Peter Suschitzky and the Chiaroscuro Body

Model and artist.
Model and artist.

My first memory is of lying in a pram and watching shadows cast by the sun shining through the branches of a walnut tree in the garden of our home in London. I must have been about 18 months old. Perhaps that memory has made me believe that for a viewer to understand and appreciate light, there must also be shadows.

If ever a child seemed destined to become a “Master of Light,” it was Peter Suschitzky: an early childhood exposure via his father, the photographer and cinematographer Wolfgang Suschitzky, and an early attraction to the mystery of light and shadow — a nature and nurture combination.

By the time Peter saw his first motion picture, he already had a strong imprint of chiaroscuro black-and-white still photographs. Perhaps that is why tonality and composition have been such defining markers of his cinematography, even more so than color.

I didn't see any moving images until I was perhaps 6 years old, when a friend of the family brought a projector and some Chaplin short films to my birthday party, and we all watched Chaplin on roller skates, punishing the pompous characters and, of course, falling for the beautiful leading lady. But image making, in still form, became an obsession long before I started to go to the cinema and devour whatever I could find of the films of Ingmar Bergman, Mark Donskoy, Akira Kurosawa, Sergei Eisenstein, John Ford and Ernst Lubitsch.

Suschitzky has an abiding love of art, and he recently confided in me his love for Egon Schiele’s drawings and watercolors after he read my post about the Austrian artist. Peter also loves the “whole Expressionist movement,” especially the work of Max Beckman — a master, like Schiele, of the dramatic self-portrait.

Peter’s father, Wolfgang, was born and raised in Vienna. Four years before the 1938 Anschluss of Austria, sensing the Nazi firestorm about to descend on his homeland, he decided to move to London, where he worked as a cameraman on many documentaries with Paul Rotha. Peter grew up in a world of his father’s filmmaker friends, and he also notes:

I began to fantasize about cinema a couple of years after I first took a photograph, aged perhaps 5, with my newly acquired but old box Brownie. At the age of 7, I built a toy cinema from wooden bricks, and allowed a space at one end into which I could insert a piece of film known as a cinex (or sinex) strip with the printer lights inscribed on it. My father brought many of these home from his work as a cinematographer and gave them to me.

Wolfgang was born on Aug. 29, 1913, and is now 103. When Peter is not working on a film, he visits his father several times a week. Peter says:

We have a good relationship, and I am thankful he has lived this long and still has his mind more or less intact. His sister must have inspired him to become a photographer. She was older and already working as a photographer when my father finished school. His sister studied photography at the Bauhaus for a short while. My mother was in love, at age 16, with George Kepes [later of MIT], who became assistant to Moholy Nagy, [later] a teacher at the Bauhaus. My mother was also close to Alexander Trauner, who became a great set designer. It was he who took me by the hand when I arrived in Paris to study at L’IDHEC. He also introduced me to Henri Langlois, Jean Renoir and Jacques Prevert.

Cineastes know Peter’s cinematography from his early work with Ken Russell on Lisztomania and Valentino. He also photographed the iconic cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With Dead Ringers, he began an ongoing relationship with Canadian director David Cronenberg. Peter was also the cameraman on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Peter began a feature motion-picture career in 1965 with Kevin Brownlow’s dark historical fantasy It Happened Here, which imagines a Nazi takeover of England. But prior to that, in the early 1960s, he was doing street photography in a style evocative of, but not derivative of, the great Bill Brandt.

Like many cinematographers, Peter is attracted to the freedom still photography gives him to create personal work, rather than serving the dictates of plot and character, not to mention the sometimes overweening egos of actors whose notion of good cinematography is “he makes me look good.” In talking about his stills work, Peter emphasizes that he believes the idea of beauty is a moveable feast, especially in his true and unvarnished depiction of the naked female body. Over several recent emails, we discussed this work in his new monograph, Naked Reflections.

Here is our discussion:

How would you describe your earliest work in still photography? 

Peter Suschitzky: To start with, when I was working with a twin lens camera, a pre-war Ikoflex which my father had lent me, and later a Mamiyaflex, which I was able to buy with my first earnings, I was sometimes able to pretend to look ahead, but actually take the photograph to my side at 180 degrees, like Walker Evans’ famous subway portraits. With my Leica that became impossible, so speed and attempted imperceptibility were what I tried for. My first serious efforts in photography were made as a very unformed teenager who had looked at quite a lot of photography, but I didn't know in which direction I was headed. Working in movies was a distant dream, one which turned out to be not so distant after all, but I didn't know that then.

I was able to start work as a cameraman, as we called ourselves in those days before the rather grand title ‘director of photography’ was invented, at the age of 21, and it was only a year later that I was able to shoot It Happened Here with Kevin Brownlow. So, in many ways, I became a cinematographer who had been formed in another discipline, that of still photography. I am sure the two fed into each other.

At first look, there seems to be no connection in either subject matter or style between your photography and your cinematography. Has there, in fact, been for you any cross-fertilization, or do the two very different media separate themselves in your mind? As one looks at the record of so many cinematographers who also were photographers, such as Karl Struss, Charles Rosher, Paul Strand and Willard Van Dyke, it is often easy to see parallel concerns in their work. I don’t readily sense that in yours.

Suschitzky: The ‘street photography’ I did, or tried to do for so long, was always something which had to be done quickly and quietly, with little thought apart from waiting for the best moment. (Forget the idea of Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment.’ I never even thought about whether it was decisive or not, and perhaps that idea has suffered a little in translation, anyway.) Only occasionally have I been sure that I caught the best moment, decisive or not.

If there is a relationship between my work in photography and my work as a cinematographer, then one thing stands out to me: my preference for wide-angle lenses. I didn't start out with this preference, but it is something that has come to me in recent years. I feel that these lenses give one more dramatic presence. Background is important to me as well, especially in films, because I like to add information to the character on the screen by being able to show the place where he or she is at the time of the sequence in the movie. I also feel that, on the whole, there is something a bit facile about filming with long lenses, thus putting the background out of focus all the time. It is easy to make things look pretty this way, but prettiness has never been my goal! In photography, too, I prefer the wide-angle lens to the long one for the same reasons.

To be sure, our job as cinematographers is inherently difficult and more complex than still photography, but the cinematographer’s work is given support and meaning by the narrative, the rhythm of the editing, the production design, the acting, the music and the directing. That is a lot of support! In a powerful movie, the images will be remembered because of the movie. A still photograph has to work on its own, with no story or other elements to help it. A shot in a movie only becomes memorable if the film is memorable. There is probably no such thing as a memorable shot in a bad movie, so I feel that my work as a cinematographer only takes on meaning if the film is meaningful. I never want to set out to make memorable shots. There is nothing worse than cinematography that is straining to draw attention to itself.

Otherwise, I don't see a connection between my photography and my cinematography. I enjoy both, and I love the freedom which photography gives me. Not being tied to a script is sometimes a liberating experience. I do my best in both fields to avoid formulae. It is so easy to fall into the trap of what has worked before — the ‘Why not do it again?’ syndrome. I have always fought this within myself, thinking that formula is the enemy of creativity; but I am as guilty of it as the next person.

The depiction of the nude model in both art and photography is perhaps the richest of all subject matter. You said you were keenly aware of how deeply mined the nude is in photography, from Victorian faux-art posturing to such modern artists as Weston, Stieglitz, Newton and Mapplethorpe. When you decided to take on such a well-known subject, what were you hoping to achieve? Do you feel you have been successful in creating a new vision of the nude?

Suschitzky: The main reason behind my taking up the nude series was that I tired of waiting for a good photograph in streets familiar and unfamiliar. I would often despair at spending half a day with nothing worth printing at the end of it, and wanted to find a project that would be something I could do at home and at a time of my choosing. I found that I was working instinctively and with little or no plan.

Creating a new vision of the nude wasn't in my mind, and I don't know whether I incidentally succeeded, but I hope that the work comes across as honest and also respectful of the model in front of the lens, not exploitative. I was in fear of total failure and simply desirous of making good images and avoiding the cliché of ‘glamour photography.’ I hope to have made a very small mark of some kind on the mind of anyone who may see my work.

Tell me about your technique. If you are still working with film, are you doing your own developing and printing? If you are printing digitally, how are you working? Are there any crossover techniques for working in either format?

Suschitzky: I love using film for my stills. I love that I can do all the developing and printing myself. I actually became a good printer, I think. I love being able to find and hold a negative and not fear that a file will disappear. To be sure, the paper is not quite as good as it used to be, and multi-contrast paper which demands that the projected image be an orange one is not as satisfying to work with as paper which needed no filtration of the light falling on it. But the result has a certain depth that a digital print doesn’t have, however beautiful it may be. The digital print on matte paper is also terribly vulnerable to abrasions, something that the silver gelatin print doesn't suffer from to the same extent.

I do have a couple of very good digital cameras, but I don't have the high-end printer necessary for turning out good prints from them. Occasionally, I send a file out for printing, but at the end, my digital images have stayed in the computer. I had the images for the book scanned from silver gelatin prints, and the result is very good indeed.

In my film work, I made the change to digital imaging three movies ago, and I was so pleased with the way a good digital camera produces an image that after the first half hour, I said to myself, ‘I never want to go back to film!’ With good, gentle lenses, not too cruel and not too contrasty, I find the image produced by the best digital cameras to be superb. There is so much information captured, especially in the shadows. The only nostalgia I permit myself to have is for the smell of the emulsion I used to notice upon opening the door of the camera to check the gate. I miss the optical finder, too, and, in a small way, I miss the magic and anxiety, along with, I suppose, the power of having to wait for the next day to see the result.

In David Cronenberg’s foreword to your book, he writes of your models being ‘caged by their own flesh,’ and notes that ‘the only escape for them is through the windows of mirrors and painted images that surround them.’ This is a fascinating quote from an artist whose own work embodies these ideas, but is that what you saw and felt as you created these tableaux? Or was it more like what Sarah Moon observed when she said your nudes ‘unveil a personality [and] take account of a presence or even, sometimes, a relationship’?

Suschitzky: I think that both David and Sarah say perceptive things about my work. David writes beautifully and poetically in a way that feels spontaneous, and what Sarah writes about my work also feels true because I like to feel that I start with the person in front of me and not with a body. That person has a body, of course, but her inner self comes first, and I react to that. So, these are portraits of women who just happen to be naked. If I have managed to convey David’s idea of the models being ‘caged by their own flesh,’ I am extremely happy!

Peter Suschitzky

The backdrops for many of your nude studies feature paintings by your wife, Ilona. How did this idea come to you?

Suschitzky: Whilst I used my wife's studio, which became my own, too, I did the arranging of the set. I sometimes asked Ilona whether I could use a painting of hers, and on two occasions she made a background specifically for my work. You can see these backgrounds in the images that include a staircase and palm tree, and in the one of the wild-looking room with broken window. In general, I depended on the moment, on an interaction with the model, so I improvised even if I had spent time arranging the studio before the model’s arrival.

Ilona reveals that you both work in the same small studio space. She paints and draws on the wall against which you photograph. She says you ‘penetrate the world of the real’ while she tries ‘to move from the real into the gaps of the unconscious mind.’ Did you collaborate on the conception of the image with the painting and the mirrors and bed, or did she paint and you create the setting separately?

Suschitzky: I have to create the environment I will use, but I rarely have a specific pose or image in mind. The mirrors and choice of objects are my choices. The models have the freedom to stand or sit as they wish at least some of the time. I also direct them how to be. Sometimes, Ilona and I talked about what I might do with the next model, and she often proposed something, which I may or may not accept. I have to discover what it is that satisfies me aesthetically, but my work in this area starts with the face and personality of the person I am photographing; the body comes second. I am searching for the human side, the character, the doubts and the feeling of vulnerability that the model might express, or not.

Peter Suschitzky

Ilona also said the light in your nude photos is ‘all natural,’ that it ‘streams in through the single window, gently enveloping the face and the body.’ This is unexpected for a cinematographer who is such a master of light. Was this a deliberate rejection of the artifice of movie lighting?

Suschitzky: The light is always available light. I seek something completely different from the experience of work in film. I want to be free and to be my own master, and that also means that I don't want to be hindered by technology. The equipment must sort of disappear and be just the basics of what I need: a camera and no lights. Then I feel free! I want the freedom to move around which natural light gives me; the presence of lamp stands in such a small space would be intolerable. There is only one image that was lit: the one of a model sitting in a chair. You can't see her face because it is in shadow.

Peter Suschitzky

Are you continuing to explore the nude as subject? Where do you see your photography going from this point?

Suschitzky: I am active in both photography and cinematography. My last film, Tale of Tales, directed by Matteo Garrone, screened in competition at Cannes and will open in the U.S. early next year. I was very busy preparing my book for publication in the first part of this year. I was anxious that the book might make a bit of a full stop in my photographic work and make it hard to do anything else, but I am determined to carry on taking photographs — if only to see, on a continuing basis, whether I can still produce anything worthwhile! I am also reading scripts, hoping to find one that I would like to shoot.

Peter Suschitzky

The above photo of a blonde model in a neutral, high-key setting at first evokes the classic nudes of Weston or Penn, the nude as sculpture. It is rather unique in Suschitzky’s work in that the background is devoid of context. Yet even here, with her face partly covered by her hair, the individuality of the model’s body is palpable.

A diptych study of a woman on a stool with Ilona’s painting behind her asks the question, “Why is she covered?” Peter explained that the model is Muslim. It is ironic that the first image, with her face fully covered, evokes the tradition of forbidden fetishism, whereas the thinly veiled second pose, though more revealing of her face, seems more virginal, as if she were wearing a Spanish mantilla.

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Another photo, showing five figures on a beach, strikes me as an image made by a cinematographer. The five figures may or may not be of a single party, but each grouping has a separate story frozen at this exact moment. The tableau has the quality of the “decisive moment” that Peter abjures, but the moment seems complex, elusive and ambiguous — in a word, cinematic. It could be a shot out of Rossellini, Resnais or Antonioni.

Peter Suschitzky

When I asked Peter about this photo, he wrote:

The beach scene was a found happening; it’s near Rimini, where Fellini shot I Vitelloni. It was only when I printed the photograph that I thought of him. Perhaps Fellini’s ghost entered my soul for a moment. I was walking along the beach one evening after finishing a commercial shoot when I saw these students, one of them photographing two others. The extra two figures happened to be there in the distance. I was just lucky!

To my mind, there is no luck involved in finding a moment like this, nor, in fact, in any of Suschitzky’s photos, whether they are street scenes or the painterly studio nudes of Naked Reflections. He is an artist exploring a way of seeing just for himself. In his inherent modesty, he is reluctant to call it a “vision.”

Peter Suschitzky at Cannes, 2015.
Peter Suschitzky at Cannes, 2015.

NEXT: "Trick of the Light" Kevin Brownlow and the Hollywood Pioneers. 

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