I recently spoke to Bradford Young, ASC, one of the most recent additions to the Society’s roster. His assured work in A Most Violent Year was very impressive. His other credits include Selma, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pariah.
Bradford traces his earliest interest in the arts and image making in part to coffee-table books in his grandparents’ living room. His grandparents ran a funeral home, and they collected art. The dwelling and place of business had a carefully designed aesthetic, and the people who worked there — embalmers, organists — were creative, he says.
“I came from 120 years of morticians, and our generation gave birth to a couple of artists in the family,” says Bradford. “It was an artistic climate. I wasn’t a big reader as a kid, but if I did have a book, I always turned to the middle section of it to find the pictures. I was into images early on, and that’s my source of inspiration. The artist Roy DeCarava really blew my mind. My grandparents had a book of his, and it just spoke to me. I continue to be challenged by the work he did as a photographer.”
DeCarava, who died in 2009, was the first African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He produced five major books, including The Sound I Saw and The Sweet Flypaper of Life, the latter with Langston Hughes.
When Bradford arrived at Howard University in Washington, D.C., he joined a film society and was soon connecting with films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice and Nostalgia. Around that time, he got serious about cameras. “Those films really got in my bones,” he says. “I felt like the imagery was everything I would want my cinematography to be.”
Another foundation stone was laid by Haile Gerima’s moody 16mm film Ashes and Embers, about the travails of a disillusioned African-American Vietnam veteran trying to navigate urban life.
Gerima came from Ethiopia to the U.S. in 1968 to study acting and directing at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. He later earned a master’s degree in film at UCLA and became associated with the L.A. Rebellion film movement. Since 1975, he has been an influential film professor at Howard, where he founded a bookstore/film center. (Howard’s alumni include cinematographers Arthur Jafa, Malik Sayeed and Ernest Dickerson, ASC.)
“Haile was one of my professors,” says Bradford. “He wasn’t a cinematographer, but what he and Tarkovsky were doing as directors with their cinematographers just felt like something I wanted to do — it felt very alive and very aware, but it was also extremely imaginative. It felt like you were watching real life, but then there would be these experimental, surrealist moments. I said, ‘Damn, if I shoot movies, these are the kind of films I want to make.’”
Memory is Bradford’s most important ally. “I use memory as a tool in all my cinematography,” he says. “Memory is a muscle that you have to develop. I can still close my eyes and see the lighting design in my grandparents’ living room.”
Bradford says his family was patient throughout his journey to self-discovery. “As long as we didn’t hurt anyone else or ourselves, they were supportive,” he says. “My parents and grandparents aren’t around anymore, but my aunts and uncles and sisters are all very excited because there’s a new generation of artists in the family. It’s beautiful. All the elders are proud.”
Bradford is currently at work on the documentary project American Jazz Musician, and he will begin teaching at UCLA next month as the 2015-16 Kodak Cinematographer-in-Residence.