There Is Nothing As Mysterious As a Fact Clearly Described

Garry Winogrand? Diane Arbus? Sandra S. Phillips? John Dufresne? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A photograph presents a direct representation of a person, object, or landscape. It seems to provide a perfect unmediated description. Yet, photographs can be cryptic, confusing, or misleading. The photographer is typically a purposeful intermediary.

Garry Winogrand who became famous for his street photography made a pertinent observation. Here are three versions:

  • There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.
  • Nothing is quite so mysterious as a thing well-described.
  • Nothing is so mysterious as a fact clearly stated.

Would you please help me to find the correct phrasing together with a precise citation?

Quote Investigator: An exhibition of Garry Winogrand’s photographs was held from March 15, 1976 to April 2, 1976 at the Grossmont College Gallery in El Cajon, California. The accompanying catalog included an artist statement from Winogrand titled “Understanding Still Photographs”. He began with a quotation and a motto. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Robert Frost

There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.

Winogrand’s short essay included the following statement about the unreality of photographs:

A still photograph is the illusion of a literal description of how a camera saw a piece of time and space.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Winogrand employed the quotation during other exhibitions. For example, in 1979 an arts journalist of “The Miami News” of Florida printed the following: 2

“There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described,” acclaimed photographer Garry Winogrand writes in the introduction to his work in the current exhibition at the American Foundation for the Arts.

In 1990 the reference “Modern Arts Criticism: A Biographical and Critical Guide To Painters, Sculptors, Photographers and Architects” edited by Joann Prosyniuk reprinted the essay form the 1976 catalog within a section titled “Artists Statements”. 3

The 2003 book “Diane Arbus: Revelations” contained photographs spanning the career of the well-known artist. An essay about her titled “Question of Belief” by Sandra S. Phillips included a footnote presenting a rephrased version of Winogrand’s quotation: 4

As Friedlander has said, “If you want information you need lots of light, especially if a shadow is covering what you want to see.” Winogrand said, “Nothing is so mysterious as a fact clearly stated.”

Also in 2003 the book “The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction” by John Dufresne presented another version of the saying: 5

The photographer Garry Winogrand said, “Nothing is quite so mysterious as a thing well-described” And the mystery is what we celebrate, isn’t it?

In 2004 “Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers On Their Art” edited by Brooks Johnson reprinted the essay from the 1976 catalog: 6

There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described. What I write here is a description of what I have come to understand about photography, from photographing and from looking at photographs.

In conclusion, Garry Winogrand deserves credit for the remark he published in the 1976 catalog for the exhibition at the Grossmont College Gallery. Different versions of the statement have evolved over time.

(Great thanks to J (& H) Caws-Elwitt whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Image Notes: Portrait of Photographer Christian Franzen by Joaquín Sorolla circa 1901. Image has been resized and cropped.

Notes:

  1. Website: eBay, Auction Item: Garry Winogrand Grossmont College Book 1976, Auction Goal Price: US $500.00, Seller Name: pixelheaad (the letter “a” appears twice), Auction Information Was Updated November 23, 2020, (Auction item was accompanied with photographs. One photograph showed an essay by Garry Winogrand titled “Understanding Still Photographs”), Website description: eBay is a large auction website. (Accessed ebay.com on December 1, 2020)
  2. 1979 June 8, The Miami News, Miami art scene: Two worthwhile photography exhibits at one location Dobbs by Lillian Dobbs, Quote Page 3D, Column 1, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1990, Modern Arts Criticism: A Biographical and Critical Guide To Painters, Sculptors, Photographers and Architects, Edited by Joann Prosyniuk, Volume 1, Entry: Gary Winogrand, Subsection: Artists Statements, Quote Page 532, Gale Research Inc., Detroit, Michigan. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2003, Diane Arbus Revelations by Diane Arbus, Essay: The Question of Belief by Sandra S. Phillips, Section: Endnotes, Note Number 37, Quote Page 331, Column 2, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 2004 (2003 Copyright), The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne, Chapter: The Meaning of Life Is to See, (Footnote), Quote Page 95, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified with Amazon Look Inside)
  6. 2004, Photography Speaks: 150 Photographers On Their Art, Edited by Brooks Johnson, Photographer: Garry Winogrand 1928-1984, Start Page 228, Quote Page 228, Aperture Foundation: Chrysler Museum of Art, New York. (Verified with scans)