In January of 1988, I rang the door of the ASC Clubhouse, and none other than ASC president Harry Wolf answered it. He was kind, solicitous and dapper, and smoking a cheroot. He said, “You must be David. I think you’re going to like it here.”
I had the pleasure and privilege to get to know Mr. Wolf (members were addressed as Mr. in those days) over the ensuing years, and hearing many of his tales. I mention this encounter because it was my first inkling that ASC members, in addition to speaking volumes to the world through their images, are almost always curious, engaging people who lead fascinating lives informed by wide-ranging interests. And that is the fundamental fact underlying Parallax View.
In Parallax View, I’ll do my best to render a glimpse inside the ASC Clubhouse, and more importantly, into the minds and lives of the members who make it “the temple of photographic wisdom,” as Stanley Cortez used to call it, with a hint of showmanship and a grandiose wave of his hand. The idea is to follow members off the set, into their personal lives, side projects and other passions, to find the humanity in our cinematographic heroes.
We’ll begin Parallax View with reminiscence from the ASC’s senior member, Ralph Woolsey, about his early experiences at the Clubhouse, including some help from Arthur Miller in finding the right look for a project.
We plan to post new information weekly, on Wednesdays, in the hope that readers will make a habit of checking back. If you are an ASC member, please contact me with any ideas or anecdotes. In the meantime, I'll quote Mr. Wolf: I think you're going to like it here.
Ralph Woolsey recently celebrated another milestone. On New Year’s Day 2013, the senior member of the ASC, turned 99 years young. Taking note seemed like a perfect way to kick off Parallax View.
“People ask me my secret for longevity, but the truth is I don’t pay that much attention to that aspect of it,” Ralph told me. “I can’t move as quickly as I used to, that’s the main difference I’ve noticed.”
Ralph has been a member of the ASC for more than half of the organization’s history. He is often present at ASC events, including the ASC Awards.
I asked him to recall his first visits to the ASC Clubhouse. He became a member of the ASC in 1956, sponsored by Arthur Miller and George Folsey—talk about an endorsement!
“I had met Arthur Miller and I knew him reasonably well,” Ralph told me. “At the time I met him, he already had three Oscars, and of course I admired his work. I was shooting black and white television at Warner Bros., and there were particular scenes and effects that Arthur had achieved that rang bells for me, and seemed appropriate to my needs. I remember going over to his house a number of times—it was not far from the Clubhouse—and he had saved all the Cinex strip lighting tests from his films. They were filed away neatly in cigar boxes. I would name one of his films, and we would find the light tests, look at them with a magnifying glass, and discuss them.”
Ralph was shooting a series called The Alaskans, and he had come up with a “pretty good look,” but something was missing. Miller had recently shot Brigham Young.
“I thought that film had a great look,” Woolsey says. “I asked him in detail about it. I had used the same filters that he had, with one exception—a little bit of diffusion that made everything dance. With the addition of this small amount of filtration, it really looked pretty damn good.”
This kind of camaraderie was one of the original reasons the founders gave for creating the ASC, Ralph reminds us. “Having those letters after my name meant a great deal,” says Woolsey. “If you got a pat on the back from Arthur Miller, that was about all you needed.”
Ralph will allow that teaching, which only recently gave up, helped keep him young and engaged. “Having a lively interest in anything, particularly something that has been your life’s work, really helps,” he says.
Ernie Holzman recently presented an exhibit of his still photographs at Known Gallery on North Fairfax in Hollywood. The exhibit, Ernie’s second at the gallery, is titled “L.A. Backstory,” and consists of 25 reflective images of a nude woman, usually facing away from the lens, posed within street environments and interiors around Los Angeles.
Ernie saw the experience of making the photographs and mounting the exhibit as an attempt to recapture a time when he felt completely invulnerable and open to adventure – a way of fighting back against a cancer diagnosis and the subsequent chemotherapy he has undergone in recent months.
To make the photographs, he used a “beat-up” old 4X5 Busch Pressman view camera. He shot transparencies because they would scan better. He related to the camera – and in fact used it without having it repaired – because, like Ernie, it was about 60 years old and “wasn’t quite working properly.”
His wife was not happy about the prospect of him putting time and energy into a project, but using a camera where the shutter might not work on a given shot.
“I told her was that it was all part of the adventure – not knowing how things were going to turn out,” he says. “It was somehow very life-affirming to me to be able to work with something that was broken and have a successful product come out of it.”
Ernie found the photography to be an optimistic and engaging creative experience that helped take his mind off health issues. “I felt like I needed to get out and do something interesting,” he says. “I wanted something to charge my batteries up a little, to do something exciting and adventurous. We shot guerrilla-style, without permits. What could they do to me? The model is usually seen from the back, almost as if I were photographing her as she saw the world as an innocent. It was wonderful experience.”
As he attempted to adjust to the diagnosis and underwent the grueling chemotherapy process, Ernie was very private, but is currently feeling more comfortable about sharing with friends and colleagues. “Maybe there are other people out there who need that kind of strength, and could benefit from my experience,” he says.
Michael Watkins has devoted his energies to directing television in recent decades. But his current project is different from all the rest. Several years ago, Michael travelled to Afghanistan for a documentary he is funding, directing, shooting and producing called Requiem. The subject is war photojournalists.
The experience changed him forever. He has since been back to Afghanistan multiple times. He flies in with several video cameras and is ferried on military planes to forward operating positions where the war is hot.
“Once I met Marines and soldiers, the project took on a bigger framing,” he told me. “It’s an amazing, sobering thing to get on an airplane with weapons all over the floor, with boys who are flying into war. Once you experience a gunfight, there’s more clarity. I’m not brave. It was horrific and terrifying. What I was so impressed with was that these people found humanity in an inhumane place at the end of civilization.
“I realized that there is no John Wayne and no courage and none of those things you grow up thinking about manhood. But I realized that a patrol goes out and finds honor. I can’t put enough emphasis on that. You got out for your partner, your brother. It gave me pause, and it made me sad, and brought on so many other emotions. I saw so many things that need to be put out there and shown.”
Young soldiers Michael befriended have been wounded or killed. He has visited the homes of some of these heroes. The experience led to him to become involved with organizations like TAPS and the Marine Corps Scholarship fund, which help veterans and their families.
“I wanted to do something that got me back to the place where I felt most creative,” Michael said when I asked him the original impetus for the project. “I’ve been blessed that all these young men and women want to have me there, and that they go out of their way to look after me. They keep saying, ‘you actually come here on your own? Like, you're not press?’ I say, ‘No, I'm not press.’ And they say, ‘Then you're just stupid, right?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, that's right.’ We can talk on that level.”
Michael is about halfway through editing, and he plans one more trip to Afghanistan in the spring, when the fighting escalates.