the first book of art photography i connected to was by the great hungarian photographer; brassai. i found this little travel book of his work in a pile of papers amongst my grandparents' things. nobody in the family claimed it to be their own so i snagged it. it was a ghost book - snuck into the house, destined for me to find. i was 17 and was attracted equally to his use of light and content as i was attracted to the pornographic subject matter, such as this photo taken from a house of ill repute. i admired how "deep" he was able to position himself among the culture of his subjects. years later i randomly went to the "ill be your mirror" show at the guggenheim and discovered nan golden's work. i admired her for the same reason, how far she was able to go. these photographers were not technicians but rather lifestyle adventurists.... "how" these photographs were taken was irrelevant. "why" did they did it was the question.
brassai's work opened the door to art photography, which led to a love of art film. coming upon 15 years of shooting feature films and a dozen directors showing me the same philip-lorca dicorcia photos in their look books, i have come to the conclusion that still photography has nothing to do with narrative cinematography. i also have realized i dislike "look books" but that is a rant for another day. i have used photography as reference as well over the years, who wouldn't want their film to have the scale of andreas gursky or the spontaneity of garry winogrand? i admire that many notable directors site william eggleston as an influence and so did i but after much thought i just don't see it in the work, nor do i see an opportunity for that type of influence in any narrative film. i once read that lance accord was inspired by helmet newton's book "white woman". that sounds really cool, i love that book but what does it mean in regards to his shooting? i recently saw a sequence in kenneth lonergan's awesome film margarat, shot by ryszard lenczewski of "ida" fame. the sequence is a stunning tribute to the day time nyc photos of philip-lorca dicorcia but it's not a narrative sequence but rather a title sequence...... a series of shots that could easily be cut out of the film and not missed and at a 3 hour running time, it probably should have been cut.
you could say "but mike, i was referring to the emotion an image conveyed, not the technical specifics in the image." i would respond with "pack your bong and go back to woodstock you dirty hippie!" but in all seriousness, i do think collaborators need "something" to converse about but still photos make it confusing due to the seeming similarities with cinematography... and then it always gets connected to the never ending digital vs film rhetoric. an actress friend of mine recently worked with a director i very much admire. i asked her how he would direct on the set. she said that he would tell relevant stories about his family members and how those encounters made him feel. to me that is clever and something a collaborator could sink their teeth into. the actress enjoyed it but also felt that sometimes the director would give a long winded story when he really just wanted the performance to be faster.
when discussing narrative films i always try to remember the basics for the reason that nobody, including myself, seems to pay attention to the basics... a photographic singular shot in the context of a narrative film is primarily functional. most often the shot does not exist to convey an abstract meaning or complex emotion but rather it allows the audience to understand what is physically going on in the space of the scene. if it does not first serve it's function then its superfluous, redundant, pretentious, or at best part of a montage or title sequence. a series of shots can convey complex emotions but not a single frame.
a sequence of shots should be designed to highlight the turning point of a scene, i.e. the change of the protagonists fate.. the most obvious photographic way to highlight a turning point is going from an "over the shoulder" to "close up", which is basically used in every tv show. a change in the actor's positioning can also emphasize a turning point or a change of camera position as in jumping "the line" can guide the audiences. by changing the photographic angle we can allow an audience to understand what a character is feeling.... or how we are to feel as an audience.
in recent years i have found photographic inspiration in a unexpected place, the rosetta stone learning language computer program and have drunkinly yapped about it for many a night with whoever will listen. the program begins by showing an image of three boys and then the user will hear "los ninos". the user, whatever their native tongue may be, will without a doubt understand that the sound "los ninos" is in reference to the children in the photograph.... not the pencils they are holding or their age or anything else... the photo is simple in its execution of representing "los ninos". the idea of an image that is undeniable in its context seams rudimentary but its incredibly difficult to first isolate the intent of the image in your mind or story and then execute it so that anyone from shanghai to kalamazoo can understand the image.... "los ninos" is a simple example but how would one photograph "a woman making a decision" or "a man with immediate regret" or "a child trying to be good" or "a group of teenager feeling joy". of course an actor's behavior will convey this but not if the lensing in incorrect or the shot is distracting. passion can feel like assault if it's filmed from the wrong angle.
filmic storytelling is based on the building blocks of specific shots which, hopefully, lead to a dramatic crescendo... and in return make people feel something... it's probably not the best time to reference some photo you saw and liked enough to put in a look book.
now you all have an excuse to learn mandarin and appreciate the hard working photographs over at the rosetta stone corporation.