The Streetwise Anthropologist

The name Garry Winogrand might not be familiar to you but you have probably seen some of his most famous photographs over the years. There are his candid celebrity shots that include a young John F. Kennedy amid attendees at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles circa 1960 and Marilyn Monroe on the set of Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch (1955) as she stands over a subway grate, her skirt billowing around her. More typical are his street scenes and public places portraits such as the one of a young couple frolicking in the surf at Coney Island or the acrobat caught in mid-air above the sidewalk. All of these and many more are included in a deep dive of his four-decade archive in Sasha Waters Freyer’s engrossing documentary, Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable.

Coney Island, New York, 1952 (photo by Garry Winogrand).

Produced for the American Masters series on PBS, the film is an excellent overview and critique of Winogrand’s work that compiles an impressive array of resources including audio recordings and interviews with the photographer plus personal observations from former wives, renowned peers and art critics. Often acknowledged as one of the most important American photographers of the 20th century, Freyer’s documentary makes a good case for this while also delving into aspects of Winogrand’s workaholic nature that eventually became problematic in his final years when his work was being downgraded by art critics in comparison to his peak years in the 60s.

New York Worlds Fair 1964 (photo by Garry Winogrand).

Winogrand, who grew up in the Bronx, doesn’t fit the image of a celebrated photographer like Richard Avedon or Irving Penn and, in conversion, sounds more like a gruff New York cab driver with a from-the-gut, non-pretentious approach to his art: “You see something happening and you bang away at it. Either you get what you saw or you get something else – and whichever is better you print.”

Apollo 11 Moon Shot, Cape Kennedy, Florida, 1969 (photo by Garry Winogrand).

Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable takes a standard chronological approach to its subject but Winogrand’s rise to success from a freelance magazine photographer to being championed by John Szarkowski, MoMa’s highly influential Curator of Photography, is thrillingly documented. Eugene Atget was an early influence, particularly his 1912 photo of Parisians watching an eclipse, and Walker Evans and Robert Frank were obvious inspirations. You can easily see Evans’ penchant for pictorial detail and Frank’s gift for capturing outsiders and the marginalized in aspects of Winogrand’s work. Strangely enough, Weegee aka Arthur Fellig, is not mentioned in the documentary but surely his work, with its gritty urban subject matter, must have been an influence on Winogrand because there are photographs that reflect the same chaotic street incidents and grim urban realism that mirror Weegee’s stark crime scene images.

Los Angeles, 1964 (Photo by Garry Winogrand)

What was it that drove Winogrand to begin fervently documenting the streets of New York with his camera, often neglecting his duties as a husband and father to perfect his craft? At one point in the film, we hear Winogrand admit that through the camera lens he was trying to make sense of the human race and that perhaps he might understand why we are here or if we even deserve redemption as a species. Sentimental or nostalgic are certainly not criticisms that apply to Winogrand’s images but even in the most bleak and despairing images one feels a compassion for the subjects.

American Legion Convention, Dallas, Texas, 1964 (photo by Garry Winogrand)

The documentary points to 1964 as Winogrand’s most productive year when he was shooting in Texas and California with a 35mm camera but his real emergence in the art world was probably the New Documents show at MoMA in 1967 which showcased his work alongside Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus. There is a wonderful segment in the film where we also see examples of Winogrand’s color photography but he returned to black and white film exclusively due to budgetary reasons and the convenience of faster lab processing.

Central Park Zoo, 1967 (photo by Garry Winogrand)

Freyer occasionally uses pop music to mark transitions in Winogrand’s career and as an excuse to display numerous iconic images in a music video style: Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind” represents the 50s, Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” is used for the 60s and so on. Freyer also addresses the controversies that often arose over some of Winogrand’s work such as the infamous 1967 photo of an interracial couple holding pet monkeys dressed like small children as they visited the Central Park Zoo.

An image from Garry Winogrand’s 1975 photo collection, Women Are Beautiful.

Women are Beautiful, Winogrand’s 1975 portfolio, had the misfortune to appear at a time when the feminist movement was on the rise and the work was harshly criticized in some circles as being blatantly focused on female anatomy and reflective of an old-school, male-dominated art world that was out of touch with the times. Certainly some of those photos are clear evidence of “the male gaze” but others are celebratory, even empowering in their depictions of women on the street and in private moments, removed from domestic stereotypes or male-female tableaus.

New York-1963 (photograph by Garry Winogrand, Center for Creative Photography, The University of Arizona)

A mystery emerges in the final act of Freyer’s documentary regarding Winogrand’s declining productivity in later years. While he was always an energetic, compulsive picture taker averaging over 600 rolls of film a year, he took the time to review and edit his material, selecting the best shots. Toward the end of his life though, the picture taking became almost obsessive and he no longer seemed interested in the editing process, which explains why thousands of rolls of film that Winogrand took still remain undeveloped. Some of his peers considered it a form of artistic suicide but Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable offers some interesting theories on Winogrand’s mindset while also making a convincing argument that his later images have been unfairly underrated and are ripe for a re-evaluation. Thanks to Freyer’s thoughtful documentary, viewers will no doubt be motivated to seek out Winogrand’s work and help secure his legacy as an American original.

Albuquerque New Mexico 1957 (photo by Garry Winogrand)

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