Photographer Robert Jones, along with film writer Dan Auiler (author of Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic), and photographer Aimee Sinclair have compiled a stunning new book called Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye. Years in the making, the book includes an informative and fascinating introduction by actor Bruce Dern and an afterward by Dorothy Herrmann, daughter of the late composer Bernard Herrmann. One of the highlights of the Dern introduction is when the actor writes about an absorbing short conversation that happened after he introduced Hitchcock to fellow film director, John Frankenheimer. For me, that short exchange that ensued is worth the admission.
In addition, to the stunning photographs, 80 by Jones visiting or revisiting locations from films like The Birds, Family Plot, Psycho, Vertigo and many others, the book includes 17 additional photographs by photographer, Aimee Sinclair, who recreates key scenes from Hitchcock’s films. The book also contains informative essays by Jones, Auiler and Sinclair. Last, but not least there is a fascinating and in-depth conversation between Jones and Auiler, about the films, the photographs, and how this long-term love affair came to be. This is a book for Hitchcock admirers, film admirers and still photographers. Jones details both his love affair with the work of Alfred Hitchcock and how he recreated in his camera so many iconic locations. A must have for any Hitchcock library. Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions from the Camera Eye. is now available to pre-order from Middlebrow Books. It will be out on July 1st.
I had the opportunity to interview Robert Jones on multiple aspects of this project. In the interview Jones explains how he “set out to achieve was the most beautifully produced book on Alfred Hitchcock ever created, a book in which the photography rises to the level of the artistry in his movies.”
I think you will agree he achieved it.
John: Let me first say that this is a superbly well done book. How did it come about?
Robert: Thank you, John. The genesis of this book comes from a photojournalism assignment I had in the fall of 2009. I was covering the water shortage that struck California’s San Joaquin Valley. While interviewing a farmer outside Firebaugh, I saw a framed wedding portrait of his daughter, standing in front of the church at the Mission San Juan Bautista. I instantly recognized it, and asked him how far away it was. He said 75 miles.
When I wrapped up the week’s photography and interviews, I drove up early one evening, approaching the mission from the south on U.S. 101. I was shocked to see the eucalyptus canopy over the roadway—in the fifty-two intervening years since Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, it was uncanny how it looked nearly identical. I photographed the mission, and posted photos on my blog. But, the idea for a book hadn’t yet occurred to me.
Nearly five years later, on a dreary evening in late summer of 2014, I drove out to Bodega Bay. I wanted to see the town where The Birds was filmed, particularly The Tides Restaurant and Wharf.
After dinner—I had the Southern fried chicken, of course—I went out to the terrace. Even though the weather was overcast, I was suddenly overcome by the salty smell of the bay, the lonely cry of a seagull, and the folded hills in the distance. A motor boat cut across the bay, and I set the shutter speed at 1/30th of a second on my camera to capture it slightly blurred, so the viewer could sense the motion of the boat and its wake. The moment I tripped the shutter, it dawned on me that I just had to photograph the locations Hitchcock used in his American motion pictures.
Immediately following this epiphany, I texted Dan Auiler. He was involved with the project from the get-go. It was important to have Dan’s involvement—his credibility is absolute, and his knowledge of Alfred Hitchcock in particular and cinema history in general added a whole new dimension to the book. His essay, “Why, He Wouldn’t Even Harm A Fly,” compellingly establishes context to how Hitchcock’s selective usage of movie locations was so iconic and memorable.
Photographer Aimee Sinclair came aboard this project along a completely different path. I attempted to photograph seagulls in Bodega Bay, using the water and the hills as a panoramic backdrop, but the birds weren’t cooperating; they kept swooping too high or too low beneath the viewfinder ground glass. Within twenty minutes, fog began rolling in. I live in Minnesota, so I couldn’t wait around Bodega Bay indefinitely. So, I photographed the background as an establishing shot, while I still had blue sky and sunlight.
I contacted Aimee, whose photography abilities I trust implicitly. She was living in Ormond Beach, Florida, at the time. I telephoned her and asked her to produce photographs of the seagulls along the Atlantic coast, and she was able to capture the gulls swooping in and out of the frame beautifully. Photographer Steve White used his Photoshop skills to create a composite photograph that paid homage to James Pollak’s title sequence for The Birds.
A couple years later, in 2017, as the book’s layout was taking shape, I realized that its visual presentation was sort of static—there was a portfolio of eighty location shots, but little else—so I met with Aimee once again in Long Island, New York, and we fleshed out the concept for her series “Souvenirs Of a Killing.” These photographs punctuate the text between its chapters and on the endpapers. Now, it really gelled, and as Martin Balsam said in Psycho, if it doesn’t gel….
John: Was there a connection between your getting interested in still photography and your love of Hitchcock’s films?
Robert: Yes. When I was a teenager, I saw Fritz Lang’s classic silent film, Metropolis. Karl Freund’s photography left a deep impression on me. Lang once commented about his production of Siegfried that each frame was a perfectly composed work of art. My photographic education at this point consisted of watching a lot of movies and thinking them literally as “moving pictures,” which, of course, they are.
When I was sixteen or so, I watched Strangers On a Train for the first time. Robert Burks’s photography was a revelation, for its use of light and shadow, and it reminded me so much of Lang. I was making visual and thematic connections not only between the two great directors, but also between the two great directors of photography.
What I hadn’t known at the time was that Hitchcock had worked in Berlin and Munich during the silent era, and had incorporated the look and feel of German Expressionism into his own subsequent films, in particular The Lodger and Blackmail. In addition, Hitchcock’s cinematographer Robert Burks worked as special effects director with Lang’s cinematographer Karl Freund on John Huston’s film noir, Key Largo.
So, this was the milieu in which I was shooting black-and-white film. Later, I watched the 1983-84 re-releases of the five Technicolor “Lost Hitchcock” films that had been out of circulation for more than twenty years: Rope, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, the 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo in theaters. I was totally blown away by the lush color photography, but viewing Vertigo for the first time on the big screen in West Germany really brought all the visual elements that make a motion picture into sharp focus. Hitchcock’s use of color in Vertigo is itself a textbook in color photography. His obvious/subliminal use of green and red at Ernie’s when we first see Madeleine is only surpassed by the “cool” blond Madeleine in the elegant tailored gray suit walking amidst a forest of exotic flowers of every imaginable color in the Podesta Baldocchi florist shop. Viewing these movies stressed upon me the significance of color in photography: That color itself is the most important compositional element. If a photograph’s meaning doesn’t change by removing its color, then why wasn’t it shot in black-and-white?
In fine-arts photography, by and large, the idea that a color photography should be about the color itself is still a rather controversial idea, because the aesthetic standards were set and maintained by artists working primarily in black-and-white. Yet, in the world of American cinema, the standards for color usage were set by cinematographers working with three-color Technicolor separations. They used color film in a way that exploited its strengths and created a much stronger aesthetic than the majority of fine arts color photographers. In that crucially important sense, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Burks were my first teachers of color photography.
John: For some directors, locations are an integral part of their films. John Ford with Monument Valley for example. Hitchcock’s films even more so. I don’t think anyone can imagine Vertigo filmed anywhere other than San Francisco. They are not just scenic backdrops. They helped tell the story. Were these visual aspects of Hitchcock’s work that attracted you on this journey?
Robert: Yes. My co-author, Dan Auiler, made the observation that for a director who preferred the control of the studio sound stage, “Hitchcock’s never just placed the action in a generic space that could be ‘Anywhere USA’ . . . Location in a Hitchcock film is itself commentary on the character and plot. If the film’s location wasn’t vital, then it wasn’t going to be in one of his productions.”
Hitchcock had an uncanny sense of place — both geographically and geometrically. Strong verticals and horizontals, sometimes paired, made his locales memorable.
The question becomes, “How do you use such a well-known and iconic city like San Francisco as your backdrop for all these astounding events that occur, without making it seem like a travelogue?” The answer to that is that Hitchcock incorporates these various locales into the movie’s narrative. The Mission Dolores, Ernie’s Restaurant, Golden Gate Bridge, the Brocklebank Apartments, Podesta Baldocchi’s, the Mission San Juan Bautista—they are all integral to the story line. Instant credibility. These sites don’t just pop up unexpectedly to play for effects.
John: You used a Hasselblad Xpan camera for all of the shooting, a 35mm film camera. Two questions, why did you choose that particular camera and why film and not digital.
Robert: I was going for a similar vibe and feel to Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen format. The Hasselblad Xpan is a panoramic camera, and, at 65mm width per frame, its dimensions are quite similar to VistaVision’s camera negative. The final product truly has the feel the reader is watching a widescreen projection.
I didn’t set out to do a “film photography” book, rather than a “digital photography” book. I have been a photographer for more than thirty-five years, but I’m one of the holdouts; I rarely shoot digital. I’m a film photographer by training and inclination. When I began photographing this book, what I set out to achieve was the most beautifully produced book on Alfred Hitchcock ever created, a book in which the photography rises to the level of the artistry in his movies. I saw it as a challenge, so it was never a question at all of “film vs. digital.” To capture the feel of his black-and-white and Technicolor pictures, the decision to use film was largely a foregone conclusion.
It has been a huge benefit to the book: I used many different black-and-white and color film emulsions that were particularly paired to the varied scenes I was trying to recreate from the motion pictures, as did Aimee Sinclair. Her photographs were mostly shot in medium format, on a Hasselblad 500C camera. Yet, despite the different cameras and films we used, there is a seamless feel to its photography, as used in the book.
John: Looking at your photographs I was surprised at how many structures have survived all these years. While working was that a fear that ran through your mind that the structure would no longer be there?
Robert: Not with the more prominent locations. I knew which ones had been demolished, and others that had been altered over time (such as the San Francisco skyline, in which so many taller skyscrapers have been erected, most prominently, the TransAmerica Pyramid).
Some were incredibly difficult to find, like the canyon Hitch used in Saboteur, at Red Rock State Park, near Cantil (the other rock formations in that movie are located in the Alabama Hills, near Lone Pine, some seventy miles north of Red Rock). A very kind volunteer from the Friends of Jawbone helped me find the exact location at Red Rock.
At another location, China Cove, at Point Lobos State Park, near Carmel—which Hitch used in his first American production, Rebecca—the cove was completely cordoned off to the public, because it’s a permanent seal breeding area. So, I found a very similar cove at Pismo Beach, and used it as a stand-in. If Hitch could have California stand in for the Cornish Coast of England, why couldn’t I switch one California beach for another California beach?
The most shocking example I can think of was when I showed up at Canoga Park High School, in the Los Angeles suburbs. Hitchcock used the pillared school building as the British governor’s mansion in Under Capricorn. Not being a tourist attraction, I found a completely different structure there! The elegant Beaux-Arts school had been demolished, and replaced in the 1970s by what can only be called “above-ground bomb shelter modern” architecture that was a midcentury fad. It was simply hideous! Again, I improvised: On the same campus grounds, the Assembly Hall, an Art Deco structure, still stood, and communicated the same feel the former main school building did. So, I photographed it, and placed it in the book’s photo essay.
John: Was there anything unexpected that came up while working on this project that you discovered about Hitchcock?
Robert: Yes. During what I like to call the “principle photography” for the book, I was constantly reading, researching, and so on, so that the book would extensively represent the locations Hitchcock used in his pictures. I always kept that in the front of my mind: “Extensive, but not exhaustive.” I had known that Hitchcock and his family first arrived in America on the R.M.S. Queen Mary in 1939. But, I wrongly assumed that famous ocean liner had been scrapped long ago.
While I was being driven to on-site locations by a very helpful media representative from the Port of Long Beach, to do some location photos of container ships there, I noticed that the Queen Mary was docked at the port as a permanent tourist attraction and floating hotel. I had no idea!
I never used the exposures of the container ships and cranes in the final cut for the book, but this coincidence of seeing the Queen Mary led to a major shift in focus for the book: I photographed the ship (it makes appearances in Foreign Correspondent and Dial “M” For Murder), and the conversation between Dan Auiler and myself, which immediately follows the photographic essay, took place during a couple of warm and breezy afternoons aboard the passenger deck of the Queen Mary. It really lent to the feeling we both shared that we were in the presence of Hitchcock’s ghost.
John: What was the most difficult part about putting a project like this together?
Robert: The most difficult part was living in Minnesota, and putting together a photography book that is exclusively located across many parts of California. I could have knocked out the four years of photography in less than one if I lived there.
Equally difficult was pulling together so many different elements of the book, and rendering them into a cohesive whole. It went through many revisions as we were compiling it. But, I was not afraid to ditch something I felt didn’t work, so I went with my gut, and that served the book well.
On the other hand, working with biographer Dorothy Herrmann was a real treat. Dorothy is a consummate professional in her writing, and her afterword on growing up with her composer father, Bernard Herrmann, was a very heartfelt and insightful piece. She really made him come alive in the pages of her closing essay.
No less revealing was Bruce Dern’s introduction. He was a real trooper. He fractured his hip while jogging in Pasadena. The very next day, his agent wrote me that Dern was at work on the introduction, which he penned on a legal yellow pad during recovery. A couple days later, I received it by email. How cool is that?
John: The conversation between you and Dan Auiler is one of the real highlights. It a fascinating discussion for both Hitchcock admirers and for photographers in general. I know you discuss this in the book, but could you tell us one or two incidents you encountered where locations changed or your arrive at the wrong time of day, and how you approached it?
Robert: We had an enlightening conversation. Dan was an excellent Truffaut to my Hitchcock (or, maybe I was Truffaut to his Hitchcock, at times). One location that came up was the Redwoods forest at Big Basin State Park, which was featured in Vertigo. When I first went out there in October 2014, it was sunny, and I started getting some excellent exposures. But then, after about an hour of shooting, it became overcast and rainy. So, I couldn’t get a good shot of the Father of the Forest tree James Stewart and Kim Novak stood before. I must have gone out there four or five more times to get that shot, which I finally did, in August, 2016. I couldn’t rely on weather reports online, because no matter how sunny it was in the nearest town, Boulder Creek, the clouds would bump into the redwood forest at Big Basin, which is situated on a mountain top.
Another location that was kind of tricky was “Blanche Tyler’s house” off of Sunset Boulevard, that Hitchcock used in his final film, Family Plot. It was difficult getting the lighting just so on that, because there is never a time of day the sun directly shines on its façade. Add to that the fact the house is no longer whitewashed, but painted a deep clay red—it hardly reflects any light at all. I was able to get around this by the third visit, or so, by using a faster film, so I could overexpose it, to bring up the light on the house.
Conversely, it kept being blindingly sunny at the Pioneer Cemetery in Sierra Madre (also from Family Plot), but on the third visit, during the June gloom, I was able to get a nice, dank and overcast day to shoot it.
Making Hitchcock’s California certainly taught me that patience, coupled with improvisation, made for a better book than it otherwise would have been. Honestly, for many years, it was an extended lark, working with Dan, Aimee, Liliana Guajardo (my roadie, arranger, and caterer), and the book’s designers, Ashley Tomashot and Jennifer Arbaiza, on a daily basis. From start to finish, we spent five years on this project. It was truly a labor of love.