"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
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
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