The outlandish and exuberant film director Ken Russell died last week. Before turning to film he forged a career as a photographer. This started me thinking about other photographers turned filmmakers. Can you see in their photography intimations of the filmmakers they would become? Do their films betray a ‘photographer’s eye’? And would we be talking about their photography if they were not also renowned film directors?
Visionary film director Ken Russell, whose films included The Devils and Tommy, died last week aged 84. Before he became Britain’s most outlandish director, he forged a career as a photographer, capturing British eccentricity and a nascent youth culture. He started working as a freelancer in 1951, aged 23, wandering the streets of London’s Notting Hill until ‘something caught (his) eye’.
Sean O’Hagan in The Guardian has said that he much prefers Russell’s photographs. ‘Something about the medium reined in his excesses, made him a more thoughtful observer of the everyday and the eccentric.’ His early photography hints at the surrealism of his later films – take for example this photograph of dancer Frances Pidgeon wearing a ‘hip bath’ on her back like a tortoise shell, only her legs and arms protruding – but the style is more restrained and observational.
CREDIT: Ken Russell
This started me thinking about other photographers turned filmmakers. Can you see in their photography intimations of the filmmakers they would become? Do their films betray a ‘photographer’s eye’? And would we be talking about their photography if they were not also renowned film directors?
Stanley Kubrick was an avowed fan of Russell’s work (preparing Barry Lyndon in the early 1970s, Kubrick called Russell to ask him where he had found the locations for his period films), and they both started out as photographers. Before he turned to film, Kubrick was prowling 1940s New York, photographing wannabe showgirls, boxers and down-and-outs, mostly for Look magazine (at the age of 17 he became the youngest staff photographer in their history).
CREDIT: Stanley Kubrick
There is continuity between Kubrick’s early photography and his mature cinematic oeuvre: an interest in the underside of life and, more specifically, boxing (Kubrick’s first film, a short documentary, followed middleweight Irish boxer Walter Cartier, and was based on a series Kubrick shot for Look in 1949 called Prizefighter). His photographs, collected in the book Stanley Kubrick, Drama and Shadows, show that even at an early age Kubrick had a good eye, and he later emphasised the importance of his training in photography, saying ‘To make a film entirely by yourself, which I initially did, you may not have to know very much about anything else, but you must know about photography’. Yet the compositional sense of A Clockwork Orange or Full Metal Jacket is very different, more precise, and far removed from photojournalism. Noel Murray, reviewing the book for the AVClub, observes that Kubrick ‘couldn’t always control his environment, and these photographs contain a lot more spontaneity and documentary realism than his movies do’.
The French filmmaker Agnes Varda, associated with the Left Bank group (contemporaries of the Nouvelle Vague) and best known for real-time drama Cleo from 5 to 7, was a photographer before making the transition to film. In the early 1950’s she was a photographer for Jean Vilar, director of the Theatre National Populaire. Her luminous memoir-documentary The Beaches of Agnes has a moving sequence in which Varda exhibits her photos of actors. Varda explained in Interview magazine, ‘At the time I was making Beaches, they offered me a big exhibition in Avignon of photos I had shot there from 1950. The prints were five meters high – everyone was complimenting me. But all I could think of was that these marvellous actors, Gerard Philipe, Jean Vilar, Philippe Noiret were dead … Suddenly I felt a pang of emotion which led me back to the death of Jacques (Demy, her husband and director of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg).
CREDIT: Agnes Varda
Varda’s photography is not as well-known as her films, but critic Roger Ebert has said, ‘If she had only been a photographer, Varda would have been a great one, with her work in China, Cuba, Europe, America.’ Varda doubts she had seen ten films by the time she was twenty-five, when she made her first film La Pointe-Courte. In The Beaches of Agnes she narrates, ‘I thought if I added sound to photographs, that would be cinema’, adding that she had a lot to learn. But what she had learned from photography was her sense of composition. Her second feature Cleo from 5 to 7, about a singer who fears she has cancer, relies on elegantly composed and edited shots that reveal her background as a photographer.
Gordon Parks was the first black artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film The Learning Tree in 1969, and went on to direct Shaft and a biography of blues singer Leadbelly. But before turning to film Parks had a distinguished career as a photographer.
CREDIT: Gordon Parks (right), working at FSA
In 1941 Parks chronicled black ghetto life on the south side of Chicago, and an exhibition of those photographs won him a photography fellowship with the Farm Security Administration (FSA). During his brief time with the agency he shot one of his best known images, American Gothic, Washington D.C.. It showed a black woman, Ella Watson, a cleaner in the FSA building, standing stiffly in front of an American flag, a mop in one hand and a broom in the other. About the photograph the New York Times explains, ‘Mr. Parks wanted the picture to speak to the existence of racial bigotry and inequality in the nation’s capital. He was in an angry mood when he asked the woman to pose, having earlier been refused service at a clothing store, a movie theatre and a restaurant.’ Parks later became a freelance fashion photographer for Vogue, and then a staff photographer and writer for Life magazine, where he remained for twenty-four years, shooting subjects including fashion, sports and poverty, and portraits of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and others.
Parks’ best known film is the blaxploitation hit Shaft. Michael Thompson in a BBC retrospective writes ‘The film was hammered at the time for not being a full exposé of the black urban experience, and for being just a black version of a 40’s Hollywood gumshoe thriller, yet Shaft certainly has a black sensibility … and, even now, it seems radical to have a movie in which almost all the actors are black.’ The film is good fun, has an iconic soundtrack, and can justifiably be called a ‘racial breakthrough’, but Parks’ crowning achievement remains his photography.
Would we be talking about the photography of Ken Russell, Stanley Kubrick, Agnes Varda and Gordon Parks if they were not also renowned film directors? In the case of Gordon Parks I believe so. His obituary in the New York Times focused on his landmark photography, treating his excursions in film as a minor sidenote. But for Russell, Kubrick and Varda, photography was their training – they honed the skill of composition, discovered their preference for subjects and themes – but they transcended the medium. Photography and film are superficially so similar, but not really the same. About Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni (L’Avventura), Ingmar Bergman said, ‘You know, Antonioni never really learned the trade. He concentrated on single images, never realising that film is a rhythmic flow of images, a movement.’ This is no slight on photography, but film is more than the single image. A director will use sound and music, direct actors, understand editing and dramatic construction. Russell, Kubrick and Varda are talented photographers, but brilliant directors. They found their medium.
Look out for an upcoming interview feature on contemporary photographers who shoot both stills and motion.