A while back I had the pleasure of conversing with the courtly Javier Aguirresarobe, ASC, AEC, about his earliest experiences with photography. He was born in 1948 in Eibar, Guipúzcoa, in the Basque country of northern Spain. His brother was a still photographer who introduced him to making images. From age 12, Javier was always in the lab. Photography enthralled him.
Eventually, he arrived in Madrid, and was accepted at the national film school. The film that hooked him and led him to apply was La Caza (The Hunt), a psychological thriller about three veterans of the Spanish Civil War who go rabbit hunting. It was director Carlos Saura’s first international success, and he won the Silver Bear for Best Director at the Berlin International Film Festival. La Caza was shot by Luis Cuadrado, a graduate of the Escuela Oficial de Cinematografia.
Little did Javier know that he would go on to work with both Saura and Cuadrado. But first, he had to endure years of struggle.
“The school was very difficult to get into,” Javier recalls. “The faculty has strong ties to the Spanish film industry. Almost all of my classmates had some prior connection to the industry, but I did not. In fact, I had absolutely no connections.”
Javier says the school taught a traditional approach to filmmaking that had to be mastered before a student could graduate. But he and his classmates (including future ASC colleague Juan Ruiz Anchia) were learning at least as much from the French New Wave and Italian neo-realists, and they yearned to graduate so they could put their own “revolutionary” ideas on the screen.
They also felt the strong influence of Hollywood cinematographers — Javier recalls The Night of the Hunter, shot by Stanley Cortez, ASC, as a powerful influence — but their vision for what a European cinematographer should be was less studio-based. When Javier and his classmates graduated, in 1973, they purposefully left behind many of the standard techniques they learned in school.
It was seven years before Javier shot his first feature. He attributes this delay in part to his lack of connections in the business. He spent time as a technical writer for a photography magazine, worked in a lab, shot stills for industrial clients, and filmed numerous shorts and documentaries. In the 1980s, his feature career bloomed. And in 1992, he worked with Saura, the director whose film had sparked his interest in cinematography, on Marathon, a documentary feature about the Olympic Games in Barcelona.
To say Javier’s connections have improved is an understatement. Over the past several years, he has shot films for directors Woody Allen, John Hillcoat, Milos Forman, James Ivory, Alejandro Amenábar and Pedro Almodóvar, among others.
At the moment, he has several projects forthcoming, including the young-adult title Goosebumps, Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours and Terry George’s The Promise, a period piece he is shooting in Portugal and Spain.
When it comes to making images for feature films, Javier places a great deal of importance on texture; he observes that this affects every other aspect of photography. He cites the late films of Conrad Hall, ASC, as perfect examples. “It’s the texture of the film, but it’s also the texture of the light,” he says. “The texture and the material depend on the story, of course. But when the story moves you, it motivates you to add your own personality to the images.”
Though his preferred medium is film, he is pragmatic about the advent of digital, which he describes as “a convulsion.” He says, “We’re living in a complex moment. I expect film will enjoy a renaissance after people get used to the digital innovations and realize film is unique. Eventually, producers will figure out that the cost difference is not significant.
“Still, I believe the films I have shot digitally had to be shot that way. Digital is a legitimate tool, and today’s films have more digital visual effects than ever. I hope we will see more independent movies and the kind of simpler, ‘handmade’ stories that require a more traditional way of working.”