You’ve probably seen this documentary before. Not specifically Sasha Walter Freyer’s Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, but it is almost a guarantee that anyone with a serious interest in film has seen countless talking head documentaries looking to illuminate the inner life of a somewhat neglected personality, or one obfuscated by time. We’re not reinventing the wheel here.
Thankfully, what prevents Garry Winogrand from becoming completely generic, is the film’s excellently curated use of archival footage and photographs. There are countless breathtaking moments of clarity within this film. I frequently found myself muttering stunned utterances pertaining to the pure beauty of Winogrand’s photos. Likewise, the varying forms of archival footage help provide the necessary context to understand the rapidly mutating culture of 60s Americana. It is difficult, however, to shake the feeling that the film never really manages to move beyond a level of engagement that could be discovered through a trip to the public library.
Freyer’s five years in the making return to feature filmmaking, Garry Winogrand ultimately attempts to reinvigorate the conversation surrounding the titular American street photographer. From his humble beginnings to his eventual death, Freyer’s film chronologically charts the life and times of the effusively brash and often controversial Winogrand. Thematically, the film strives to posist Winogrand’s photography as effectively striving to capture a reality of the world as the artist personally sees it. At one point someone comments that “we know what pictures look like,” before implying that Winogrand’s work strove to do the opposite and disprove the synchronicity of life and posed still photography.
Where Freyer’s film best achieves its message is through the spontaneous academic deconstructions of varying photographs, where experts dissect the composition, the framing, and the uniqueness of select pieces. Weirdly, you would expect more of this kind of discourse from a director who is also the chair of university photography department. These deconstructions act as a welcome break in the structure. They change Garry Winogrand from having the air of a by-the-numbers figurehead doc, into that of a free to the public art history lecture at your local museum. The inner life felt far less engaging than the deep deconstructions of beautiful art. You explicitly feel the joy of learning within the later that you don’t feel within the former.
The inner life may ultimately feel disengaging because of who Winogrand is. It’s almost impossible to imagine the artist outside of the contexts of the world he lived in. Discovering the past of a man who was clearly the stereotypical definition of a domineering fifties husband, feels tough to transpose onto a modern sensibility. The film’s subject lacks relatability, and as a consequence the audience likely feels distanciated from the film as a whole. The personal details that the film attempts to commingle with the photographers work fail to connect.
The resulting sensation is similar to that of looking at an old photograph. You can guess what all of the little details felt like, but you can ultimately never fully re-create the experience that was captured. There is no denying that Garry Winogrand documented the lived in feel of a singular time period that many can only imagine. The artists himself, however, was clearly a product of that time in some icky ways that the film struggles to reconcile with. With the expert use of archival footage and engaging photo analysis on display, there’s more than enough to recommend here. At the same time, tempered expectations might ultimately prove a wise choice.