Some men wrestle alligators with their bare hands. Garry Winogrand chose to do something harder. Wrestling reality with a hand-held Leica, he was as close as his chosen medium has come to a photographic force of nature. Photography was a compulsion for him, a psychic fire. Fire sheds light as well as heat; it illuminates even as it destroys. “All a photograph ever does is describe light on surface,” we hear him say in Sasha Waters Freyer’s probing and unusually intelligent documentary, “Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable.” “That’s all there is, light on surface.”
Winogrand was just 54 when he died, of cancer, in 1984. Even so, he’d managed to expose 26,000 rolls of film. That’s pretty crazy. Even crazier? Some 2,500 rolls had been exposed but never developed. Another 4,100 had been developed, but not contact printed. So reality ultimately won the wrestling match. But for a while there, as the Duke of Wellington said of the Battle of Waterloo, it was a close-run thing.
The closeness is evident in the images. The greatest of all street photographers, Winogrand owned midtown Manhattan during the ’60s the way Joe DiMaggio had owned center field in Yankee Stadium two decades earlier. In addition to the street, Winogrand loved zoos, airports, Texas, attractive women, cars. What these subjects had in common, at least as seen through his lens, was surprise as an existential, even moral condition.
The quality of his photographs rivals the quantity, which is really (really) saying something. Electric with energy and muscular with improbability, what appears inside the Winogrand frame is a ballet that partners confusion with clarity. In his best images — and there are scores of them — geometry becomes a function of motor memory: Form remains a presence, like a phantom limb, but a limb on the verge of collapse. It’s as if an explosion has occurred a microsecond before the shutter clicked. One senses structure still within the chaos — and chaos emerging from structure. The question becomes: Is the camera more detonator or blast container?
Winogrand’s life needed a blast container. “He was totally obsessed and possessed by photography,” says Tod Papageorge, his friend and former student, as well as a fine photographer in his own right. “It was work, work, work.” He married three times. His first wife is one of the documentary’s interview subjects. Physically, he was a bull of a man. Verbally, words spilled out of him. One of the delights of the film is hearing the bluster and urgency in his voice: the thick New York accent conveying wonderfully nuanced opinions. “How do you make a photograph that’s more interesting than what happened?” he asks an audience. “That’s really the problem. . . . In the end, the word dramatic has to apply. It’s always about that. Is the photograph more dramatic than what was photographed?” Surely, the challenge of persuasively rendering three dimensions as two has never been stated better.
Most of the interview subjects talk very well, too. It’s as if everyone raises his or her game when talking about Winogrand. His work is that good, his character that provocative. Even the one celebrity talking head, Matthew Weiner, the creator of “Mad Men,” has astute things to say. We hear from curators, writers (most notably Geoff Dyer), and such fellow photographers as Leo Rubenfien and Laurie Simmons. In a nice touch, it’s Winogrand’s son, Ethan, who did the score. He also provides the voice when we hear the text of his father’s application for a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Freyer includes home movies and snippets of 8mm color films Winogrand shot and brief bits of animation commissioned for the documentary (not a good idea). The documentary’s heart, soul, and digestive tract is the cascade of photographs that Freyer keeps coming. Many are familiar, and thus welcome. Many more are not, and thus even more so. Looking at them, a viewer understands all the better the words of Winogrand’s great champion, the Museum of Modern Art curator John Szarkowski: “Although he may have made a million exposures in his life, he thought of them all as independent mysteries. His world was a world made up of energy, ambition, desperate loneliness, and unfamiliar beauty.”
Stay through the credits. Even if only briefly, Winogrand comes back. Of course he does. He’s been dead for more than three decades. Yet he’s never really gone away. Great artists never do.
GARRY WINOGRAND: EVERYTHING IS PHOTOGRAPHABLE
Directed by Sasha Waters Freyer. At Kendall Square. 91 minutes. Unrated (as R: some nudity, some casual obscenity, neither a big deal).Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.