Leading photographer of the 20th century Garry Winogrand never viewed a quarter of the 1 million photos he took. The prolific and acclaimed documentarian of post-war American life died in 1984 at age 56, leaving 4,000 rolls of film developed but not contact printed, and 2,500 exposed rolls still in their cartridges.
Had Winogrand lived, one could assume he would have eventually gotten around to looking at those countless neglected frames, but a new film, “Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable,” currently screening in New York and Los Angeles, begs to differ. It was being out on the streets and in the public spaces of America “burning” film in pursuit of the truthful image that drove him above all else.
“What does a camera do? What does photography do better than anything else but describe? To use it for anything else is rather foolish… All a photograph ever does is describe light on surface. That’s all there is,” Winogrand is heard saying in his thick Bronx accent in a recorded clip included in the film.
The photographer’s patience for darkroom and editing work waned over time, and it was ultimately left to others to develop and sort through his oeuvre to share it with the world. This new film is the latest such effort.
Director Sasha Waters Freyer first became aware of Winogrand’s work after his death, when she went to his first retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1988. Freyer, who was a fine arts student at the time, is now chair of the department of photography and film at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I love his work, and there is so much to learn from it. There is so much content in each frame, and somehow he manages to hold it all together in terms of form,” Freyer told The Times of Israel from Berlin, where she was attending a film festival.
“Also, he was photographing at a time in American history that was so transformative. His work reflects the historical record and the change taking place in the 1960s and 1970s,” she added.
Born in 1928 to an immigrant Jewish family that worked in the garment industry, Winogrand was the quintessential street photographer — though he strongly disliked the label.
He started his career as a freelance photojournalist for magazines in the 1950s and early 1960s. When those assignments dried up, he switched to commercial work for advertising agencies. As Winogrand’s independent work started to garner notice, he switched his professional focus to fine art.
“Winogrand is, in my view, the central photographer of his generation,” said John Szarkowski, the influential MoMA photography curator from 1962 to 1991, in the documentary.
High praise, however, does not pay the bills. Although Winogrand was awarded prestigious grants and took teaching jobs to make ends meet, he struggled financially at the end of his life, an era which predated the advent of the high-priced art market for photography.
“As his fame and audience grew, he was doing more artistic work and making less money,” said Leo Rubinfien, a photographer and writer who knew Winogrand personally and curated the 2013 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Winogrand restrospecive.
Rubinfien is among the photographers interviewed on camera for the film. Also included are interviews with Winogrand’s first wife Adrienne Lubeau (he was married three times), as well as audio recordings of Winogrand himself speaking about photography.
Approximately 400 photographs Freyer culled from Winogrand’s photographic archive at the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona in Tuscon make up the visual heart of the film. Most of them are black and white, while some reflect the short-lived period in which Winogrand dabbled with color, before finding it too expensive. Freyer also includes clips from 8mm color movies Winogrand experimented with making.
The film progresses visually from Winogrand’s earlier work in New York (for which he is best known) to his later work made after he moved to Austin, Texas, and later to southern California.
Some people see Winogrand’s later work as lesser in quality. Szarkowski, taken with Winogrand’s natural and uncanny ability to balance a tension between joyous exuberance with anxiety and despair within a single frame, included his work in several important MoMA shows. Notable among them were “Five Unrelated Photographers” (1963) and “New Documents” (1967), which also featured photographs by Lee Friedlander and Diane Arbus.
However, once all the film Winogrand left behind after his death was developed, and the images printed and organized, Szarkowski was less than impressed.
Photographer Rubinfien, the only individual who has personally reviewed all of Winograd’s later work, disagrees that he lost his talent after leaving New York in the early 1970s.
“He was getting weaker, and the ratio of good photos to those that weren’t was falling off a cliff. This does make it hard to really see the full character of his late work,” Rubinfien admitted.
Yet, in his view, the images shot in Texas and California weren’t worse, but rather different.
“They reflect changes in his life, and also in the country as a whole. The character of his work changed. It became bleaker, more hopeless and showed little joyfulness,” he said.
One often wonders at how Winogrand could have possibly captured the images. It helps to pay attention to the way he shot using a Leica 35mm camera, often with a wide angle lens. He would move it around in a way that made it hard for his subjects to know he was photographing them.
“He would fidget around with it and no one would suspect he’d actually taken the picture. The Leica is also silent. The shutter doesn’t make any noise. It served as a mask for him,” Freyer said.
Freyer thinks that rough-around-the-edges Winogrand retained a sense of being an outsider, which stemmed from his immigrant Jewish background.
“He was trying to assimilate, and he used his camera to do it,” she said.
According to Rubinfien, Winogrand did not get caught up in aesthetics and techniques. Instead, he was focused on authenticity. Essentially, he lived to see, and saw to live.
“Garry was interested in seeing the world with as profound a degree of truthfulness as he could,” Rubinfien said.
“Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable” will play in other American cities later this year, and will be screened on PBS in spring 2019.