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Photographers, on the Other Side of the Lens

Posted By Administration, Sunday, March 2, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

"MY passion has never been for photography itself," Henri Cartier-Bresson says in the documentary "Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye," by Heinz Butler. The passion he describes instead is for "the possibility of forgetting yourself" while taking pictures, and "of capturing in the fraction of a second the emotion of a subject and the beauty of form."

Photographers — how they work, what they shoot, and their sources of inspiration — are the subject of a weeklong documentary series that begins Monday night on the Sundance Channel. The documentaries, made over the last decade by 10 independent filmmakers and assembled for the series, feature a broad range of photographers including William Eggleston, Tina Barney, Helmut Newton, and Robert Mapplethorpe and his mentor Sam Wagstaff, among other lesser-known artists.

The series doesn't aim to be comprehensive, but by providing a casual introduction to a number of notable photographers with snippets of insight about who they are and how they take pictures, "the onion is peeled just a little more about their muses, their influences and their collaborations," said Laura Michalchyshyn, executive vice president for programming and marketing at the Sundance Channel, who helped select the documentaries for the series.

While the challenge for each filmmaker was to document the creative process of their subjects, the photographers' approach to their work varies considerably, and so each film reflects the essence of its subject. In "Tina Barney: Social Studies," the filmmaker Jaci Judelson draws specific parallels between Ms. Barney's upper-class background and the world she photographs, underscoring the vital connection between her life and her work. In "William Eggleston and the Real World," Michael Almereyda used a hand-held camera to capture and transmit the furtive manner in which Mr. Eggleston walks down the street and in and out of stores, taking pictures of everyday objects that would typically escape our notice.

"It's innately weird," Mr. Almereyda once told a reporter when asked about the process of filming a photographer. "But after a while it was like following someone on a safari. There's this ongoing suspense — when and what is he going to shoot?"

As photography has become an increasingly sought-after commodity in the art market, turning many photographers into celebrities, the film series diffuses the mystique somewhat by showing the everyday working methods that vary from one photographer to another. Some take pictures of the world as it is, relying on the spontaneity of the moment; others construct the pictures they take by scouting locations, setting up elaborate equipment and arranging their models. Only the use of the camera and the final object — a photographic print — seems to unite the profiled photographers.

And as the films show, it is impossible to separate the photographers from the pictures they take. Known primarily for large-scale color photographs of her extended upper-class American family that she took in the 1980s, Ms. Barney is shown in the film talking with her sister about the Balenciagas they wore to their respective debutante balls in the 1950s; the family's first crossing to Europe on the ocean liner Liberté; and the guests, including Truman Capote and Rex Harrison, who would visit them on weekends at their summer home on Long Island.

Then the film follows Ms. Barney from Manhattan to Newport, R.I., to Europe, where she arranges and takes a series of portraits of European aristocrats. "I start phoning people and say, 'I'm Tina Barney,' " she says in the film. " 'So-and-so gave me your name. Can we meet?' " At the end of one phone call in which she arranges to meet a potential subject, Ms. Barney asks, "Do I call you Princess?"

The resulting photos might be likened to salon paintings — formally composed portraits in settings rich in the details and fabrics of the subjects' high social position.

For his part Mr. Eggleston is portrayed as eccentric and somewhat obsessive. In one sequence he is shown driving to his home in Memphis when he pulls over to photograph a dilapidated house. Taking pictures both inside and outside the house, he appears to be shooting at random, but because the filmmaker inserts finished prints of the shots he is taking into the film, the logic of Mr. Eggleston's choices become clear.

Helmut Newton, the notorious photographer of high fashion and elegant kink, is the focus of "Helmut Newton: My Life," by Gero von Boehm. The film presents the stylishness of Mr. Newton's life, which wafts among Los Angeles, Berlin, Monte Carlo and Paris. At the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles Mr. von Boehm films Mr. Newton in the hotel's laundry room explaining why he photographed nude models leaning against large stainless steel washing machines. In Monte Carlo Mr. Newton directs an elaborate fashion shoot on the waterfront. "Keep your bottom in the air," he shouts to one model from behind his camera.

Mr. von Boehm, to his credit, includes footage of Mr. Newton, who grew up in Berlin, discussing his flight from Nazi Germany as a young Jew, and cites the connection between the bold graphics of Nazi imagery, which fascinated the photographer visually as a boy, and the graphic look of his own controversial photographs.

There is so much photographic imagery in our daily lives that you might say we scarcely even notice. But one interview in the Cartier-Bresson documentary points out both the historic value of photography and the emotional effect of a single photograph. Arthur Miller responds to a Cartier-Bresson picture of Marilyn Monroe taken on the set of "The Misfits," in 1961. She's wearing a simple black dress; her hair is pulled back under a smart little hat with netting; and she stares pensively away from the camera. "Beautiful," says Miller, who was married to her when the picture was taken. "This was the first day of shooting. She is not simply posing for a picture. She is preoccupied with something. And so she is very alive in the picture. Her basic intelligence is in that picture. It's a very introspective picture. It's her. It's the way she was."

By Philip Gefter
For The New York Times

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