MOVIE REVIEW: Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable

It’s quite a phenomenon to watch a documentary film about a modern photographer that is rather postmodern in its aims and intentions. If I were writing a fancy essay about Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable, the new documentary by filmmaker and Virginia Commonwealth University professor Sasha Waters Freyer, calling the film “postmodern” would be a good way to summarize how precisely and unforgivingly the film is dedicated to tearing down the aura of the modernist Great Man of Art and Culture that has come to define so many (male) artists and auteurs from the twentieth century. In that sense, it’s very clear that Freyer approached this project as a scholar as well from a filmmaker’s perspective, because in less critical hands, All Things are Photographable would have come across as a fawning appreciation of a Great Man, rather than the bracing and refreshing analysis it is. Learning that Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable won the “Special Jury Recognition for Best Feminist Reconsideration of a Male Artist” at the 2018 South by Southwest Film Festival is the exact opposite of a shock (unless you count my surprise that there actually is an award for “Best Feminist Reconsideration of a Male Artist.” How very 2018.).

In Freyer’s insightful documentary, Garry Winogrand’s personality and socio-historical contexts are not obstacles to be mitigated in the telling of a story of a talented and controversial artist, but are essential to how we can think about Winogrand’s oeuvre and his legacy as a photographer. Winogrand passed away in 1984, leaving behind a treasure trove of thousands of rolls of undeveloped film, occasioning a new look at this artist who was extremely well-known during his heyday of the 1960s and 1970s, but fell out of the frame (as it were) in subsequent years. (Pushed out, as it were, by more postmodern photographers of the Pictures Generation).

As portrayed in All Things are Photographable, Garry Winogrand was a salt-of-the-earth, Bronx-born Jewish guy with a wry sense of humor, a deep love for the people of the United States in all their forms, and a simmering reserve of anxiety and desperation. The filmmaking is rather straightforward, aside from the inexplicably twee flourish of stop-motion paper cut-outs in the opening credits, and presents Winogrand in the context of his own approach to photography—a move away from endless photographs of “smiling white people,” as one interviewee puts it—as well as his significance to the discipline of art history, discussing several significant exhibitions in which he took part, and how he became part of the MoMA-perpetuated movement to take photography seriously as an art form.

Freyer interviewed a plethora of artists, critics, writers, curators, scholars, and Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner (in fine form as an established pop-cultural expert on the 1960s, I guess). Freyer smartly features on-camera not only the expected adoring contemporaries and present-day fans of his work, but also those less-sanguine contemporaries who strongly criticized him during his life and took issue not only with aspects of his work, but also of his lionization as a Great Man of Art and Culture. There are interviewees who flatly admit that some of his photographs are “bad” (in comparison to more successful efforts). (While I hesitate to endorse calling a work of art “bad” because it’s simplistic and often anti-intellectual, it’s damned refreshing to have someone in the art world not mince words on camera.)

Indeed, it’s while discussing two of Winogrand’s (apparently) less-acclaimed books, The Animals (1969) and Women Are Beautiful (1975) that the most complex and invigorating moments of the movie take place. The Animals, published in the years after his divorce to Adrienne Lubeau (his first wife of three), is initially downplayed by the interviewees, who often appear to disagree in their assessments of the book’s significance (another refreshing touch). While it may seem to simply be a collection of photographs of people and animals at the zoo, Freyer reveals (along with her interviewees) that The Animals is about Winogrand’s experiences as a divorced father—by taking his children to the zoo, he can both spend time with them and do his job as a photographer—ultimately showing that as a lost, aimless father with no accompanying mother, he feels “animal” to himself. Capped off with a look at one of Winogrand’s most controversial images, an apparent joke that has not aged well, this segment of the movie thrills and educates in equal measure, showing what is possible when you approach a documentary subject open to all points of view. And when it comes to Women Are Beautiful, a collection of candid street images decried both then and now as sexist and objectifying to women, the analysis in All Things are Photographable gets even more fired-up and invigorating.

A comparison to Norman Mailer made early in All Things are Photographable sets the tone for the rest of the movie, which—depending on your particular attachment to the idea of the Great Man of Art and Culture (who cannot be criticized on a personal level because he was Great)—signals two intertwined tracks of thought: Garry Winogrand was a defining American artist of his generation; Garry Winogrand could be a pretty awful human being. Regardless of who it will delight or irk, Freyer clearly encouraged her interview subjects to be candid in their assessments of Winogrand. And yet when All Things are Photographable’s credits roll, you aren’t left with a “hot take” or a “takedown” of an artist who Was From A Different Time With Different Morals, but a portrait of an actual human being who existed in the world, reacting in his own way to such earth-shattering developments as the (de jure) end of school segregation, the nuclear arms race, the hippie movement, the abandonment of the cities of the eastern seaboard for the gleaming, golden West.