exhibitions at the Rice Museum in which there were a few photographs back in 1971 or 1972. I remember they had an exhibition on the theme of the highway, and there were certain photographs in that show. Robert Frank's photograph of the highway and so on. There were a few scattered photographs in their exhibitions in the early 1970s. I think Mrs. de Menil and the peo pie who worked for her really became aware of photography because of the shows we had at The Media Center. The first I can recall of a big show, and an amazing one. was the exhibition of Cartier-Bresson photographs in about 1974. That was the full set of photographs he gave to the Menil Foundation, 385 photographs, his selection of his own work. It was exhibited very quietly in the summer. I remember
telling |ohn Szarkowski about it and his saying, "What?" He was not even aware that Cartier-Brcsson had done this. And here we were next door with a really definitive set of his pictures.
Then we began a period of very slow growth which we have had since then, very slow. We got Lee Friedlander for one semester. Then we got a commitment from the university to fill a permanent part-time position and Peter Brown was hired. Now that has been increased to a full-time position. With the exhibition program, the budget was cut quite drastically from what we had in the early days. All we can do is paint the walls, cover the pictures with glass, and shift them to and fro. But we can put something on the wall.
WW: What was it like being a photographer in a place like Houston then?
GW: I loved it. There seems to be something in me that makes me want to do the thing you are not supposed to do. Coming here to Houston was going against the grain in a way. The advice of most people in Chicago was 'Stay around here. Here people know what you are doing." But in Houston I wasn't really bothered by the notion that people didn't know what I was doing. Now it's different, now I'm older and I do want people to know what I'm doing, partly because you only have so much time to reach people with what you're doing and you want them to see it.
I think at that point in my development I was nourished and spurred on not so much by people who were doing what I was doing, but by others from other fields. There was an exhibition at the Rice Museum called Some American History, organized in conjunction with Larry Rivers. It had work by a number of New York artists, commissioned to do something about the history of the black man in this country I remember going into the show, and there were all these big paintings of things like Aunt Jemima with a machine gun, very white women in erotic stances with black men. Then there was a Larry Rivers piece that was a construction, with a white woman lying prone, cut out of plywood and painted. Hanging above her by four nooses were four black men who had been lynched. They were in very graphic hanging poses. Just startling. I remember looking at it and thinking, somehow that's very familiar; but somehow it is obnoxious. There was so much style to it, cut out plywood, painted on. It angered me that art was somehow taking human experience — really tragic human experience — and stylizing it. I couldn't figure out where I had seen these images before. Then I remembered a book published in the 1960s called The Movement. Danny Lyon was a big contributor. It had a photograph by an anonymous photographer in Kansas, about 1936, of a lynching. All you have to do is look in The Movement and there it is. But the photograph contains much more. The four guys were hanging in the same posture with the same expressions, but all around them was this crowd of gawkers. A man with this kind of funny look in his eye, pointing. A woman with a baby walking by. When I looked at that photograph, I was somehow really angered. This is what art wants to be, but it can't do it
The consequence of that was, I didn't want to be associated with art. So that kind of caused me to pull back from people in the art world, whether they were painters, photographers, or others. Photography has so much leverage, so much natural power over art. That experience really energized me. I think the realization made me know I wanted to look for my pictures wherever art didn't live.
WW: What about your gallery? How did it begin?
GW: I really wanted to have a place where people would come and look at photographs We started in the fall of 1970. It was called “Latent Image," at 1122 Bissonnet. I wasn't under the illusion that I was going to make any money at it, but I thought it might break even. Eventually I took in a partner, Jack Wetmore, who is in the printing business and interested in photography.
There were all these terrific photographers who were willing to exhibit just to have a show. Paul Caponigro had a show here. Ansel Adams had a show. There was a group show when we opened of Aaron Siskind, Arthur Siegel. Harry Callahan. Ray Metzker, and Charles Swedlund. These were people I had known in graduate school at the Institute for Design. One could just write and say I would like to have a show of your work, and would you send me some work on consignment? The answer would be yes. When we showed Ansel Adams, a 16x20 print was $150. A few people bought them, not many. We sold several Caponigro pictures. We had a show of Eikoh Hosoe, the Japanese photographer, and that didn't sell any work. A daguerreotype show. An Arthur Siegel color show. A Les Krims show. A Frederick Sommer show. We had a large number of people at openings and a trickle in between. A few, very few, actually bought.
What I had in the gallery was 90 percent consignment work. I could write Siskind and he would send me ten photographs on consignment. Callahan would send ten photographs. Then I had a certain number of photographs like the ten Robert Franks I had bought. I bought ten Edward Weston prints for $25 a piece, printed by Cole Weston. They were for sale at $50 a piece.
Some Museum of Fine Arts people would visit us, look around. One photograph was actually bought by them. It was very interesting what that one photograph was: a big print — 32x40 — of that magnificent picture from Apollo 15: I think it's Buzz Aldrin standing on the moon, slightly crooked, on the landscape. A big print. I bet that was the first photograph bought by the Museum of Fine Arts. I think it cost like $100-150. That was the only sale we made to a museum or institution.
When we closed in May, 1971, eight months after we opened, we had to have an auction of all the prints that I owned because my note had to be repaid. I had reduced it only very little. I had Siskind prints -- you know when Aaron was teaching and I was there, you could buy a 16x20 print from him for whatever you had in your pocket, $15 or $I0. It bought him lunch, and you went away with a picture. It was a deal for both of us. That was before Light Gallery carried his work. Well, I probably had six or eight Siskind pictures and they probably auctioned for $15 or $10. E.A. Carmean, who was one of the curators at the Museum of Fine Arts and is now at the National Gallery, sat in the front row and just bought them up I don't have the records but he must have bought 12, 15, 30 pictures in that auction — Frank, Siskind, Callahan. The price range was $10-$20. Bear in mind that they weren't selling for a whole lot more than that at the gallery. The Westons were marked at $50, maybe $100 by then. And they probably auctioned for $35. Frank's I think we marked at $50, and they may have gone for $25. Lots of pictures, I'm sure, sold for $10-$15. About twenty or thirty people came to the auction.
WW: Did the papers review the shows?
GW: John Scarborough at the Chronicle was alive and had developed an interest in photography and he reviewed a couple of the shows. No formal training, just a real bright guy.
WW: From the standpoint of your own career, has Houston been a beneficial place?
GW: I think my career, my development as a photographer has happened largely because I am in Houston. I can't imagine having developed anywhere else, partly because at every point that I wanted to do something, it was possible to consider doing it because of attitudes and opportunities that exist here. In those early years, there was the opportunity to bring in people. That was very helpful to me, that's the way I met Garry Winogrand and other people who were very important to me. Now if I had been stuck somewhere where there was nobody at all, that could have been disastrous.
WW: What about today for a developing photographer?
GW: I think it is an exciting, productive place. You have institutions exhibiting photography regularly, good work and big shows. There's a lot of work to be seen. There are a number of photographers you can draw on and learn from. And it's growing here in Houston. I don't know what is happening in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, but my feeling is that we've got it as good as anybody, maybe better,
WW: For a developing photographer, what is the best advice on how to show work?
GW: I don't think there is any one way. My inclination is to say first of all, try not to push too fast. I think a lot of people feel that if they can't produce pictures that are salable to museums or collectible or publishable within two or three years, there's something wrong. The main thing is to try to develop a life style, find a job or series of jobs in which you can exist and your growth can take place. Plan a long term career and don't expect things to happen too fast.
It seems to me that photographers who develop in the most interesting ways are people who don't worry too much or get too preoccupied about getting the work published or getting it purchased or getting it shown They just go about their work and they commit themselves to it. They let things fall in place. I have students who have been or are tremendously skilled, but that doesn't mean they can make a living at it or anything like that. It's not logical to assume that they are going to produce work that will be collected by museums or published by fine art magazines or exhibited in galleries in a few years. Even if that happens, it won't support them. So my suggestion is learn the skills you can support yourself with and then let your career develop in a slow, organic, natural way.
WW: For a developing photographer who wants to show you a portfolio, what impresses you?
GW: One is the development of style, even if it is closely related to some other major photographer's work. That is part of getting past just wanting to be a beginner — you begin to know what you want your photographs to look like. Not that they won't change, but you're beginning to get a sense of that. The other thing is the ability to locate subjects that are very interesting. You know, that's just critical. If someone comes to me and shows me pictures of something that I never thought to photograph, I'm impressed. That's a good mind.