The great photographer Garry Winogrand took more than a million pictures during his career. Among his preferred subjects was people at airports, especially those saddled with luggage.
“When we talk about people psychologically and having issues we say, ‘Oh, they’ve got baggage,’” notes Geoff Dyer, author of a book on Winogrand. “That’s one of the things that’s so manifested in Winogrand. Yeah, we see the baggage these people are carrying.”
Dyer makes that observation in the documentary Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable, a film in which director Sasha Waters Freyer unpacks the complicated life and remarkable work of a man some consider the greatest American street photographer.
“He was really interested in these public spaces where a certain kind of theater of the street might unfold,” Waters Freyer tells Deadline. “He took this style associated with photojournalism and brought it into the world of the fine arts.”
All Things Are Photographable aired on PBS as part of the acclaimed American Masters series. Both the documentary itself and the series as a whole are contending for Emmy nominations (American Masters has been nominated as Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series the last 13 years in a row; it’s won that award 10 times). The American Masters platform has helped rekindle interest in the photographer, who died in 1984 at age 56.
“Just the prestige of that series and that brand being associated with Garry Winogrand has really elevated him for those who had never heard of him before,” the director comments. “It’s been really exciting to see people getting to learn a little bit more about who he is as both an artist and a person.”
Winogrand was born in New York in 1928 and did much of his most notable work in the city, but he also ventured to California and Texas, capturing moments that illuminated social and cultural landscapes.
“Garry Winogrand’s photographs are sophisticated, chance observations of daily life that demonstrate his mastery of the 35-millimeter camera,” Lisa Hostetler wrote for the International Center of Photography website. “He was fond of visual puns…He photographed, he said, ‘to see what the world looks like in photographs.’”
Often, the people Winogrand photographed were uncertain he was taking their picture, even if he was in close proximity to them. As Waters Freyer reveals in an archival clip of Winogrand, the photographer kept his Leica in rapid motion.
“The camera’s up, the camera’s down… He’s sort of dancing, moving,” she observes. “He’s a tall man, he’s a large man, so he has a kind of physically imposing presence, one would imagine. Yet, at the same time, when he’s truly at the top of his game, he’s very, very light on his feet.”
The quick camera movements often produced blurry images, tilted perspectives and atypical compositions. That was okay with Winogrand—he wasn’t about trying “to make a ‘nice’ picture,” as he says at one point in the documentary.
Winogrand’s most productive years were in the mid 1960s, the same era so memorably portrayed in the TV series Mad Men. On the streets of New York he often took photographs of Don Draper-esque businessmen in suits and hats. Noting those parallels, Waters Freyer decided to reach out to Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. He proved to be very familiar with Winogrand’s work, and served as a commentator in the documentary.
“I just sort of took this stab in the dark that he would know something about Garry Winogrand and have interesting things to say,” Waters Freyer recalls. “Luckily, he very generously agreed to be interviewed. He was a such a wonderful interview subject.”
Winogrand sometimes trained his camera on figures from the entertainment industry.
“He becomes very interested in these sort of representations of celebrity and shooting on film sets,” Waters Freyer says. “He becomes friends with [director] Taylor Hackford, and he traveled with him when Hackford was making Against All Odds.”
Faye Dunaway, Kirk Douglas, Louis Armstrong and a young Drew Barrymore were subjects of other Winogrand photos. He also took one of the most famous shots of Marilyn Monroe, on the set of 1955’s The Seven Year Itch during the iconic subway grate scene.
In 1982 “he got permission to shoot on the set of Annie,” the director mentions. “I use one of those pictures [in the documentary]—a great picture of John Huston, he looks like he’s dancing.”
But for the most part Winogrand’s subjects were anonymous. His pictures often depicted couples or people arrayed in groups—sometimes members of a family, friends or apparent strangers. The uncertain nature of these relationships and ambiguity of their interactions makes the photographs all the more intriguing.
At the time of his death, Winogrand left up to a quarter of a million pictures either undeveloped or unprinted.
“He just keeps shooting, shooting, shooting, he falls behind, and he can’t catch up. He tells himself he’s going to catch up; whether or not he believes it or he’s just saying it, we don’t really know,” Waters Freyer states. She went through many of the images Winogrand never saw himself outside of a contact sheet or his Leica viewfinder.
“The [documentary] has 35 new pictures that I picked that were not in previous exhibitions or publications,” she tells Deadline. “When you find one it’s like, ‘Wow. Wait, I think there’s something really interesting going on there.’”