(The 2018 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 9 and runs all the way through to March 17. Hammer to Nail has a slew of reviews and interviews coming in hot and heavy so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)
Garry Winogrand (1928-1984) was an American photographer who became known in the 1950s for his growing work of “street photography,” taking candid shots of ordinary people made extraordinary by his expert framing. Renowned among aficionados, he is maybe less than a household name today, especially when compared to fellow artists Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander, his colleagues in the acclaimed 1967 “New Documents” exhibit at MOMA. Why the fading from memory? Perhaps some ill-fated choices of what to focus on in his later career, or perhaps just the passage of time, which gradually erases some while elevating others. Thanks to filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer (Chekhov for Children), however, we now have an excellent cinematic retrospective of Winogrand’s life and career, showcasing his achievements and influence on those who came later via her documentary Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable.
Freyer assembles her movie from a variety of material, mixing archival footage (audio and visual) with modern-day talking-head interviews, and adding plenty of Winogrand’s images as evidence of his brilliance. Art historians, photographers and critics – including Erin O’Toole, Shelly Rice and Leo Rubinfien, among others – discuss the aesthetics and development of Winogrand’s style, explaining in lucid language, perfect for the layperson, why this or that composition was particularly innovative. One of my favorite such elucidations comes from British artist Matt Stuart – himself heavily influenced by the man – who comments that “everyone is dancing in Winogrand’s photos” (figuratively, not literally). Through oblique angles – a rejection of the magazine-style so popular when Winogrand started – and other off-kilter choices, such as having people always looking out of frame at something we never see, he helped usher in a new era of more complex framing choices.
Speaking of complicated, we also learn a lot about Winogrand’s personal life, and here some facts emerge that may give the 21st-century viewer – newly woke (we hope) to sexual power dynamics – pause, even with the caveat that times were different then. Winogrand’s first wife, for example, was only 15½ when he, at 21, took her virginity. It doesn’t help his case when we later hear Winogrand, in archival audio, discuss the best way to turn a “no” into a “yes” (hint: it involves groping). Then again, said wife, Adrienne Lubeau, herself interviewed in the movie, has mostly only good things to say about her dearly departed. And Winogrand’s son from that marriage, Ethan – a noted musician – composed the soundtrack to this documentary. Garry can’t have been all bad, then, and spent his final days, in fact, spending as much time as he could with his young daughter from marriage #2, doting on her to the end. Complicated, indeed.
Though the film occasionally suffers from the creative restrictions of the “American Masters” brand – a worthy PBS series, for sure, devoted to major artists, but one that rarely breaks new filmmaking ground – it is mostly the kind of tribute that would make anyone lucky enough to be its subject cheer from beyond the grave. Freyer gives us Winogrand, warts and all, and clearly shows us why he made a difference. May he rest in peace, and may his work live on.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)