Fall 2019

Finding the Story in the Image

Photographers-turned-directors describe how their still work informs their filmmaking and allows viewers a glimpse beyond the surface

By Robert Koehler

Photo: Peter Chelsom

One of the aspects that separates post-World War II film directors from their predecessors is an attitude toward photography, including photography's impact on the movies.

Traditional studio directors shied away from anything that might be perceived as photographic effects, typified by British documentarian John Grierson's notorious and insulting aphorism slamming what he considered Josef von Sternberg's excessively decorative photography in Shanghai Express (1932), about which he observed, "When a director dies, he becomes a photographer."

Cinematographer Gregg Toland and director Orson Welles' idea of placing the camera below the level of a set's floor to achieve dramatic low angles was seen in Hollywood as extreme and radical in 1941, despite the fact that Soviet directors such as Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov had created similarly stark photographic views two decades before Citizen Kane. The idea of calling attention to the camera, or opting for camera setups that were above or below the character eye-view, or that were either in a longshot setup or in extreme closeup (both favorite choices for Welles), was anathema in American filmmaking before the 1950s.

Future directors Stanley Kubrick and Jerry Schatzberg, both postwar kids growing up in the Bronx, developed a love for the still camera that led to moviemaking, and others came along to expand the interactive language between still photography and cinematography, including Gordon Parks, Ridley Scott, Wim Wenders, Peter Chelsom, Minkie Spiro, Spike Jonze and Anton Corbijn. Parks is now as famed for his sublime photography honoring African American life as for his relatively few features (1969's The Learning Tree, 1971's Shaft), while Wenders' early, hyper-naturalist work in still photography embraced the Polaroid still (which often popped up in his 1970s New German Cinema features) and has evolved into massive landscapes exhibited in lavish gallery and museum shows around the world.

Paradoxically, Wenders commented to the BBC last year that, because of the ubiquity of the iPhone and the selfie, "Photography is dead."

(Top) Peter Chelsom, right, with actor Lee Evans on the set of Funny Bones, says the film's co-stars, Jerry Lewis and Oliver Platt, "have these rubbery faces that could say more than even their fine performances." (Middle and Bottom) Chelsom's still photography work. (Photos: (Top) Hollywood Pictures; (Middle & Bottom) Courtesy of Peter Chelsom)

Other directors hold a different view. Chelsom, Spiro and Schatzberg all share a deep love for photography as a relevant medium and affirm it as crucial to their directing. Chelsom's past and current photography is eclectic, while Schatzberg's practice evolved from his early famed statements in fashion photography to more recent street and landscape work. Spiro, who says she's now too busy to spend time on photography, has worked as a travel and wartime photojournalist.

"With the latest digital still cameras, especially those by Fuji, photography is getting a revival as far as I'm concerned," says Chelsom, the director of such comedies as Funny Bones and Town & Country. "I feel so reborn with my photography now. You can now get these very subtle film simulations that are not Instagram filter-ish, not a wash, but really provide the right kind of textured, grainy look that you expect from fine photography."

On a large dining room table in his Los Angeles home, Chelsom displays a sample of his recent and past black-and-white photography (a shot of a child he says "felt very Roma-esque" after he watched Alfonso Cuarón's movie for the first time).

His father gave him his first camera, a Kodak Retina 1B, when he turned 13; sadly, his father died a year later. But Chelsom took to the art form: "Everything became a photograph for me," he says. "I would go to places like Parma on the island of Majorca on my own, with that camera and rolls of black-and-white film and shoot away, doing these photo essays of people. I was obsessed."

After a successful but what he terms "boringly respectable" acting career in his 20s—he won co-leading roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court and the National Theatre—Chelsom turned to directing after actor Nigel Hawthorne told him that he had "a highly developed third eye—meaning that he could tell that I was hyper-aware, really too aware, of where the camera was and what it was doing. Of course, I was. I was a photographer at heart."

Every director has their creative light-bulb moment. For Chelsom, it was coming upon a quote in Robert Bresson's seminal book Notes on Cinematography: "The thing that matters is not what (actors) show me, but what they hide from me, and above all, what they do not suspect is in them."

Bresson's point underlines how the photographic image—whether still or moving—can reveal more than the actor. "It points to the inescapable power of the photograph of the person," Chelsom says. "The two leads in Funny Bones, Jerry Lewis and Oliver Platt, have these great rubbery faces that could say more than even their fine performances. In some cases, as a director, you're casting actors for reasons that you dare not tell them. Who they are can be more than what they show you. Because of the power of the photograph."

(Top) Minkie Spiro, top, on the set of the series Lodge 49; (Middle and Bottom) Examples of her photojournalist work during the Ethiopian civil war. (Photos: (Top) Kson Lee Davis/AMC; (Middle & Bottom) Courtesy of Minkie Spiro)

For Spiro, currently in post-production on HBO's upcoming limited series adaptation of Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America, photography is "100%" in her work as a director. She describes working with her editors, how they tell her that invariably "they find a moment that I've filmed from which to edit the scene, and how they find a photographic frame I've created that sums up the beat of the scene. I often find that summation image inside a scene I'm shooting, and that discovery on the set stems from my experience as a photographer."

Though her parents, both academics, had expected her to attend Oxford, Spiro wanted to study art. Before she attended St. Martins Art School, she assisted a photographer traveling throughout Spain and did a stint as a curator. At St. Martins, she created several ambitious photographic projects, including one in which she covered the airlift of Ethiopian Jewish children to Israel during the decades-long Ethiopian civil war.

Her shift to filmmaking happened during another photojournalist assignment during the 1992-96 siege of Sarajevo in Bosnia-Herzegovina, when she was photographing child victims of landmines. "We were in shelters," she says, "and could hear but not see the atrocities going on around us. Along with my shooting, I was keeping a diary. I had this eureka moment when I saw how the photos or diary alone didn't tell the whole story, but that the two combined did. I realized that cinema, combining story and images, was what I needed to do, going beyond my skills as a photographer."

For Spiro, the director's photographic sense doesn't involve lighting as much as it does framing and the positioning of the camera to the actor: the ability to find the fresh image inside a setting. "When I jump into a series, directing episodes"—she has recently directed episodes of shows ranging from Barry to Fosse/Verdon—"the showrunners tend to remark that they're astounded by my eye, how I look at the world. On the other hand, I love working with a strong DP who can elevate my ideas. They're always wanting to check with me: Is this frame good enough, are we in the right spot? I may tell them that this doesn't hit the mark, perhaps we should swing the lens, frame more to the left or right. They'll follow my instruction, notice how much it changed the scene and shot, and tell me, 'How did you see that? Why didn't we see that?'"

During research for The Plot Against America—which involved an assemblage of more than 5,000 images including photographs and paintings—Spiro selected certain works by Vermeer, whose genius for natural light and bodies in intimate physical spaces remains inspirational for filmmakers. "I had a thrill one day on the set when a member of our camera team remarked that my setup reminded him of Vermeer," she recalls. "I smiled. The irony of this is that Vermeer used the latest in optical devices to achieve his visual effects—in essence the first photographs. And here we are, now, turning to Vermeer for our photography."

Jerry Schatzberg's portraits of Faye Dunaway (Top) and Bob Dylan (Middle) during his years as a fashion and celebrity photographer; (Bottom) Schatzberg, center, with actors Barry Primus and Dunaway on the set of his first feature, Puzzle of a Downfall Child. (Photos: (Top and Middle) Courtesy of Jerry Schatzberg; (Bottom) Photofest)

Bronx-born Schatzberg considers himself fortunate to have found a way out of the "dead-end track" of working in his father's furrier business—"my dad didn't have too much hope for me"—and landing an assistant gig with acclaimed fashion photographer Bill Helburn in the mid-1950s after briefly working in his uncle's photo studio taking baby portraits.

"I knew nothing about larger format cameras, and Bill was on the verge of firing me after three weeks," Schatzberg says. "By the time I was done, he offered me a piece of his business." The future director parlayed this job into a wildly successful run as a fashion and celebrity photographer, creating some of the most iconic studio photographs of the 1960s, including a sublime portrait of Bob Dylan covering most of his face with his hands, and Faye Dunaway in a sculptural black-and-white image.

During this period, Schatzberg learned the storytelling power of the still photograph, and began to sense the direct relationship with filmmaking. "Look at that Dylan picture," he says. "Nobody's supposed to put their hand up like that and hide most of their face. But he did. It tells a story about him."

Dunaway went on to take the lead in Schatzberg's feature debut, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, which partly referenced his fashion work, but also established his taste for movie protagonists who were misunderstood or on the margins. This quickly led to two more enduring studies of desperate American characters: Panic in Needle Park, featuring Al Pacino in one of his first starring roles, and Scarecrow, starring Gene Hackman and Pacino as wandering souls on the roads of America. Each film bore the stamp of a powerful visual intelligence: Viewed today, this Schatzberg trifecta retains all of its original cinematic power, anchored by expressive camerawork and vivid performances.

"I do think I lucked out being able to transition from fashion photography to feature directing," Schatzberg says. "There were a bunch of guys in the fashion end who wanted to break into the movies because they were hot and the movies [were] where it was at. But most of them couldn't do it for whatever reason. It may have something to do with my innate sense for camera placement and framing. I'm not a technical person. I operate by instinct in terms of which lens to use, where things are placed. I know what I like and don't like, and I've applied the same practice to still photography and filmmaking."

When Schatzberg became interested in street photography, he discovered that his narrative interests while making a movie matched exactly with what his eye found in urban settings. "My storytelling desires really come out when I'm shooting on the street, finding stuff around me," he says. Ignoring Wenders' gloomy pronouncements about the iPhone, Schatzberg says he can "get a lot of great stuff on my iPhone—it's a wonderful tool. For example, I was looking around a New York street, and I spotted a homeless person sleeping under a Victoria's Secret storefront full of mannequins. There was a story there."

At 92, while working to get some feature projects off the ground, Schatzberg continues to exhibit his photography widely. At the time of the interview with DGA Quarterly, he was preparing a show of his work at Chateau de Chamarande in Paris. "Installing this is really bothering me though," he says. "You're dealing with headaches that are different from the headaches of filmmaking. The show is in a 16th-century castle, and you can't hammer nails into the walls!"


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