Short Takes: Six Films With Photographers as Main Characters

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Photography and filmmaking are brothers, or sisters, under the skin. Cinema would not exist without the birth of still photography. As a photographer, and someone whose has been drawn to celluloid dreams all his life, I thought I’d list a few of my favorite films that have characters who are photographers in significant roles. All six films are available on DVD.

Rear Window (1954)

Where else to start than with one of my top five favorite films. REAR WINDOW, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, stars James Stewart as a Life magazine photojournalist confined to a wheelchair after an accident during a photo shoot. With one of his legs in a cast, he spends most of his time looking out his window observing his neighbors until one day he comes to suspect one of them (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife. Hitchcock not only gives us one of the greatest suspense/thrillers of all time, but exposes the essence of photography and a dark side of human nature…voyeurism.

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Delirious (2006)

Steve Buscemi is a low-life, small time paparazzi in this little know film, who takes in Toby, Michael Pitt of “Boardwalk Empire” and “The Dreamers,” a young homeless guy, who he lets share his apartment. In exchange he uses Toby as an unpaid assistant in his work; chasing and snapping photos of the latest wanna be, Entertainment Tonight celebrities. Innocently, Toby catches the eye of a famous pop singer and becomes a minor celebrity in his own right much to the discern of Buscemi’s parasite paparazzi. Originally shown at the Sundance Film Festival, directed by independent filmmaker Tom DeCillo, “Delirious” reflects the bottom feeder side of the photo taking, celebrity stalking industry.

Salvador

Salvador (1986) 

Based on a true story, James Wood is a photojournalist reporting the events of a military dictatorship in Latin America in the 1980’s. The film was given a quick release and died at the box-office when it first came out in 1986. Later that same year, Stone released “Platoon” and due to its success “Salvador” was given a second chance at the box office. Since then, it has come to be considered one of Stone’s most underrated films.  “Salvador”gives us a hands on look at the world of photojournalism during wartime. Stone’s hand held camera, guerilla style filmmaking adds to the atmosphere. Three years earlier, another film called “Under Fire,” starring Nick Nolte as a wartime photojournalist, covered similar territory.

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Blow-Up (1966)

In the mid 1960’s Italian filmmaker Micheangelo Antonioni went to England and made his first English language film. He set the film in Swingin’ London, at the time, the center of what was cool and hip… Carnaby Street, The Beatles, Twiggy and Mini-skirts! The plot is about  a day in the life of Thomas (David Hemmings), a photographer who has lost his artistic soul. He spends his time doing fashion photography. He’s self centered and nasty toward his models. One day, in local park taking photographs, he comes to believe he has uncovered a murder. He begins to study his negatives. He makes large prints. He focuses in on one area of the print attempting to zero in on one particular spot. The prints are blown up larger and larger, the grain turning then into unrecognizable abstracts making Thomas question what he did or did not see. Made only  three years after the assassination of JFK, the film has sometime been compared the Zapruder film that has been studied closely frame by frame being blown up for what may or may not be there. Not a film for “The Fast and Furious” crowd.

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One Hour Photo (2002)

Another small independent film and another that reflects the creepy side of photography. Robin Williams, in an unusual role, is Sy Parrish, a photographer, who works at a local one hour photo lab. Sy knows his customers through their photographs and becomes obsessed with Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) and her young son who the lonely Sy comes to view as his family. Director Mark Romanek hits upon how viewing life through photos, like Sy does, (birthdays, vacations, holidays, etc.)  creates false facades of people dreams and lives.

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Georgia O’Keeffe – This is a TV movie made in 2009 starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Iron as photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The story focuses on both their love affair and their professional relationship, especially their eventual split which led to O’Keeffe’s blossoming as an artist. On the whole the film is unsatisfying but there are some nicely shot scenes of New Mexico and good performances by both Allen and Irons. You get a strong feel for the emotional hold Stieglitz had on O’Keeffe and how her own art would only flourished after they split.

There are plenty of other films with photographers as significant characters that you can look for. Here is a list of some in no particular order:

Pecker (1998 Dir. John Waters)

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978 Dir. Irvin Kerschner)

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982 Dir. Peter Weir)

High Art (1998 Dir.Lisa Cholodenko)

Funny Face (1957 Dir, Funny Face)

Picture Snatcher (1933 Dir. Lloyd Bacon)

Closer (2004 Dir. Mike Nichols)

The Public Eye (1992 Howard Franklin)

Bridges of Madison County (1995 Dir. Clint Eastwood)

Road to Perdition (2002 Dir. Sam Mendes)

Apocalypse Now (1979 Dir. Francis Ford Coppola)

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006 Dir. Steven Shainberg)

Margaret Bourke-White (1989 Dir. Lawrence Schiller) TVM

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18 comments on “Short Takes: Six Films With Photographers as Main Characters

  1. Great list. Eyes of Laura Mars: 1970s disco-fashion, New York City grit, ultra glamorous Fay Dunaway wielding a Nikon camera. Fun choice.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks John! Dunaway may be the sexiest screen photographer ever. I always thought this film was decent but that it should have been a lot better.

  2. Aurora says:

    Great idea for a post and thoroughly enjoyable to read!

    Aurora

  3. These look like interesting films, John. I`ve only seen two, but I`m really keen to see Salvador. It`s to bad it was released so close to Platoon, and was lost in the shuffle.

  4. Am I the only one who didn’t like Blow Up?

    Rear Window – what a masterpiece! One of those films I could watch over and over.

    One Hour Photo was surely creepy though I haven’t seen it in a long time.

    Great topic.

    • John Greco says:

      David, I still think BLOW Up holds up after all these years. Admittedly, like most of Antonioni’s work, it’s an acquired taste. Me thinks.

      Totally agree with you on REAR WINDOW. You never get tired of watching it, over and over. Brilliant stuff!

  5. I’m glad you included UNDER FIRE, if only as an aside in your review on SALVADOR. While both movies tell different stories, UNDER FIRE is more professional and objective (which in this case is not a bad thing), while SALVADOR is more impassioned. I like them both equally.

    I didn’t used to like BLOW-UP, but I have come around. And I love the fact you included THE PUBLIC EYE; one of the most underrated movies of the 90′s.

    One other film with a photographer as a main character that’s worth watching is PROOF (the 1992 Australian film, not the 2005 Broadway adaptation). It’s about a blind man (Hugo Weaving) who takes pictures, the housekeeper (Genevieve Picot) who looks after him, and the restaurant worker (Russell Crowe) who comes between them. It’s a bit too schematic, but still compelling.

  6. John Greco says:

    Sean, Sorry for the delay here. I still need to see UNDER FIRE, it’s a film I just have not gotten around to yet. As for THE PUBLIC EYE, I always thought it to be a decent film that could have been better. Granted, it’s been a long time since I watched it. Thanks for adding PROOF to the list. That’s another film I need to catch up with. Thanks again!

  7. ashley wales says:

    Hi John, good to see Blow up get a mention, one of those classic sixties films which has great location shots of London, South East london for a change. Charlton and woolwich to be precise and Maryon park in Charlton is the location for the mimed tennis match. The sound track with it’s amplified wind and leaves rustling add to the clustraphobic atmoshere of the film. Herbie Hancocks soundtrack was also sampled by Dee-lite for their hit Groove is in the heart. Great shots of the Yardbirds with Beck and Page on guitars, not forgetting David Hemmings at his coolest outdoing david Bailey.
    Overall a very melancholy film about characters with empty lives.

  8. John Greco says:

    Thanks Ashley! You hit some good points on what makes this film so interesting. I also think your last sentence, “a very melancholy film about characters with empty lives.” is right on, but also a reason why some folks today don’t like it. It’s too down beat for their taste. Thanks for mentioning the original YARDBIRDS, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page.

  9. Sam Juliano says:

    John, what a creative idea for a post, and splendidly executed I must say! I would also have REAR WINDOW in the top spot for all sorts of reasons, including the undeniable fact it’s one of the most imminently re-watchable films ever made. I did certainly expect BLOW-UP on the list, and was actually going to suggest ONE HOUR PHOTO till I saw it here. SALVADOR is a great choice, and as I had seen FUNNY FACE recently at the Film Forum I was also thinking of that.

    John, I will pose what I feel are two vital films to this mix. The first film, the magnificent Swedish work EVERLASTING MOMENTS is by Jan Troell and is on Criterion blu-ray. I dearly love this film:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Everlasting_Moments

    The other is the Oscar winning CITY OF GOD, a visceral and violent Brazilian film:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/City_of_God_(2002_film)

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam!!! Believe it or not I have EVERLASTING MOMENTS in my collection and it kind of got buried and forgotten about. I still have not watched it!!! But I will rectify that soon, CITY OF GOD, I vaguely remember hearing about, but I will keep an eye out for it. Thanks for your two contributions here.

  10. Fun post! I also want to mention “The Philadelphia Story”; although not a film about photography, Liz Embry is a photographer, and in some ways she sees everything that’s going on more clearly than anyone else.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks CFB! I have only seen about a 1/2 hour of THE PHILLY STORY. Not because I did not like it, but something came up and i had to stop. Need to catch it the next time it pops up on TCM.

  11. Judy says:

    Bottom of the class for me, John, as I must admit I’ve only seen the great ‘Rear Window’ out of your top six choices, though I have seen a few on your list of ‘others’ – I love ‘Funny Face’. I recently missed out on seeing ‘McCullin’, the new documentary about war photographer Don McCullin, on the big screen, but hope I may still get the chance to see it in the future.

    While it is not actually about a photographer, Stephen Poliakoff’s British TV mini-series ‘Shooting the Past’, about the fight to preserve a library of old photographs, was really something and had some wonderful sequences where black-and-white photos were set to music.

  12. John Greco says:

    You are never at the bottom of the class Judy! Though you do have some homework assigned to you, now (LOL). I am not familar with MCCULLIN, but I would be interested in seeing it. I recently watched an HBO documentary called “WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT? THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TIM HEATHERINGTON. He was a British photographer and filmmaker who mainly focused on war from the individuals perspective. He shot a lot photos in West Africa and the Middle East. He was also co-director of the award winning documentary RESTREPO. SHOOTING THE PAST sounds interesting also. I do plan on doing another post on documentaries.

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