AT A DISTANCE
I first saw Jason Winshell’s work at a large group show at San Francisco’s City Hall in 2008. I remember thinking that he must have some nerve to look so directly at people and, with them looking back, make a record of their image. My initial interest in his work was best described by the curator John Szarkowski: “The basic material of photographs is not intrinsically beautiful. … You’re not supposed to look at the thing, you’re supposed to look through it. It’s a window.”
In my mind, Winshell remains one of just a few artists who photograph people going about their daily lives. However, he asserts that he is not just a passive observer or documentarian. Winshell recently described to me how he thinks about this interaction.
“People move through their lives in self-created bubbles of personal space that insulate them from social contact, especially in urban environments. I actively look for bubbles and await their collision with each other and the environment. But I don't just watch. I pursue opportunities to break their fragile wrappers and photograph the result of my own involvement.”
Winshell’s ideas about observing the individual bubbles as they come together in social interactions, and even his willingness to become part of the equation, give him a process to follow and grant him social permission to get these images. Winshell does not confine himself to his own social circle. He goes out onto the streets, to places where diverse crowds gather, where he says the most complicated social interactions occur.
As we all know, the majority of the images in our culture are commercially produced, carefully art-directed, professionally shot photographs. As a record of our culture, it is certainly skewed toward ideal types. Winshell’s work provides the anomalous, the incongruent, and what we perceive as common or real. It is composed but not art-directed, selected but not planned.
The photo “Passing by Car Window, Carnaval Celebration” (2008) presents a great example. What is the subject of this image? We see central characters in the form of two women. We see a driver, but his attention is turned away. His reflective sunglasses obscure his eyes. Though he fills a fourth of the frame, he acts as an element that recasts the two women. We are gazing through the open car window to a frame filled with figures and life.
While Winshell’s motivation is to show social dynamics, the picture works brilliantly on a formal level. This is a crowded event and there is a lot of information, but it is at the same time broken down into planes or sections that are discovered upon looking. The car seems to be passing by, although it could be parked. In addition to the two windows, windshield and side, are three mirrors that hold images: the rearview mirror, the passenger-side mirror, and the driver’s mirrored sunglasses. These reflections send us around the picture. There are multiple interactions and even some personal drama. Rather than freeze the moment, much of Winshell’s composition implies motion. The car seems to be gliding through the people. Arms are bent, hands are touching. People are headed in different directions. One of the central women is touching the other woman’s arm in a way that can be read as purposeful, protective and gentle.
There is also tremendous formal beauty in Winshell’s work. In “Birthday Party” (2007) he fills the frame with four girls all gathered around a cake with candles. It is a familiar scene, but it yields an uncommon energy.
Winshell’s chosen title for this book, “At a Distance,” is an expression of the physical and social distances between the photographer and his subject. At the same time, his work collapses this space, and puts it to good use. The distance may be one of time. These photos also may serve as a record that could transcend time — just as beautiful and true many years in the future.
At the heart of all image making is survival — cultural, of course, but in some sense species or group survival as well. Winshell is assuring survival for a wider array of society. He presents us with a window on the world that is all around us but little noticed, one through which the world might be better known.
SFMOMA Artists Gallery