Irwin on Shooting Stills Since Age 6

Mark Irwin
Photo by Mark Irwin.

Mark Irwin, ASC, CSC, calls his forays into the still photography world “a busman’s holiday.” He started taking pictures when he was 6 years old. “Instead of framing for a director or a jury of 10 jabbing fingers at a monitor in video village, it’s nice to be able to walk out the door with the camera and take my own pictures; crop, frame and color them; make them mean something to me, and then present them,” he says. “I like the momentum. Life goes on. There’s no AD saying what will happen next. Going ‘back to one’ doesn’t exist.”

And present the photos Mark does. He has shared more than 8,700 of them on Flickr.

Photo by Mark Irwin.
Photo by Mark Irwin.

From February to June of this year, Mark shot two features in a row in Vancouver. Over the years, has explored the streets there and in many other cities around the globe when time permitted. He is currently using a Panasonic Lumix ZS20 with a 20:1 zoom that lets him pass for a civilian — he calls it “staying neutral.”

“I’m there to see things,” he says. “When I teach at different film schools or give lectures, I always tell students the last thing I want to do is to teach them how to shoot; the only thing I want to teach them is how to see. I’ve been on juries for student films, and a lot of the submissions look like episodes of CSI or The Walking Dead, which tells me these people are learning how to shoot based on how other people shoot. Having your own eye is something that in some ways has been lost. I think that often, instead of making a picture, we’re making a representation of a signal. There’s life and death on the street, little details and accidents, and learning to see those things is most important.”

Mark finds it interesting that in Latin, the word “focus” means “hearth.” He draws a connection between that idea and the earliest “motion pictures”: firelight flickering on cave paintings that depicted stories. “It was a visual medium then,” he says. “We want to communicate with images, and the ability to see translates very well into the ability to present.”

Mark tells the story of the development of lenses in 13th century Venice, tying the invention of spectacles with the spread of literacy, and connecting the invention of telescopes and microscopes with fundamental changes in the way humanity understood the world and itself. “The inquisitive mind is what drew people beyond, inspiring them to look at a star and wonder what it looked like up close,” he says. “Alfred Eisenstaedt, the Life magazine photographer, would take the same photo three or four times, at different times of day and in different light. That interests me: seeing something that presents itself one way and wondering what it might look like another way. That curiosity for what’s beyond is what makes a good photograph.”

Photo by Mark Irwin.
Photo by Mark Irwin.

Don’t get Mark wrong: he loves being a cinematographer. “It’s not like I’m prostituting myself to make movies,” he says. “It’s an art form, and I like to combine the ingredients to tell a story with pictures. It’s fascinating to me that we have created and nurtured our own appetite for something that grew out of cave painting.

“The fact of the matter is, shooting films is great, but it is the manly art of compromise. That’s our mandate: to make things work for everybody. I tell my crew we’re all part of a giant totem pole, and no matter who you think you are, there’s always someone standing on your head.

“I’m fascinated when I read interviews with some of my fellow cinematographers from around the world. They often have a highbrow, elevated perspective about what they do, and it may be true for them. But for me, filmmaking is art with a stopwatch. Waiting till the clouds are just right doesn’t happen for me. And when it comes to nuances like color, contrast and density, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen my images in theaters and they look much brighter than what I created. Composition, to me, is the one thing other hands can’t change very much.”



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