'Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable': Film Review

An unusually rich art-doc with an old-New York twang.

Sasha Waters Freyer assesses the artist and the man in her documentary about photographer Garry Winogrand.

One of the rare art-world bio-docs that delivers the sensation of seeing a story unfold dramatically onscreen, Sasha Waters Freyer's Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable introduces a compulsive picture-taker who was for a time hailed as photography's essential artist, then saw critical opinion turn on him. Alert not just to shifts in the critical zeitgeist but to accompanying changes in social mores, the fascinating film speaks to the most sophisticated students of fine-art photography without alienating casual buffs. Festival auds should respond well, and it will make a fine addition to PBS' American Masters series once it airs there.

The doc begins with what will be its most compelling ingredient (aside from the photographs, of course): Winogrand's Bronx-y, opinionated voice, recorded at a public lecture and expounding on what his art is about. (Later audiotapes, made of private conversations with a friend, are also invaluable.) "What does a camera do...but describe?," he asks, with streetwise common sense. "You should learn to call a thing what it is." A barrage of Winogrand's black-and-white greatest hits finds him doing that, in street photography that required athleticism behind the camera. But before it seems to be mislabeling him as a verite documentarian, the film brings in a slew of photographers, dealers and scholars to call out the artistry behind the work. Colleagues blaze through some fairly deep observations about composition and theme, but, weaving in a narrative of Winogrand's early life, the doc offers plenty to viewers with less well-trained eyes.

"I call them the nose-job generation," Mad Men's Matthew Weiner says of the Jewish immigrants Winogrand grew up around: "They're enjoying the benefits of assimilation, but they cannot assimilate." As a youngster, he was well-off enough to study painting instead of a profession at Columbia. But when Winogrand discovered the university's camera club, he switched creative paths and never looked back. The picture magazines like Look and Life were where any photographer was expected to make his name at the time, but Winogrand soon came to see such photojournalist assignments as fraudulent, deciding he would be an artist, not "do jobs."

Freyer recalls how Museum of Modern Art photo director John Szarkowski, a tastemaker of unparalleled influence, singled Winogrand out and put him in landmark shows. The film makes especially good use of his 1967 "New Documents" exhibition, in which the three artists exhibited — Winogrand, Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus — represent very different but congruous aspects of everything exciting about photography at that moment. Artist Laurie Simmons, whose career started to take flight around a decade later, recalls wanting to reject the whole aesthetic in her own pictures. "Now," she admits, "I love all that work."

But then came bodies of work the elites loved less. With the advantage of hindsight, Freyer's interviewees can both critique and appreciate Winogrand's first book, The Animals, which some dismissed at the time. Writer Geoff Dyer refers to these as "the divorced dad's pictures," since they were taken on the frequent trips Winogrand made to the zoo when he was caring for the children of his first marriage. More roundly dumped-on was (and is) Women Are Beautiful, a 1975 suite: Freyer gives interviewees plenty of time to dissect the male gaze here, but even one who finds the collection "deeply problematic," NYU historian and critic Shelley Rice, can point to individual pictures she loves.

Here, the aesthetic talk syncs up beautifully with discussion of Winogrand's unsuccessful marriages and his thoughts about women. He was, as we hear, a "man of his times." Life and art go hand in hand in the doc's third act, which follows Winogrand away from New York, to live in Texas and California. It was the beginning of "the big lag," in which he kept shooting as many photographs as ever — one speaker, citing his disregard for the cost of processing film, describes Winogrand as the first digital photographer — but didn't have the wherewithal to develop or sort through them.

Taking the shots but never culling through them, he became "half a photographer." When he died early, of cancer at age 56, others had to pick through hundreds of thousands of new images to mount his posthumous retrospective. The general consensus was that Winogrand lost his talent in his final years. (Plugging U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" into this sequence is the most distracting of several on-the-nose music choices.) But even here, there's room for drama: Photographer Thomas Roma, part of the team that organized all that unprocessed material, posits an explanation for its quality that is both deeply poignant and too good a piece of art-history detective work to ruin in a review.

Production companies: Pieshake Pictures, American Masters Pictures
Director-producer-editor: Sasha Waters Freyer
Executive producer: Michael Kantor
Director of photography: Ed Marritz
Composer: Ethan Winogrand
Venue: San Francisco Film Festival
Sales: David Koh, Submarine

91 minutes