Documentary Review — “Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable”

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Garry Winogrand was a street photographer, somebody who found art in the real life he was documenting on the streets of New York, someone not unlike the more famous Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt and his more infamous New York predecessor “Weegie.”

He shot tens of thousands of rolls, exposed over a million frames of film, and upon his death, left hundreds of thousands more undeveloped, unprinted and not-quite-forgotten.

He was “the original digital photographer,” “burning film” at an astounding rate, as if testing the thesis about how many monkeys it might take to type out “Hamlet.”

He made his bones as a commercial photographer, grabbing magazine images of celebrities and strippers, politicians and Americana.

And then one day, an influential art photographer and fan, John Szarkowski, landed the job of curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and pronounced Wino grand “the central photographer of his generation,” and parked him in the middle of an important exhibition also featuring Diane Arbus and Richard Friedlander. Winogrand became a star, a published artist, a teacher and lecturer.

The new documentary “Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable” offers a decent if superficial portrait of the man and a vast sampling of the work that identifies him, undeniably, as an artist. But it’s also an unintentional and somewhat backhanded essay on the caprices of modern art, how one gets to be famous in the insular world of New York galleries and the taste-making museums of the Big Apple.

Because Winogand, “a poet with a camera,” “a choreographer,” a man whose still photographs — mostly black and white — “moved” in the frame and documented the “Mad Men” era in New York like few others, was also selected for fame.

A pugnacious, motor-mouthed Bronx-accented “big city hick,” as one of those describing him says in the movie, often compared to the writer Norman Mailer, Winogand was a photojournalist who re-directed his eye in a more personal direction. And as the “artist” label welded itself to him, he got good at pontificating, oversimplifying what he did in the false modesty of the talented and acclaimed.

“All a photograph ever does is describe light on surface,” he’d say, in interviews and public Q & As and lectures. “It’s not lightning striking. It’s part of a process.”

Scores upon score of his shots illustrate “All Things are Photographable,” shots with immaculate compositions, striking images of people at airports, people with bandaged faces, tragedies observed obliquely, interracial couples at a time when that was rare, “liberated” (bra-less) women at a time when that was commonplace.

When he captured, developed and printed images of blurry people in the foreground, heads lopped off, “tragedy” photos that tell half a story without facts and details, he was “redefining composition.”

He figured out that labeling himself a Robert Frank and Walker Evans fan, even if his shots don’t really resemble theirs, was a way to be marked as in their class.

When he produced a book with an occasional leering quality about it entitled “Women are Beautiful,” he was widely criticized and reviled. But now, decades after his death, he can be appreciated for preserving, for all time, the look of his age — pre-Photoshop, before widespread cosmetic surgery, personal trainers and advances in dermatology, makeup and skin and hair care products.

His friends, biographers, curators and one ex-wife appear in “All Things,” mixed in with his images, archival news footage of the streets of the day (he shot in LA, Las Vegas and Texas, too) and snippets of public talks, TV interviews and on-the-street audio (Radio?) interviews. And the portrait that emerges is that of a lonely obsessive who compulsively took pictures “to see how something would look in a photograph” — hundreds of thousands of images. Millions.

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If the work more often reveals him to be a great craftsman while those who champion him use phrases like “a philosopher about what photography is,” that’s just the price of that “artist” label and the place it was applied.

His obsessions, always finding people looking off frame, flicking his Leica up and snapping frame after frame when he’d see odd “chorus lines” of people, someone with a large bandage on his or her face, are fascinating.

But his fame is anchored in the fortuitously capturing the reaction the wheelchair-bound beggar earns on the faces of  young female passersby in Los Angeles, perfectly-framing a solitary sailor walking through snow along Battery Park in the evening, noticing the woman passed-out (hopefully) in a gutter front of a Denny’s as traffic whirls by her.

It takes little away from Winogrand to note that do that, he had to shoot more film than anybody else, even if in his later years, he never bothered to develop it — just like the utterly unheralded (during her lifetime)  photographer/nanny Vivian Maier.

Winogrand’s best stands with anyone’s. But as Sasha Waters Freyer’s just-revealing-enough film makes clear in its third act, when Arthur Quiller-Couch’s crack about editing, having the good sense and eye to “murder your darlings” is applied to him, Winogrand was for all of his career a photographer, for some of that career an artist and for too much of it “half a photographer” — not making art, not making prints. Just snapping and snapping away.

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MPAA Rating:unrated, nudity, profanity

Cast: Garry Winogrand,  Geoff Dyer, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Susan Kismaric

Credits:Directed by Sasha Waters Freyer. A Greenwich Entertainment/PBS “American Masters” release.

Running time: 1:30

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