Shortly after a scene where the voice of photographer Garry Winogrand reads a long A.J. Soprano-lite screed about nothing mattering in the world, man, that doubles as one of his applications for a Guggenheim (sad boy netted three of ‘em), the anxious humming harmonica of “When the Ship Comes In” can be heard, itself a Yates-lite screed written by Bob Dylan shortly after he was turned away from a hotel despite his good fortune of being a rock star.
Accompanying this is a slideshow of some of Winogrand’s photographs: a storm of mostly white faces who brood moodily amid post-war prosperity. The scene made me think of when Zack Snyder basically did this a decade ago with a scene that I think of now, in retrospect, as a cry for help coded in the macho statement of a cool flex, not unlike a mid-life, middle-class crisis purchase of a boat.
Later in Sasha Waters Freyer’s Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable appears the 1987 hit song and empty-department-store-anthem “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” We are always fortunate when we find out that money buys many things but not taste.
Also crying for help amid testosterone is Freyer’s subject. A photographer among many in New York after the war, he meets his first wife, Adrienne, in his early twenties while she is 15 and they marry four years later. “He was begging me to get pregnant,” she tells Freyer. She did, with two kids, one of whom plays small jazz suites during some of the slideshows in All Things are Photographable. The love is very one way (his) and she manages to get out of this fix shortly after reaching adulthood. He moves on (twice), motivated by a conviction that, as an audio recording of his tells us, “I never thought I was attractive.”
I think this is all very interesting. Here is, somewhat objectively, an unsavory figure who does bad things motivated by self-loathing. We’ve seen this story before but it’s nice to watch it about someone who’s already dead. Yet, quixotically, a small chorus of Freyer’s talking heads implore that Winogrand was a man of his time, a statement that mitigates the intensity of her examination and means absolutely nothing.
Like the comedian Louis C.K., Winogrand knows he’s an asshole and, in fact, makes this an element of his work. His 1975 collection of photographs Women are Beautiful was originally titled “Confessions of a Male Chauvinist Pig” but was changed at the behest of his publisher. This did not save the book’s reception, and one of Freyer’s talking heads speculates that it did not receive a single positive review.
All Things are Photographable then tries to correct this by bringing together a collection of recognizable faces to retroactively laud it. The most absurd of these is Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men and, more recently, The Romanoffs and, himself, notable for firing an Emmy-winning writer for not having sex with him. He says that he thought Winogrand’s depiction of women should have felt more “flattering” to women at the time.
Freyer, who realizes that she cannot make a meaningful documentary about an artist without having access to the artist’s work, realizes she has to do this. The scourge of most self-made artists is that their often-talentless families cling greedily to the work of the golden son. But Freyer also wants to eat the cake, too, and stages numerous debates about his work that feel incomplete and facile.
Another arises at the selection of a controversial photo that Winogrand publishes in the early 1960s, of an interracial couple, holding chimpanzees, a joke with the humor of a Mark Knight cartoon. Freyer posits two talking heads: Leo Rubinfien, another Guggenheim recipient of Winogrand’s generation, who says that it is “enormously funny” and goes on a long-winded explanation of how Winogrand is actually making a big commentary on self-seriousness; and Jeffrey Henson Scales, a younger photography editor at The New York Times who really wishes that people would stop talking about the photo.
Most state portraits will take for granted their subject’s genius but some of the most enjoyable of the past year have been able to arrange the required hagiographic moments into an order which suggests human-like discontentment behind genius’s veil. Joey Arbagey’s Whitney, while depositing bombshells for film festivals also delivers a figure who seemed hidden from herself, an expose on the weirdness of the last century of celebrity. On a smaller scale, Kate Novack’s The Gospel According To André, inadvertently or not revealed that occupying the often-held dream of being the face of a legacy publication, cruelly, doesn’t pay the bills. Freyer’s bullseye at what some people label nuance are these staged “reckonings.” Acknowledging that some people found Winogrand’s racist art distasteful and his misogynist eye uncomfortable.
But by depositing all this information at the footnote level of film, none of it feels coherent. Winogrand’s decline in popularity, which the chronologically arranged documentary has awkwardly compelled itself to, also, reckon with feels equally confusing. A number of voices like those of Rubinfien testify: “I don’t think Garry got worse. I think the world got worse.”
The art of photography itself seems to be in remission because Winogrand was not getting the applause his genius demanded. Laurie Simmons, a photographer who achieved a great amount of success during this same era, obviously thinks differently and suggests that, maybe, her generation was just too rebellious for its own sake, words of caution aimed at this generation’s museum curators. Geoff Dyer, white jazz admirer and the singularly worst writer of the modern era has, unsurprisingly, also written a book on Winogrand. With the savvy of a sommelier from hell, he enters Freyer’s film to speculate that Winogrand’s late work is not unlike “late Coltrane.” I think I’ll take Dylan, thanks.
Correction: This review originally stated that Garry Winogrand married his first wife when she was 15 years old. They actually met when she was 15 and married when she was 19.