A documentary about an artist or photographer should feel like an adventure, one that burrows into the boldness of its subject. (There are exceptions, of course, but in general, if the subject isn’t bold, why is someone bothering to make a film about it?) “Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable” is an exceedingly good documentary, produced by American Masters in the sturdy and enlightening house style of that series, and in this case the adventure emerges directly from the work itself, because Garry Winograd was a revolutionary photographer. He drew on a mode of raw-slice-of-life documentary and “street” photography that traced back to figures like Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and a shutterbug that the film, oddly enough, never mentions: Weegee.
But Winogrand turned that tradition into something that could spin your head with its verité virtuosity. Beginning in the mid-’50s, he took his camera out into the New York streets and came back with images that were so suffused with the life unfolding in front of him that those images may have been to the world of photography what Robert Altman’s films are to cinema. That’s how jam-packed, overflowing, and alive they were.
Born in 1928, Winogrand was a squat intense fireplug of a man, and we see a handful of photos and TV clips of him, his shock of hair swept back, his grin as eager as it was rapacious, but mostly we hear recordings of him, and his voice is what’s so striking. He sounds like no one’s idea of an artist — the thick Bronx accent, the incredibly pushy and antic way of speaking, as if he were a cab driver looking to regale you with another version of the rant he just told his last passenger.
As you listen to him, though, you begin to realize that the sheer speed with which he talks is related to his images. Garry Winogrand’s mind was a manic processor, and his photographs contain a more complex swirl of visual information, caught on the fly, than the work of arguably any other photographer. Each shot is a kinetic cosmos held together by the sub-atomic relationships that exist among every figure within it. Each shot is about the layers of behavior that are happening, and that’s why nothing is “framed.” The behavior is the frame. He’s like Robert Frank meets Brueghel.
In his relatively short life (he died, in 1984, at 56), Winogrand shot over a million photographs, and as you drink in any number of them during the movie, you realize that no description of what’s in them — a woman toting a suitcase down a crowded New York street, a group of men sitting with their hounds, a family setting up a barbecue in the white sand — can begin to capture the welter of visual and psychological cues that are woven into them. They are living, breathing caught-in-time existential panoramas.
Winogrand, after several years of working for glossy magazines (which he found stifling), turned to art photography before it was a prestige thing to do. But he found a mentor in John Szarkowsi, the curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art from 1962 to 1991. Szarkowski was a power player who was instrumental in shaping our collective vision of the aesthetics of the photographed image, and in 1967 he organized a pivotal show, called New Documents, that featured three relatively unknown photographers: Diane Arbus, Lee Frielander, and Garry Winogrand.
It’s my opinion that Arbus was the single greatest photographer of her time. But as you watch “All Things Are Photographable,” you realize what an extraordinary kinship there was between her work and Winigrand’s. Arbus was the psychological master of “outsider” portraiture who revealed that the underground of contemporary life was really all of us. Winogrand was just as psychological, but in a more spontaneous, less subversive way. He caught the teeming majesty of the everyday. To look at his photographs is to feel as offhandedly alive as the people in them.
He triumphed in the ’60s and early ’70s, but in 1975, when he was a fabled and established figure, he published a book of photographs called “Women Are Beautiful” that got him into trouble with feminist critics. The book was an overt celebration of the male gaze, and it was attacked for that reason. Taken individually, the images are of a piece with his other work — which is to say, they’re powerfully empathic. Yet the packaging (the title, the “women as seen through my lens” theme) arrived at the wrong moment. It played up the side of Winogrand that made him a compatriot of that other male-gaze paragon Norman Mailer, and he took a hit.
But not one that he couldn’t bounce back from. The hit that truly hurt, apart from the breakup of his marriages (which fractured the time he could spend with his children, whom he adored), was his decision to move away from New York, first to Austin, Texas (where he taught) and then to Los Angeles. It felt like a fresh thing to do, but his work became more diffuse, and the last part of the movie chronicles an eccentricity that grew more defining, and oppressive, as time went on: Winogrand kept taking photographs, but he stopped developing and processing them. He became a hoarder of his own genius. And so when he died, suddenly, from a cancer that had been recently diagnosed, he left behind 340,000 unseen images.
The world of photography is still grappling with those images, and with the question of whether they were as powerful as his most celebrated work. At MOMA, John Szarkowski mounted a show of them four years after Winogrand’s death — though he also dismissed them as inferior. The stigma stuck. Yet in “All Things Are Photographable,” we see a number of those images, and in spirit they reminded me of late Picassos: less technically dazzling than what had come before, but with the visionary quality intact. The pull of Garry Winogrand’s photographs is that they dissolve the line between art and life. In the final phase of his career, he dissolved it all the more. So who’s to say whether he was losing his touch or, perhaps, investigating how we would see the world in the future?