Perhaps because I have long had an interest in photography, and collecting cameras, films about this subject have always attracted my attention. There have been many films about early cinema pioneers, and the ubiquitous ‘film within a film’ theme offers many examples. However, this article is about still photographers, and how they have been represented in the selected films.
During the 1960s, the public began to be as interested as much in photographers as in the photos that they published. David Bailey, Terry O’Neill, Cecil Beaton, Don McCullin, Norman Parkinson, and many others became celebrities in their own right, their personal fame often exceeding that of their work. The ‘Swinging Sixties’ and the Vietnam War brought these photographers, and their images, into the mainstream as never before. It wasn’t long before writers and film-makers caught the trend, and fictionalised the work of this emerging sector.
Blow Up (1966)
Antonioni’s film merges a murder mystery with the dissolute lifestyle of a rich and trendy photographer in London. The gritty street photography, contrasted with glossy studio set-ups, all whirring motor drives, and fast-firing shutters was said to be based on the life of the popular British photographer, David Bailey. A younger David Hemmings, long before his bloated appearance in Gladiator, perfectly captures the fast-living, selfish and stylistic lifestyle associated with this new breed of artistic fashionista.
This film packs in a lot. Some big stars of the day, including Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles, are along for acting credibility, and the soundtrack is great, with music by Herbie Hancock, and a live appearance by The Yardbirds.
The plot was even quite unusual back then. Hemmings’ character takes some photos of a mysterious looking woman in a park, (Redgrave) meeting someone who appears to be her lover. Later that day, he notices someone seems to be following him, and snooping into his car. The woman later shows up at his studio, demanding the film be returned to her. Suspicious, he gives her a different roll and develops his shots from earlier. By constantly enlarging the photos from the park (the ‘Blow-Ups’ of the title) he soon discovers what looks like a dead man in the bushes, and the shadowy figure of another man nearby, holding a gun.
He decides to return to the park, where he does indeed discover a body. Back home, he finds that his studio has been ransacked, and all but one of the photos have gone. Unsure what to do, he goes to his agent’s house, where a party is in full swing; with drugs in evidence, and lots of young women, including a model he was supposed to photograph, but let down when he was side-tracked by events in the park. He wants his agent to go to the park with him to witness the body, but instead gets even more confused and becomes sucked into the party. The next morning, he wakes up early, and returns to the park alone. The body has disappeared. He watches some mime artists pretending to play tennis, and throws back their imaginary ball.
So, no cosy conclusion, and the viewer is left to make up their own minds about what went on, if anything actually did. Very 1960s, and somewhat unsatisfactory. It has great historical value though, especially for a Londoner like myself, and many of the scenes have stayed in my memory ever since, which says a lot. Some sexual content and nudity, quite outrageous at the time, caused it problems with release outside the UK, but by modern standards they now seem tame.
Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)
American actress Faye Dunaway was enjoying a boost to her career at the time, having just won the Oscar for Best Actress, with the film Network. She also had a long personal relationship with the British photographer Terry O’Neill, so she seemed a natural for the role of Laura Mars, the troubled fashion photographer, caught up in serial killings in New York. Barbra Streisand was originally set for the part, but rejected it, due to the subject matter. She sang the theme song instead.
This was an early work by John Carpenter, who wrote the script, which was directed by Irvin Kershner. The good pedigree continued with the cast, which included a less-craggy Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, and Raul Julia, with Renee Auberjonois playing as camp as a row of tents, as Laura’s gay agent. Like Blow Up, this film was determined to give the audience a lot of everything. Sexy models, loft apartments, grimy New York backdrops, cynical cops, and a mysterious serial killer. As if that was not enough to be getting on with, they also threw in the fact that Laura Mars ‘sees’ the events through the eyes of the killer, in some form of psychic revelation.
In 1978, this was pretty good stuff indeed. The film has pace, and the Agatha Christie-style killing off of those associated with Laura provides a wealth of suspects, and a full complement of twists and wrong-footings. It also has a message about life imitating art, as Laura specialises in fashion photography with a difference. Her scantily-clad models are portrayed violently, either fighting each other in dystopian urban landscapes, or as victims at the scenes of murders. When Laura has a vision, watching events through the killer’s eyes, she is unable to see anything else. This leads those around her to suspect that she may be mentally ill, though her agent (Auberjonois) becomes increasingly frustrated with having to constantly cancel events as a result.
The detective in charge arrives, (Tommy Lee Jones) and he soon works out that many of Laura’s famous violent photographs are in fact exact duplicates of actual murder scenes. At first he suspects her, but later (of course) they become lovers, when he starts to act as her bodyguard. As the murders continue, suspicion shifts from her ex-husband (Julia) to Laura’s chauffeur (Dourif) though the viewer is at a loss to see any real motive for anyone to be murdering these people. But that doesn’t really matter, as the fine cast seem to completely believe in their parts, and we are kept guessing until the last scene.
Dunaway does well with the role, switching from bitchy boss to vulnerable fragility with ease. Brad Dourif makes the most of a character portrayal that would see him similarly typecast for many years, but keep him in work. Raul Julia doesn’t have much to do, and that shows. And as for Tommy Lee Jones? Well he is the same old Tommy Lee, but younger. Overall, an enjoyable thriller, as long as you remember that it is almost forty years old now.
Written, produced, and directed by Oliver Stone, this story set during the civil war in El Salvador received much critical acclaim, but failed to capture the imagination of the viewing public. It looks at the war from a perspective sympathetic to the left-wing FMLN, and is critical of American support for the other side. This was an exceptionally long war (1979-1992) and ravaged this small South American country, but few films have been made about it.
But the film is less about the war, more about the central characters. Experienced photo-journalist Richard Boyle (James Woods) finds himself right in the thick of things soon after arriving. He is hoping to make some money by selling the story and photos of the war, and he is all that you might expect; hard drinking, cynical, difficult to like. Woods has played many similar roles over the years, and I was left wondering how anyone like this would actually manage to have any sort of career in this difficult field. This was even more relevant, as Boyle is a real person, and the film is based on his own experiences. As the story develops, we see Boyle having to rethink his attitudes in the light of atrocities he witnesses, and his growing attachment to a young woman he meets there.
Another real character, photographer John Cassady, is played in the film by John Savage. He teams up with Boyle, and gets him some work, also accompanying him on some photo shoots. The issue with this is that it isn’t certain that these things even happened, or that Cassady was in the same area at the time. But it didn’t bother me too much. Many film-makers have chosen to bend history, embellish actual events, and change times and places. They still managed to entertain me, as this one did.
There are lots of potential problems with this film however. Historical accuracy is in question, as Boyle is witness to events that his character was unlikely ever to see. At times, it tries to be little more than a buddy film, as Boyle and his sidekick Dr Rock (James Belushi) binge on alcohol and drugs. Swinging back to serious events, such as the rape and murder of nuns, leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths on occasion. The action scenes, if unlikely, are well-handled, as Boyle feverishly changes film rolls in the midst of battle. The excesses of the government backed warlord Major Max are shown by Stone, to make sure we know we are on the right side.
So you might ask, why have I included it? Well it shows a war that we needed to know about, and if we don’t delve too deeply, it stands as a film about real events with a fine cast that do their very best with the material available to them. And it has cameras in it. Lots of them.
The Public Eye (1992)
Arthur Fellig was known to the world as Weegee, and he was a photographer for New York newspapers during the 1930s and 40s. He is famous for his lurid photos of crime scenes, murder victims, and accidents. With his huge Speed Graphic camera, one-shot flashbulbs, and fixed focus, he produced some of the most iconic images of urban life from that period.
In 1992, this film was released, claiming to be only loosely-based on his life and work. Joe Pesci was born for the role, and grabbed it with both hands. He plays ‘Bernzy’ Bernstein, cigar-chewing, pushy crime photographer for the big newspapers in New York City. In with the cops, always first on scene courtesy of listening to a police radio in his car, he gets the picture before anyone else. So far, it is undeniably a film about Weegee.
Then Bernzy meets an attractive widow, Kay, (Barbara Hershey) and events take a fictional but no less entertaining turn. Kay is a nightclub owner, being pressured by the mob. She asks Bernzy to use his contacts to take the pressure off, and he decides to help her. He goes to see mob boss Sal, (Stanley Tucci) and soon becomes involved in a web of murders, gangland squabbles, and a conspiracy revolving around petrol rationing during wartime. His knack of always being on the spot leads the police to start to question whether or not he could be personally involved in the crimes, and his once comfortable life starts to unravel before him.
Despite having just won an Oscar for his role in Goodfellas, Pesci was unable to repeat his success with this film, which lost a considerable amount at the box office. Its retro setting and film noir roots failed to inspire viewers, and it slipped of the cinematic radar very rapidly. I think that this is a great shame. Many critics praised the film highly, Pesci delivers a convincing performance, and a cast of excellent supporting players raise it to a high level. The cinematography is first rate, and Weegee himself supplied some of the photos used in the production.
This is a film that many have missed, and deserves to be caught up with.
The Bridges of Madison County (1995)
Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep, and based on a best-selling novel, we always knew that this was going to be a major success. This is a love story in an idyllic setting; the farmlands of rural Iowa, and their picturesque covered bridges. This is a story told as a retrospective, starting in 90s Iowa, and returning to the 1960s for most of the film.
The children of Italian war bride Francesca (Streep) arrive at their mother’s house. She has died, and they must arrange her funeral, and sort through her possessions. They are surprised to discover that she has asked to be cremated, and for her ashes to be thrown off the nearby covered bridge. Sorting through her papers, they find letters sent to her from a man they didn’t know, Robert Kincaid, and soon realise that there was a lot more to their mother’s life than they were ever aware of.
The action then shifts back in time to 1965. Francesca’s family have travelled to the State Fair, and she is alone at the farm they own. A stranger arrives, asking for directions to one of the covered bridges. He is Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), and he is compiling a photographic study of the famous bridges for National Geographic magazine. She agrees to show him the locations of the bridges, and they are soon talking easily, as Francesca tells Robert her story of how she came to be a farmer’s wife, and of leaving Italy. Over a four day period, they embark on an intense love affair. This is a lot more than a fling between strangers or casual sex. They fall deeply in love, and begin to question their futures.
With the family due home, Francesca decides to leave with Kincaid and start a new life. But at the last moment she cannot abandon her children and tells him to leave alone. They have both found a new meaning in their lives as a result of the romance, with Robert deciding to pursue an artistic career, and Francesca devoting herself to her family. She is nonetheless heartbroken by her decision, and writes many journals, detailing the events of the four days, and her thoughts since. When her children read all this, they also discover that Kincaid’s ashes were thrown from the same bridge, so understand their mother’s request. They decide to comply with her wishes.
This is a wonderful, small love story. Never overly sentimental, and beautifully played by all the cast. It is directed with a deft touch by Eastwood, and lovingly photographed in an ideal setting. If you have never seen it, prepare to be surprised by just how good it is.
And there are cameras in it too.
Diane Arbus was a New York based photographer. She is now best known for her somewhat bizarre images of disabled people, circus performers and eccentric characters, but she had a varied and academic career until her suicide in 1971, aged 48. Coming from a rich immigrant family, she studied photography after meeting and marrying her photographer husband, Alan Arbus in 1941, and set up a company with him working in commercial photography.
For much of her life, she was affected by bouts of depression, which may have led her to the subjects of her later work. Her photos still sell for huge amounts today, and she is respected as one of the great American photographers.
The 2006 film Fur, starring Nicole Kidman as Arbus, is presented as an ‘Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus’, so from the start we know that we are not being offered a factual biography. As well as an intense and convincing performance from Kidman, Robert Downey Jr. stars as the neighbour and love interest, Lionel, suffering from hypertrichosis, so covered in hair, and almost unrecognisable. Arbus wonders whether or not to leave her husband for him, and his affliction leads her to meet many strange people, as well as dwarfs and transgender characters. Obviously, this is an attempt to explain her desire to photograph these people, and to try to make them as ‘normal’ as any other photographic subject, as well as a nod to Beauty and The Beast around her relationship with Lionel.
Unfortunately, by concentrating on these episodes we learn little about Arbus herself. Nothing of her background, her earlier career, or her distinguished relatives. It is a snapshot in a film about a photographer, more interested in her demons than her talent.
Everlasting Moments (2008)
My chronological journey has, on this occasion, allowed me to leave the best until last. Jan Troell’s Swedish historical drama is perhaps one of my favourite films of all time, and in my opinion, one of the best ever made. I can quickly run out of superlatives when I attempt to describe this modern masterpiece, which seemingly, so few people have had the privilege of watching outside of Sweden.
This is exactly what a film about photography should always have been. How discovering the magic after seeing a developing image can change a life, and bring new experiences, new hopes, and desires. Based on the true story of Maria Larsson, Finnish actress Maria Heiskanen gives a captivating performance in the role, one of the best I can ever recall.
In early 20th century Sweden, downtrodden housewife Maria wins a camera in a lottery. She hides the win from her abusive husband, hard drinking and wife-beating Sigfrid. She is afraid that he will sell the camera to finance his womanising and drunkenness. They live hand to mouth, with Sigfrid getting irregular pay as a dock-worker, and Maria taking in washing and mending clothes, struggling to feed the family. During a strike at the docks, her husband stops being paid, and falls in with a gang of radicals and strike breakers. Wondering where the next penny will come from, Maria decides to sell her precious camera. The kindly camera shop owner, Mr Pedersen, tries to convince Maria not to sell the camera. In a magical moment, he shows her how the lens captures a moth on the window, the reflection seems real on her hand. He agrees that he will buy the camera, but only after she has used it, and he gives her the necessary film and developing equipment.
Once back home, Maria photographs her cat, and her children, and soon realises that she has a talent for the art. When Sigfrid realises that she still has the camera, he demands to have it to sell, but she bluffs him, saying it has been sold, and the money spent. As the years go by, she takes photos for her neighbours, and soon has a reasonable income as a result. When Sigfrid returns after a spell in prison, he is infuriated to find a queue at the door, waiting for sittings. When war breaks out in 1914, Sigfrid is called up into the army, and goes off to fight. But the Swedes do not enter the war. In the meantime, Maria has taken a photo of the Scandinavian Kings’ visit to the city, and it gets published in the newspaper. Pedersen is obviously attracted to Maria, and continues to encourage her work, despite Sigfrid’s return from the army forcing a return to the old life.
Eventually, her husband begins to appreciate his wife’s talent, and decides to turn his life around. He gets a horse, and starts up a business with carts that proves to be a success. He tells Maria that he is moving the family to a new and better life in the countryside, away from the city slums. Pedersen decides to sell his shop, and move closer to his family in Denmark. Maria takes the only photograph of herself that she has ever shot, a simple image, reflected in a mirror.
This film is about so much. Domestic abuse, a hard life at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the turbulent history of Europe at that time. It is also about love and redemption, and how a simple thing like a camera, and the photos it takes, can be a reason to go on living. It is flawless.
I have no doubt that many of you will think of other films featuring photography and photographers, as there have been many more. I also hope that you will find time to watch some of these, if you haven’t already.