Garry Winogrand hated being called “a street photographer,” even if he was regarded as the most essential of them all. The great success of Sasha Waters Freyer’s straightforward but evocative documentary “Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable,” is how well it explains why someone could have such a strong aversion to a term that was practically invented to describe them.
Winogrand, for better or worse, was allergic to bullshit. A hyper-masculine Bronx Jew who many of Freyer’s interviewees graciously refer to as “a man of his times” (perhaps because “misogynist” would end the inquiry they’re hoping to deepen), the late artist is often likened to the Norman Mailer of the visual world, a comparison that grows more fraught — and less flattering — by the day. “A photograph is a literal description of how a camera saw a time and space,” we hear Winogrand say in his thick Cassavetes accent towards the very beginning of the film, the first of many excerpted snippets from his final lecture. “A camera describes — to use it for anything else is foolish.”
Later, someone in the audience asks him why he only uses available light. “That’s the only light there is,” Winogrand laughs.
Here was a man who shot what he saw and left the rest up to us. “It was his world, not ours,” said MoMA curator and Winogrand champion John Szarkowski, “except to the degree that we might accept his pictures as a just metaphor for our recent past.” As much as his voluminous Leica M4 snapshots form a vital picture of a country in the middle of its post-war identity crisis, they also serve as a million little monochrome self-portraits of an artist who was utterly inextricable from his art. Winogrand shot women’s liberation marches because he liked the braless girls, he devoted his entire first book to zoo animals because he was a middle-aged divorcee who wanted to spend time with his kids, and he placed himself in his photographs in ways so obvious that it took years for someone to notice them (regarding that last point, Freyer’s doc builds to a beautiful revelation that resonates with a Wellesian smirk).
“Street photographer?” What a sterile way to describe someone who just captured what he wanted — who didn’t wait for permission to take pictures, or require an assignment.
“All Things Are Photographable” is shaped like a stiflingly traditional bio-doc, with hundreds of Winogrand’s pictures interspersed between talking heads (Laurie Simmons, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, etc.) and choice bits of archival footage. It’s no surprise to learn that, after its theatrical run, the film will move to its permanent home as part of the “American Masters” series on PBS. But Freyer — steeped in the world of photography and interested in probing deeper than a hagiography or a history lesson — finds new ways to complicate and enliven an old form. “You become an artist despite, not because,” Winogrand says, and this film takes that ethos to heart, revealing the full scope of a man who would sooner die than deny any part of himself.
Freyer is definitely a fan, and she justifies her interest to a wider audience without leaning too hard on unhelpful hooks (just because Winogrand’s style was a necessary precursor to Instagram doesn’t mean that it would be interesting to unpack that for longer than 30 seconds). If anything, her documentary has an occasional tendency to wander into the weeds of art history, and threatens to get a bit tedious for anyone who doesn’t come to the movie with a pre-existing interest in how Winogrand disrupted the establishment.
Fortunately, the film is clearer when it counts, and Freyer constructs an especially compelling account of Winogrand’s groundbreaking transition from photojournalism to art-making. He resented the posed fantasy of magazine work, which didn’t square with the existential crisis he suffered for the brunt of his adult life. Winogrand was much happier publishing books like the controversial “Women Are Beautiful,” which he privately subtitled “The Observations of a Male Chauvinist Pig.” The brief section that Freyer devotes to that collection of photographs — an unapologetic monument to the male gaze — is the film’s best and most conflicted.
The conversation that Freyer creates between her interviewees is balanced and insightful without resorting to false equivocation. On the one hand, there’s something precious about Winogrand’s sincerity, which became all the more valuable after Andy Warhol and his ilk began to put everything at the distance required to deconstruct it. On the other hand, “Women Are Beautiful” was born out of a culture of cat-calling, and the gatekeepers who embraced these images as the stuff of fine art were helping to sanctify street harassment and general objectification.
Both arguments are convincing. The former, because Winogrand’s photos complicate our collective understanding of what makes for “good art,” or even what we know about the art that we’re so quick to classify. The latter, because Freyer doesn’t shy away from the fact that Winogrand had a Trumpian view of the fairer sex. We even get to hear the photographer’s own “Access Hollywood” tape, as Freyer includes audio of Winogrand talking about his pick-up game: “Who talks about it? I grab. If that doesn’t work, you convince [the girls] with the other hand.” A man of his time.
But “All Things Are Photographable” isn’t contemptuous of Winogrand’s boorishness; any honest reflection of his life and work has to deal with the unvarnished whole of both, as he always did. That’s a challenge that Freyer takes seriously, though it makes the on-screen absence of Winogrand’s children a bit hard to reconcile, especially as his son composed the music for the film. All things may be photographable, but there’s only so much we can fit in the frame.
“Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable” is now playing in theaters. It will air on PBS in the future.