Stephen Goldblatt, ASC, BSC, found time to speak with me during this year’s Camerimage International Film Festival, where he had a film in the Main Competition: Get on Up, the James Brown biopic. In addition, Stephen was featured as an interviewee in Bending the Light, a promotional documentary for Canon lenses directed by Michael Apted that screened at the fest.
In Bending the Light, Stephen is among several photographers interviewed about their careers and their feelings about lenses. Stephen says he has been using Canon lenses since the dawn of his career. He had direct dealings with Canon for Get on Up, where he needed to very quickly pull together several cameras and dozens of lenses for a performance sequence. The locations included a ballet school and a civic center in Natchez, Miss., where the production was recreating some of Brown’s iconic performances. The spaces were tight, and Stephen needed wide angles and other lenses to help make the spaces work. That led to the interview with Apted for Bending the Light.
Their conversation was shot at Stephen’s home in Berkeley, Calif. In it, Stephen recalls his early forays into still photography and filmmaking, and talks about the ongoing connection between the two. At one point, he says that the lens is the best shortcut to his subconscious. “I’m a bit dyslexic — my wife would say ‘very,’” he says. “I can’t describe how to get anywhere. When a gaffer refers to the north end of an empty stage, I don’t know what he’s talking about unless he uses a laser pointer. So I think when I take photographs on location and look at light and study it, I’m making a photographic record that imprints into me, duck-like, and then I can remember and work it all out. The continuity will come back to me if I have a physical record.”
I mentioned the current trend of teaming digital cameras with older ‘imperfect’ lenses — or new lenses that mimic their traits. “I’m not necessarily interested in the character of a lens,” says Stephen. “I want to give an image its character myself. I must say that I feel the postproduction process, which I’ve trained myself to be very good at, gives [the image] more character than the lenses. I really want the lens to be somewhat more like raw capture. I want it detailed, and I want it sharp across the field.”
I asked Stephen for his impression of Bending the Light. “There were two amazing things about it: although it is a sponsored film, Canon didn’t shove it down our throats, and Michael personalized the lens makers in a fascinating way. You see that their work is also their passionate interest, and also that, in a sense, these lenses aren’t mass produced. They’re actually produced with great care and pride, and who could want more than that?”
One question I had to ask Stephen after seeing Bending the Light was about an incident he mentions in the film. Early in his career, he worked on a series for Granada Television called Disappearing World that brought crews to remote locales, usually accompanied by an anthropologist. “Many famous and wonderful documentary cameramen got their start on similar projects,” says Stephen.
He recalls a memorable stint in the Xingu Basin of the Amazon River. "Our little unit included a director, Carlos Pasini Hansen; myself; Bruce White, the soundman; and our anthropologist, Tom Gregor. We lived with the Mehinacu for four and a half months and had no contact of any kind with the outside world. It was scary and great. We interviewed the tribe, who were only two generations out of the Stone Age, in their own language, courtesy of Tom. I survived a terrible malaria fever, we made a wonderful documentary, and poor Bruce spent a month in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases when we got back to London, by which time I had shed 50 pounds.” (You can see some of the footage here.)
A year or so later, Stephen was in the Peruvian Andes on a similar adventure, one that had a major impact on his career, and he discusses this in Bending the Light as well. “We had all the difficulties of altitude sickness, shooting at 17,000 feet without oxygen, and sleeping three to a tent on a glacier,” Stephen recalls. “The director had pneumonia and was coughing blood. The production manager, who had been sent in as an advance party, went into a coma from altitude sickness. His head was green, and he was barely breathing. We strapped him to a horse, and on foot I led the horse down to 13,000 feet. That’s all you can do. I must have been about 29 years old, and I was very fit. The path was a couple feet wide, with a drop-off to nothingness. In the dusk, I had to ford a deep, ice-cold river while holding onto the horse. Every thousand feet, the production manager’s color would improve. I think it took four or five hours. When he started to regain consciousness, he turned to me and said, ‘Where’s my [expletive] boots?’”
According to Stephen, at some point during that trek, he resolved to move away from documentaries and start shooting commercials.