The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (SMPSP) is a name that does not exactly trip lightly off the tongue; it even introduces an oxymoron by including both “motion” and “still.” But make no mistake, the work that a movie “unit photographer” does is grounded in the immediate moment. These artists freeze those single instants amidst the chaos of a working set that best define the entire film — instants that the crew, absorbed in its own work, barely even notices. Nominally part of the camera crew, the set photographer mostly works alone.
On May 18, mural-sized photographs by SMPSP members were mounted in the long hallway of the Academy's Pickford Center in Hollywood. Many of the photographers were present for the opening reception. The exhibition will be up through the end of this year.
In 2015, 20 years after its founding, the SMPSP published a book titled A Single Frame. Designed by Martha Winterhalter, the former publisher of American Cinematographer magazine, the book of 112 full-page photographs includes Douglas Kirkland’s 1967 portrait of Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot, Peter Sorel’s 1975 portrait of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Jasin Boland’s portrait of Charlize Theron in 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road.
The late Wes Craven wrote the introduction to the book. I wrote an essay about some historic set photographers, as well as ones with whom I have worked.
Here are my remarks:
The photograph of Jeanne Moreau, Oskar Werner and Henri Serre racing across a walkway trestle above a railroad yard in Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is perhaps the most recognized cinematic image of the entire French “Nouvelle Vague.” It looks like an action frame grab, but was in fact made by set still photographer Raymond Cauchetier with his twin-lens Rolleiflex while he stood alongside cinematographer Raoul Coutard. Cauchetier made a single exposure during each film take. There were four takes. The famous “keeper” is frame 594.
Before the days of auto-advance motor drives and today’s high-sensitivity digital chips, the motion-picture unit photographer had to plan his or her photographs with the discipline of a painter. Some of them still work that way. In any case, most memorable still photographs from motion pictures are created, not captured. Creating a single image that evokes the spirit of a two-hour movie of more than 170,000 frames is a daunting challenge.
Motion-picture still photographers embrace that challenge. In fact, the image from a film we viewers hold in our minds is often a photograph that’s not even in the movie. Many of the most recognizable photographs of movie stars, still in costumes for their roles, are created off set, sometimes in elaborate staged environments created by the movie’s still photographer, a technique that had its high-water mark in the days of major studio publicity departments with grand budgets. Clarence Sinclair Bull’s Mondrian-style portraits of Garbo, Will Connell’s surrealist studies of Ginger Rogers, and Eugene Richee’s pearl-strung semi-silhouettes of Louise Brooks all created their own ethereal aura of celluloid goddesses.
In 1987, photo-gallery owner David Fahey and writer Linda Rich curated a photo exhibition titled Masters of Starlight at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It documented the pageant of movies’ still photographers, including Photo-Secessionist Karl Struss, who was brought to Hollywood by Cecil B. DeMille in 1919 for stills on Male and Female, and who won the first Oscar for cinematography for Murnau’s Sunrise a few years later; Arthur Rice and James Abbe, who worked in the heyday of the silent era; the renowned George Hurrell, whose 1930s and 1940s heroic movie-star portraits today line the halls of Panavision’s offices; and photojournalist Sanford Roth, famous for his seeming candid snaps of a young Paul Newman on the streets of New York and Audrey Hepburn, all in white, resting between setups on location in Africa for The Nun’s Story.
Hollywood photography legends like the late Phil Stern and Sid Avery were at their peak when my own generation broke into the movie business in the late 1960s. I have a strong memory of Phil setting up the shutter delay of his Widelux panorama camera, setting it on a low tripod in the middle of Whittier Boulevard, and shooting Chicano low riders cruising the streets of East L.A. Phil was the still photographer of Boulevard Nights, my first feature film as cinematographer.
Peter Sorel already had more than 30 credits when we first worked together on Honky Tonk Freeway in 1980. A few years later, John R. Hamilton, a veteran of many Westerns with John Ford and John Wayne, was the still photographer on Silverado, my first and only Western. While yet a tyro cinematographer, I had the honor of working with many legendary still photographers — and learning from all of them.
The title “motion-picture still photographer’” is a somewhat unwieldy label for the men and women who work so closely with the cinematographer. Their multi-faceted role is recognized by the SMPSP, which includes as one of its principal goals “the promotion of archival preservation of still pictures shot during the production of motion pictures for their historical and cultural importance.”
What this includes goes well beyond “archival preservation.” In all too many instances in early cinema, the only records that still exist are the set stills and publicity photographs of otherwise long-lost movies. And as we often see on TCM’s “Silent Sunday Nights,” it is the rich body of stills made by set photographers that has enabled many missing sequences of classic silent films to be “restored.” Many of these cinematic masterpieces suffered from editorial tampering by the producers and studios, and the film’s original conception was lost. Several cases come readily to mind: the most recent version of Stroheim’s Greed (1924) now incorporates dozens of stills by Warren Lynch, who was soon to become a camera operator and cinematographer. Lynch’s photos enabled restorers and film historians to fully reveal the dark underbelly of one of the greatest of American movies.
A long-lost early Valentino film, The Young Rajah (1922), had nearly half its length restored through surviving production stills. Ernst Lubitsch’s epic movie The Loves of Pharaoh, made by Paramount the same year as the Valentino film, uses production stills to weave together the intricacies of several otherwise lost subplots.
The role of the motion-picture still photographer extends way beyond publicity, set recording, scene-to-scene coverage and unplanned “archiving.” A most important part of their work, and perhaps the least acknowledged, is behind-the-scenes documentation of cast and crew.
Today there seems to be an insatiable desire to see the smoke and mirrors of moviemaking. I had not given much thought to this aspect of the still photographer’s function — though I have always been grateful to those photographers who have given me prints of the working crew and camera as wrap gifts — until I desperately needed photos of myself at the camera to promote a recent award.
This experience made me realize how barren our sense of film history would be without the dedicated work of these men and women who, even between setups, while the rest of the crew is standing around waiting for the actors to appear on set, are always looking for that revealing moment, a gesture or a fleeting exchange that might yield deeper insight into the filmmaking process.
One of my favorite such images was made by the great Robert Coburn when he photographed the crew of an RKO production in 1931. Perhaps it was actually staged, with its looming shadows of the camera crew and a fill light “basher” raking Eisenstein-like high on the stage wall.
The crucial role of the motion-picture still photographer is embodied in the more than 100 images of this book, a few examples of which are: movie-star icons Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Liza Minnelli casually strolling across the MGM lot as photographed by Wynn Hammer in 1974; a deep-focus publicity shot of Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman for The Graduate photographed by Bob Willhoughby in 1967; and Anthony Friedkin’s surreal construction-shop photograph of “Bruce” from Jaws …
… or Colin Firth walking in front of a Psycho mural in A Single Man as shot by Melissa Moseley in 2008; or Hopper Stone’s greenscreen-crew silhouette titled “Controlled Chaos” from 2004’s Daredevil; or Martin Landau in a noiresque image by Suzanne Tenner from Ed Wood; and, of course, one of the most memorable production photos of all time, Brian Hamill’s poetic evocation of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting on an East River bench with the Manhattan bridge disappearing into the nighttime mist.
As a cinematographer, I am intrigued that one of the most successful digital movie cameras to emerge in the indie and low-budget community was developed by a still-camera company, Canon. The Canon EOS 5D doesn’t look like anything other than an oversized 35mm SLR still camera, but, more than any other device, it has helped collapse that putative wall that seemed to separate still and motion image creation. There’s something immensely satisfying about reaching down and grabbing such a camera to make a shot, motion or still, any way you feel like.
Old job descriptions are continuing to break down. It’s beyond ironic that one of the greatest artists in cinema history, one who began his career as a Look Magazine photojournalist, did not live to see this merging of the two disciplines. I’m speaking, of course, of Stanley Kubrick. One wonders how he would have embraced the realities of today’s image creation.