Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Apr 13, 2018 10:44 am 
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American eye

Gary Winogrand was the preeminent New York "street photographer" of the years from midcentury to the Eighties. He was fast, prolific, and messy, and such is his extraordinary work, askew, busy, eye-popping. In this short film we get a sumptuous feast of his photographs (not necessarily organized to best show off their compositions and themes or to illustrate the best of them), with many opinions and recollections from gallerists, museum people, and a few (perhaps not enough) photographers, plus a couple of ex-wives. Not the best introduction, perhaps, but something, and long overdue, since he died in 1984, at 56.

He died in Tijuana of Cancer, after spending years in Texas, then in Southern California. It seems at some point in the Seventies, when New York was a mess, and a teaching opportunity came up, he left. Was he burnt out? He seems to have done very similar work in L.A., with more sunshine. There are several misfortunes revealed here. One is the inability to keep up with his own shooting. He is called the first digital photographer because of its profligacy. But digital photographs are there to look at. He was a film photographer. We are reminded that he did some beautiful color work, and some films, as well as the black and white. His primary medium was a Leica 35mm M4, and his innovation was to use a 28mm. lens. This is a more encompassing, but less elegant, format than the 50mm. of Cartier Bresson. After he left New York, he fell behind in printing, and eventually he left behind, famously, a barrel-full of undeveloped rolls of exposed film. We also learn that John Szarkowski, the hugely influential 29-year director of photography at MoMA, who had made Winogrand famous, declared that his late, post-New York work was inferior, that he lost his touch. This taking photos for years without seeing them can work pretty well, as we have seen recently from the odd case of Vivian Maier. But she used a slow, heavy camera, taking a few, carefully considered photographs.

Another thing is that he may not appeal to feminists. A boisterous Bronx boy from a big Jewish family, he deflowered is first wife when she was 15 1/2 and he was 22 or so. He did a book called Women Are Beautiful at the height of the feminist movement, celebrating nipples and tits, captured on the street. This was not wise or even sensible, even if he meant no harm.

The film shows a couple of photos by the Starn twins, to show how "little black and white photos" became passé in the Eighties. Oh there are so many other kinds of formats and subjects than Gary's, but that does not detract from their energy and how much they reveal of the look of things in America in the years in which he worked. There are other street photographers, like Joel Meyerowitz and Lee Friedlander, who moved on and remain relevant, Meyerowitz for his beautiful color portraits, Friedlander for his endless witty explorations. None of these other guys seem to have Winogrand's sheer slapdash vigor. At the same time I ask myself why more photographers can't make images as humanistic and beautifully composed as Cartier Bresson's. Winogrand learned a lot from Robert Frank's The Americans, and Frank had the advantage of being a foreigner, working in one long single burst of energy and attention. What Winogrand did was just take photographs all the time, day after day, for years.

There is some discussion of the photograph by Winogrand of the handsome mixed race couple in the Park carrying their nicely dressed chimpanzee "children," as a photograph that has been thought racist. It is also sensationalist. Grasping at novelty, without the wit of Friedlander's randomness.

In his teaching, which the film offers a few brief excerpts of, he deserved credit for emphasizing that being a photographer, in the way that he was, once he got away from magazine work, as described here, is not anything that can actually be taught. We may say also that such a person is not anyone you can actually make a film about. We merely need to look at his photographs.

Gary Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, 87 mins., debuted at SxSW and won the Jury Prize there. Included in the US public TV American Masters series, it was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.


Saturday, April 14, 2018 at 8:00 p.m. at SFMOMA
Sunday, April 15, 2018 at 1:00 p.m. at BAMPFA

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