In the opening scenes of the film Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable, one can hear Winogrand’s thickset, buttery Bronx voice as he explains to an unseen person that the photograph is an illusion, that it can only capture what the camera sees in a particular time and space. Then he goes on to make other observations about the medium’s inherent limitations. The documentary thus starts by giving us an unromantic street philosopher, who will seriously discuss the ontology of the photographic image while tellin’ ya how it really is. But then, the images of street life that litter the film show Winogrand to be utterly fascinated by the movement, emotional registers, and the dramatic persona of everyday people. We all rise to the level of the poetic when seen through Winogrand’s lens. So this is no dispassionate visual historian of the harried, urban, citizen in the throes of post-war US social upheaval; Winogrand was actually smitten with human beings.
Here we have the beginnings of the inconsistencies that combine to make a complex portrait of the photographer who emerges in this documentary directed by Sasha Waters Freyer. She gives us the typical talking heads rhetorically reviving the ghost of the photographer who died in 1984. Matt Stuart, a well-known British street photographer, is one of these heads, and in one of the most poignant moments of the film, talks about how Winogrand’s remarkably sensitive vision encompassed the entire body. He describes to the camera, while leafing through a book of Winogrand’s work, how the photographer saw the choreography being performed by passersby, caught up in their own modern dance. We see women shopping, men in suits talking, tourists strolling, workers posing for him, and the legs are articulating a language the rest of the body seemingly isn’t privy to. Throughout watching the film I am struck by how much work the photographs do in telling Winogrand’s story and imagine that it must have made the process of assembling the film easier. Yet, it does not. It doesn’t because then Freyer had to take on the responsibility of explaining where this eye, this sensitivity came from, or at least how else these faculties played out in the other aspects of Winogrand’s life.
Freyer, in creating her composite portrait of the artist, leads us through his failed marriages; his being influenced by other photographers, including Walker Evans and Robert Frank; his move from photojournalism (which he felt limited him to the role of illustrator) to fine artist; his published photography books; his move to Texas and then California, and what is presented as a conundrum about the supposed fall-off in quality in his work upon moving west. The film weaves together plot and character development so well that when it arrives at the moment when he finds he has cancer and dies soon after, it does feel like the world lost something vital.
It’s also crucial to the impact of the film that it doesn’t avoid or try to iron out the questionable parts of his character, such as the sexism obvious in Winogrand’s Women are Beautiful book. One critic observes that it is really about Winogrand attending women’s rights rallies so that he can photograph nipples. The entire complicated person that Freyer presents is fascinating, and she makes him have emotional impact, but what makes the film memorable is how Winogrand becomes visible as a transitional figure in the historical development of photography as an artistic medium.
Several of the assembled critics, writers, and fellow photographers talk about the miasma that photography fell into in the 1980s. Some describe the onset of postmodernism as the chief cause for the fall-off in interest in Winogrand’s work at this time. By “postmodernism” they may mean the intellectual movement that sought to interrogate and dismantle the structures that underly everyday cultural creation — practices such as looking, buying, and selling, making movies, pictures, and news stories, and so on — with an eye toward moving marginalized people to the center of cultural discourse. Winogrand caught the beginning of this wave, producing the book Public Relations, which in essence took a meta-discursive approach to the staging of information dissemination, like press conferences. Nevertheless, photography in that decade and into the ’90s — when I was a student of photography shooting studio portraits — became anxious of its status as a recorder of a kind of truth. I know this because my own work capsized in that crashing wave.
I was fascinated with human bodies and the studio techniques and technologies that could subtly transform them into icons. So I watched with a sense of creeping depression as photography in the US became insecure about telling anyone else’s truth (especially if that truth was made for financial gain or cultural credentialing in ways that were exploitive). The medium became anemically philosophical about what it could represent that wasn’t always already an affirmation of the political status quo. In galleries and MFA exhibitions I saw an endless stream of images of softly hued domestic interiors that betrayed hints of (deferred) human presence: food stains on a countertop, an item of clothing draped over a chair, a partly opened door, a verdant plant on a window sill. All Things are Photographable reminds me of what brash, unselfconscious documentation of the dramatic, teeming nature that our interactions can be.
Even in Women Are Beautiful, that failed attempt at coming to an understanding of social change through chronicling the Women’s Movement, there is complicated insight. Winogrand’s cover photograph consists of a white woman who is holding an ice cream cone throwing her head back to laugh at the sky, eyes closed. There’s glamour in the shot, the tasteful dress she wears, a coat and gloves slung over one arm also holding a handbag with the creamy, slightly messy indulgence held in her hand, perfectly upright and poised, while she gives the rest of her body over to pleasure. One can clearly see the bourgeois trappings of her life, even the store window behind her displays the top half of a suit likely worn by her romantic partner, and intuit the rigor all this social performance demands. And one hopes for her sake she gets to eat all of that ice cream cone before it melts.
In this image one can see the philosopher become undone as he watches that hard shell of social status performance lift off and waft upwards and one can tell that Winogrand revered these moments of real, sensuous humanity bobbing to the surface. (And this is what I most miss from contemporary photography.) One knows in a few seconds she will look completely different, that other face, will come sliding back down as she greets her mate, or hails a cab. But in that moment we got to glimpse her being free. She was almost free. Winogrand might have said that, that it was there, evident in her face, that sharp fragrance of somewhere else. I know it was, Winogrand would say in that Bronx brogue. Here, I can show you. I got proof.