In this episode of the fine art photography podcast, we discuss the photography work of Anton Corbijn, Stanley Kubrick, Gordon Parks, Agnes Varda, and Wim Wenders
Some of the best movie directors of all time were still photographers first. In this episode, we discuss a diverse group of five legendary film directors who started out as photographers. Scroll down for list of sources and the full written transcript.
Sources and Links
Documentary, Anton Corbijn Inside Out, 2012, Directed by Klaartje Quirijns.
Book: Through a different lens, the Photographs of Stanley Kubrick
Wikipedia: Stanley Kubrick
The first glimpse of Kubrick’s genius Photographs by Stanley Kubrick Story, Kyle Almond, CNN https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2018/06/entertainment/stanley-kubrick-cnnphotos/
Cinema Tyler: “Kubrick’s Cameras” http://cinematyler.com/archives/786#:~:text=When%20Kubrick%20worked%20as%20a,to%20test%20the%20lighting%20setups.
Library of Congress:
Library of Congress Flickr page
Picturing Faith: Photography and the Great Depression, Colleen McDannell, page 256
Website: Gordon Parks Foundation
YouTube: “Gordon Parks: My First Well-Known Picture,”
The Guardian: “Agnes Varda, A Life in Pictures”
Full podcast transcript
Five movie Directors who were photographers first
In this episode of the fine art photography podcast, five legendary movie directors who were photographers first.
Hey everybody – Keith Dotson here and in this episode we will be discussing the photography side of 5 major film directors who worked as photographers before the lure of the silver screen came calling. We will be talking about the work of Anton Corbijn, Stanley Kubrick, Gordon Parks, Agnes Varda, and Wim Wenders — who all started out as photographers.
Have you ever seen a movie where the scenes were so well-composed that you knew the director had a strong eye for photography? All movies are quite visual of course, but there are some movies where nearly every scene looks like a fine art photograph.
One of those for me is the 2010 action film The American, starring George Clooney and directed by Anton Corbijn. Filmed in 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio, there’s a scene early in the film with two characters walking across the smooth white expanse of a frozen Swedish lake that is as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen in a film — or in many landscape photographs. The American was shot on Kodak 35mm film negatives with digital intermediate 2K master, and printed to 35 mm film in anamorphic format, using Arricam and Arriflex cameras, with Cooke S4 and Angenieux Optimo lenses.
Anton Corbijn is a Dutch photographer and film director. As a music afficionado, portrait artist of countless famous and influential rock musicians, and creative director for bands like U2 and Depeche Mode, you might expect Corbijn to be a gregarious party animal–a wildman living the rock star lifestyle of the musicians he knows and works with so closely.
After watching the documentary Anton Corbijn Inside Out (2012), it’s quite obvious the exact opposite is true. In fact, Corbijn is a solitary figure, so reserved and withdrawn, one wonders how he ever managed to successfully interact with the larger than life characters he photographs. Even more so, how did he manage to direct major motion pictures like The American? Filmmaking is the consummate group effort, requiring hundreds of participants to bring the director’s vision to fruition.
Through sibling interviews, we learn that Corbijn comes from a loving but non-demonstrative family. His sister tells us that there wasn’t much communication in the household. The together-but-aloof upbringing resulted in a feeling of loneliness, which in turn caused Corbijn to become an observer–to develop his artistic sensibilities. Corbijn himself admits in one especially candid sequence that he lacks the ability to form close relationships.
My question, “how does he do it?” is answered in the course of the documentary. In fact, he does it very well. We see Corbijn at work, photographing bands like U2 and Metallica. As a photographer, he seems to travel light. Unlike most commercial photographers, he doesn’t bring a truckload of gear and an army of assistants. Rather, he carries one or two cameras and shoots on location in natural light.
Celebrity portrait photography is a genre that I find particularly uninteresting, among the lowest tiers of photography in my opinion. But even this, Corbijn handles with raw power. His contrasty black and white shots pepper the documentary, and they are exquisite.
If you’ve seen The American, you know that its pacing is unusual for an action film. That pacing seems to be the pacing of Anton Corbijn–slow, quiet, stoic, deliberate, but also a little raw. It’s a movie people tend to love or hate. I loved it, but as a photographer I especially enjoyed the visual aspects. Every shot is framed beautifully.
Corbijn’s siblings express worry about their famous brother Anton, the workaholic. He isn’t married, has no children, travels extensively, and basically lives to work. This is a commonality I noticed from another photo-biography I watched recently. Daido Moriyama, the highly regarded Japanese street photographer, who essentially abandoned his wife and children to live in Tokyo and pursue his singular passion of photography. Both men face dilemmas and consequences as a result of their total dedication to their art and careers.
But if you’re talking about someone who is way beyond driven, singular and ultimately demanding in their vision as an artist — it has to be Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, director of some of the greatest movies ever made, had a reputation as a demanding taskmaster on the crews who worked for him. Some of his staff were downright terrified of his temperamental outbursts. Others would receive phone calls and requests all hours of the day or night. Kubrick made one of my favorite movies, Dr. Strangelove, but also 2001 a space odyssey, Clockwork Orange, The Shining, Barry Lyndon, Full Metal Jacket, and many others.
But before all of those, he was a still photographer. He worked in high school as the official school photographer, and later sold photographs to Look Magazine in New York. At just age 17, he was brought onto staff at Look as an intern and then a staff photographer. He was assigned to photograph jazz musicians including Frank Sinatra, he documented scientific researchers at Columbia University, he photographed circus people in Florida, and he did a series on the extremes of life in Chicago, which produced one of his many iconic images — a stark night scene looking down onto traffic on a wet Chicago street.
Funny to note, after what I said about the personality of Anton Corbijn — a fellow Look photographer once said he didn’t think Kubrick had the personality to become a film director, noting that he was too quiet. But Kubrick’s photo essays proved that he was able to tell remarkable stories with photographs.
Self-portraits of Kubrick from his Look Magazine days in the 1940s show him using a Rolleiflex twin lens reflex camera or a 35mm Leica.
The website Cinema Tyler says Kubrick owned a Graflex, which was a gift from his father — an amateur photographer. Kubrick would most likely have used a Graflex PacemakerSpeed Camera at Look because it was a standard of its era among photojournalists. Cinema Tyler lists Kubrick as having owned a Kodak Monitor 620, several models of Rolleiflex, a Polaroid Pathfinder 110A, a Nikon F, a Leica IIIc, and a Hasselblad. Great research by Cinema Tyler on finding all that level of detail. A link to their page is in the description.
On the set of Full Metal Jacket, Matthew Modine, carried a Rolleiflex TLR onto set to break the ice with Kubrick, but in true Kubrick control-freak fashion, Kubrick told Modine to get rid of that old piece of junk and to then proceeded to tell him exactly what camera, lenses, film — even camera bag — to get instead (and in case you’re wondering, he recommended a model of Minolta 35 mm.
I think it’s safe to call Gordon Parks one of America’s greatest photographers ever. He was the creator of a ton of highly-regarded black and white documentary work for the Farm Security Administration. That’s the same federal government program that employed the greatest photographers of the era to document American life during the Great Depression, including Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and many others. To get to the FSA, Parks had to overcome a ton of hardships including some pretty severe racist incidents — at age 11 three white boys tried to drown him by throwing him into a river knowing he couldn’t swim. He remained underwater so they wouldn’t know he made it to shore. He attended a segregated high school where his teacher told him that attending college would be nothing but a waste of money. Yet he survived that and much more.
After leaving his home in Kansas, he lived in St Paul Minnesota for a while, then Chicago, doing a series of jobs — even playing piano and singing in a brothel for a while.
At age 25 he was impacted by a series of photographs in a magazine, and subsequently bought a $7.50 camera in a pawn shop and began teaching himself photography. One break after another saw him getting better and better photo assignments, leading up to the FSA.
His “American Gothic, Washington DC” was photographed in August 1942, and of course it was a riff on the famous 1930 painting American Gothic by Grant Wood.
The photograph of a cleaning lady named Ella Watson was spontaneous. Parks spotted Ms. Watson working after hours in the building and asked her to pose. The two were not acquainted but became friendly enough that Parks made many other photos of Ella Watson and her family. But the first image remains the most powerful and best known of the series. In asking about her, Parks learned that Watson was working to support her family — her grandchildren — because her daughter had died in childbirth.
There’s a lot of dignity and maybe even a little attitude in Ms. Watson’s face, lit from her left with a single flash and framed by those vertical stripes of the giant US flag looming behind her, pushing downward on her shoulders like the weight of the world. Another strobe in the back at bottom left of the frame accentuates her silhouette against the simple background. The background is slightly out of focus. Even though the flag is important to the concept, this is very much a portrait. Look at her face. What was she thinking? Was she annoyed that this young man was interrupting while she was working? Was she skeptical? Parks said Ms. Watson questioned the idea of posing in front of the flag.
With the politically charged nature of the photo, Parks was, in a way, biting the hand that fed him. The purpose of the FSA photographs was to document aspects of the federal government’s projects, and with his very first photograph Parks made what he himself called an “indictment of America.” Parks’ boss at the FSA, Roy Stryker famously told Parks, “You’re getting the idea, but you’re going to get us all fired.” Remember, this was 1942. Less than a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, America was at war and patriotic emotions ran high. The civil rights movement was still 20 years in the future.
Needless to say, the negative went unused and was filed away into the Library of Congress, but Parks, realizing he had captured something potentially epic in the frame, went to the LOC and as he said in an interview, “luckily there was a black guy in charge.” Parks was able to temporarily slip the negative out to make a print, which later became one of his best known and most powerful images.
He made incredible images on assignment for LIFE magazine, photographing influential people from Malcom X to Barbara Streisand, as well as gang members. He published two books on photographic technique and shot fashion spreads for Vogue.
Later, Parks went on to become a co-founder of Essence magazine, and was the director of the 1971 movie Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree.
Agnes Varda was an influential Belgian-born filmmaker who worked in France. She was known for her movies that pre-dated but contained some commonalities with the famous French New Wave film movement of the 50s and 60s. Her films were shot in a documentary realism style with social commentary, especially around feminist issues. She seemed to see little separation between her work in film or still photography, saying quote — “I take photographs or I make films. Or I put films in the photos, or photos in the films.”
Varda went to the school at the Louvre, studying art history with the intention of becoming a museum curator. However, photography caught her fancy and she changed to the Vaugirard School of Photography. Her initial work in photography was whatever paid the bills, portraits, weddings, etc. She later worked as the official stage photographer for a theater in Paris, and then as a photo journalist.
In making her first motion picture, for which she herself admitted had no experience, she said she used still photographs to help design and frame the individual scenes.
Now we arrive at the fifth and final — but certainly not the least of our photographers turned filmmakers. Probably my personal favorite of the photographers listed here, German filmmaker Wim Wenders has made 50 films and videos, including the 1984 cult classic Paris, Texas, and the documentary Buena Vista Social Club.
His stunning still photographs have been exhibited in art galleries and museums. It was research seeking film locations for the movie Paris, Texas that gave Wenders the opportunity to travel the American west shooting his remarkable, saturated color photographs of landscapes, small towns, and abandoned buildings.
He drove through Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California with a Makina Plaubel 6 x 7 camera. Those images became his collection called “Written in the West,” which was first exhibited at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and published as a book in 2000.
Wenders revisited the region thirty years later with a Fuji 6 x 4.5 camera. His western photographs are only part of his body of work, but they’re my favorites — suffused with gorgeous light, and the right mix of loneliness and independence to portray the American West.
You can see Wenders photographs on his website wim dash wenders dot com.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for this episode — I hope you enjoyed hearing about these movie directors who started out as photographers.
Here are a few other photographers turned film directors that you may want to check out:
- Robert Frank, known for his influential book The Americans.
- Ken Russell, who directed the movie Tommy
- William Klein, who made “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee” and others
- Tim Hetherington, a UK filmmaker who mostly worked as a photojournalist until he was killed in a warzone in 2011
Thanks for listening — I’ll talk to you again real soon.
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