Literally, the title of Dan Wechsler’s “More Than the Rainbow” describes a photo taken by the movie’s principal subject, New York street photographer Matt Weber. Figuratively, it describes the quest of all photographers for that perfect alchemy of subject and form, composition and timing, that makes one image stand apart from thousands of mere snapshots. That elusive pursuit is discussed at length by Weber and nearly a dozen other prolific shutterbugs in this loosely structured, always informative, sometimes illuminating portrait docu. Lacking any Vivian Maier-sized bogeyman, Wechsler’s pic won’t find a pot of gold in its limited theatrical run, but should find a niche audience of photography buffs in ancillary platforms.
A lifelong New Yorker with a particular fondness for all things analog and pre-gentrification, the burly, fast-talking Weber looks and sounds like someone who’s never set foot in a tony East Hampton art gallery before, let alone had his work exhibited there. But Weber’s photos speak for themselves: uncanny glimpses of the city in its shambling decrepitude, brittle poetry, tireless bustle and rugged beauty. In some of his most indelible images, a prostitute turns tricks next to a car labeled “For Sale,” three businessmen holding coffee cups cross the street in lockstep, and a homeless man bearing a strong likeness to Vincent Van Gogh sleeps splayed out on a sidewalk beneath a row of Van Gogh posters. The palate is Weber’s preferred black-and-white, the material 35mm film that he develops himself in his home studio.
A more straightforward film might have contented itself to ride shotgun with Weber, who certainly doesn’t lack charisma or interest. A former taxi driver who began his photography career by taking clandestine pictures through the windshield of his cab, Weber is now famous enough to warrant a coffee table book of his work edited by design-world renaissance man Todd Oldham, yet still humble enough to ask if his name really has to appear on the book’s cover in such large letters. But instead, Wechsler uses Weber’s story as an entry point for a larger discussion of photography, of marketplace trends and evolving technologies and, above all, the art of getting the shot.
It is said that photographers themselves don’t much like to be photographed, but Wechsler finds mostly cooperative subjects in Weber’s fellow street photographers Boogie and Dave Beckerman, fine-art photographer Ralph Gibson (who does offer the filmmaker a few pointers on how to compose his closeup) and fetish photographer Eric Kroll, who nearly steals the film with his cigar-chomping bluster and outre declarations — a photo-world Hunter Thompson. Each harbors a distinct vision of the world and perspective on their chosen craft. Weber and Gibson extoll the influence of Henri Cartier-Bresson, only for Julio Mitchell (author of the Lower East Side photo study “South of the Border”) to come along and declare him an overrated fraud. Kroll, it turns out, feels much the same way about Weber’s own work.
Mostly, though, the talk hovers around matters of aesthetics and ethics: the relationship between artist and subject, whether there can ever be “truth” in photography, and what a photo may reveal about the person who took it. In some of the movie’s best scenes, Wechsler even puts Weber in the same room as his other subjects and lets them talk shop to each other.
It is, of course, the pictures that do the real talking here, whether street photographer Zoe Strauss’ unfettered portrait of a middle-aged man sprawled nude across his bed, or Weber’s spellbinding image of a mother and two young children playing in the park while the World Trade Center burns in the distance. That is, in a nutshell, the ineffable “more” Weber and company are searching for — that fleeting, poetic moment that may even elude our own eyes, but can be trapped forever by the camera’s gaze.
Befitting the pic’s free-form, jazzy structure, Wechsler opts for a soundtrack heavy on Thelonious Monk standards.