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Garry Winogrand Documentary Casts New Light on Mid-Century Street Photographer

It’s an amazing time for documentaries — in fact, there are so many looks into fascinating lives and subjects out there right now that it’s hard to keep track of them all. The brilliant, complicated life and legacy shown in “Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable,” which premiered at SXSW last year, is as compelling as many of the other lauded docus of the past year. But if it slipped under the radar amongst the riches, there’s another chance to catch it when it airs on PBS’ “American Masters” on April 19.

Over three decades of street photography, Winogrand confronted some of the most central themes of mid-century America, from sexism to fame to race and poverty. Though he became one of the last century’s most important visual artists, the photographer died at 56 leaving thousands of negatives unseen — a mystery that underpins the first documentary made about him.

Starting out as a magazine photographer for 1950s pictorials, he moved into more artistic work in the 1960s, a contemporary of Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. His mostly New York-set images from the 1960s are indelible portraits of an optimistic but gritty America and its people. Some feel his work suffered after moving to Texas and Los Angeles, where he often shot with his young daughter in tow and from a car window after an injury. But Winogrand’s passion for disappearing into his work through the act of making images turned unmanageable when thousands of rolls of undeveloped film began piling up in his later years.

Director Sasha Waters Freyer, a professor of photography, was inspired to make the documentary after visiting the major Winogrand retrospective at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art in 2013. It’s currently available on digital rental platforms.

How did the documentary get off the ground?

I just thought, it’s crazy there’s no documentary about Garry Winogrand, he’s so fascinating, there’s so much work and he was so important. I got the permission from the estate and the family and they were really wonderful to work with. I decided to go ahead and do the the Kickstarter campaign — there were enough people in the global online photography community who knew Garry and his work and might be interested. That was a nail-biting period, but we raised $50,000. That was part of what  helped convince “American Masters” to get on board, to see that there was an audience  for him out there.

How did you manage to grapple with sorting through thousands of images?

I spent a week at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. It was overwhelming, when they started bringing out the boxes of contact sheets, I realized, this is way more than I can possibly look at in a week. But then I was able to get access to the digitized contact sheets, I was able to spend a lot of time looking at them during the whole production. I wanted it to be a mix of the more famous iconic images and new images people hadn’t seen.

The Super 8 color film footage really helps bring his images to life — how did you find the footage?

The Super 8 footage I found when I went out to do the research in Tucson. I really wanted to use them because they are made by Garry, and they’re in color, it’s kind of a nice visual contrast to the static black and white still footage. I was interested in the parallels between the way he shot Super 8 and the way he shot still. He would often hold the Super 8 camera static for several minutes, observing people, using it out in the world. It was a tool that he was interested in exploring. He stopped shooting 8mm when he left New York, there’s only only about four hours total.

The audiotapes of Winogrand talking to his friend Jay Maisel were also illuminating — how did you track them down?

That was a fantastic bit of luck. The day I filmed the interview with (MOMA curator) Susan Kismaric, she said “Did you hear about these audiocassette tapes?” She said, “I listened to them, I didn’t think they were very interesting.” It was a warm funny conversation, their families, wives, what it means to be a photographer. It’s the only kind of unstaged, unplanned media of Winogrand in existence — Everything else are lectures, public talks, TV interviews. These are much more intimate and totally unstaged.

How did you come to terms with the feminist criticism of his work?

Garry Winogrand embodies a certain kind of American masculinity. It’s really complicated and fraught, it’s part of the legacy of what we’re facing in this country now. At SXSW, the film won a special jury prize for the “best feminist reconsideration of a male artist.” I loved and appreciated that so much.

One or two people said after the line about grabbing women that it was a dealbreaker. They couldn’t see it in a nuanced context, but that’s a minority. I struggled about whether to include it. (Winogrand says in a conversation with Jay Maisel “When a woman doesn’t want to be with you, I just grab. Maisel says, “What if they don’t grab back? and Wingrand says “Then I convince them with my other hand.”)

I read it as hyperbole, performing a certain kind of masculinity for a friend. But other people read it in a darker and more sinister way.

His career has been described as “an uncertain legacy,” because of issues brought up by feminist critics and because so much of his work was never shown. What do you think viewers can take away from his work?

His legacy is problemized by the late work, the unfinished work. Now there are other ways of approaching it, and thinking about it. I think there’s a lot of wonderful things in that late work, but the gems are harder to find — he wasn’t looking at it.

Was he depressed?

He struggled with a lot — figuring out where he fit in. There’s been a lot said about the way he represents women. But if you look at the work, he looks at men a lot. I think about him being an immigrant from the Bronx, being kind of an outsider — that becomes amplified once he moved to Los Angeles.

He shot on the set of “Annie” and did some celebrity photography — what was his relationship to Hollywood?

He was friends with Taylor Hackford, he shot on set of “Against All Odds” in South America. He was definitely interested — it followed his work in the book “Public Relations.” He wasn’t interested in celebrity or fame — he was interested in how you take this spectacle that’s being created for a film and try and make an interesting photograph of it that’s more interesting than what’s already happening?

Why did you interview “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner ? 

I had a couple of photographs that looked like they could be stills from the set of “Mad Men.” Matthew Weiner knows his work and had looked at it, he’s a geek researcher. When I got in touch with him I found out that Time magazine ran a special issue and asked people to pick photographs that had influenced them and he picked a Garry Winogrand photo called Coney Island 1952. He was quite knowledgeable about the work.

How was the photo of the interracial couple holding young chimpanzees at the zoo received at the time?

There aren’t criticisms of chimpanzees in the same way as the photos of women. That photograph was made in 1968, it was about the disintegration of the family and anxiety around race. He was willing to let it speak for itself, for better or worse. Now, it’s less viable for artists to put work out there and say “I’m not going to explain it.” I don’t think audiences have patience for that.

Is street photography still a viable art form? 

You don’t really see contemporary street photography being circulated in the museum and gallery scene. There’s been so much digital manipulation, maybe the pendulum will swing back in response to the concern about reality, towards direct realism in photography being appreciated.

Do you think he really thought he would finish developing and looking at all those unseen photos some day?

His family and friends believed him when he said he would catch up. He died so suddenly, he was 56. I don’t know people even knew how much he had fallen behind, until after the fact.

 

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