Film (Movies) and Photography

The Effect versus Content

Church Corner Abstract. Boulder, Colorado, 2015
Church Corner Abstract. Boulder, Colorado, 2015

These days it is quite easy to pass your image through a filter or two from any one of several popular plug-ins or post-processing applications and–voilà–you have an interesting and original piece of photographic art. As in the above example.

Or do you?

The next time you see an image that is oozing with super-saturated colors, or radioactive with U-235-grade HDR, or covered with Van Gogh-style toothpaste-thick paint strokes, ask yourself…Is it the effect that attracts my eye, or is there actually some sort of significant content here?

It may be that the effect works well with the content–it can happen, and there are some artists who have a knack for it.

Then there are the rest…who get enamored with the power of the filter-slider magic on their computer and just go ass-over-tincups overboard, forgetting that the original photograph ought to have some redeeming value from the very start.

It’s kind of like those movies that lay on the special effects as thick as Tammy Faye’s makeup, but totally ignore any kind of serious plot or character development. They generally belly flop like a chubby Charlie.

Now, think of all those classic films in black and white with NO special effects that are timeless creations with power, emotion, and depth. (Try Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Vertigo, It’s a Wonderful Life, To Kill a Mockingbird, or Psycho, for some examples.)

Just something to think about…

Photographer Spotlight: Leonard Nimoy (Mr. Spock), 1931-2015

Last week saw the passing of a wonderful and much loved actor: Leonard Nimoy.

I, like many millions of others, grew up on a steady adolescent diet of marshmallow creme sandwiches and Star Trek (the original series, of course). The TV special effects, by today’s standards were certainly adolescent as well, but the positive, progressive, optimistic plot lines were noble and uplifting. In the world of Star Trek, there was hope for humanity! Good always triumphed over evil!  Science and technology would carry us as far as we could dream! “To boldly go where no man [or woman!] has gone before…”

I remember, in junior high and high school, passing around a dog-eared copy of some sort of Star Trek handbook, which explained, in minute detail, everything you wanted to know about the U.S.S. Enterprise, what was on each deck, warp drive details, impulse power explanations, history and politics of the Klingons and the Romulans, the personal histories of Uhura, Sulu, Chekov, Scott, “Bones” McCoy, Spock, and Kirk, and even some language phrases you could learn in Vulcan. Oh, it was all so very, very real. Just beam me up!

“Cap’n, Ahm doin’ all ah ken!” –Scotty

“Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor not a bricklayer!” –Dr. McCoy

I never did the Star Trek convention thing, nor did I ever dress up as an Enterprise crew member…I guess you could call me a low-grade “underground Trekkie”, a faithful viewer, who bought into the whole “hope for humanity and the universe” idea.

So, what’s the photography connection here with the death of Mr. Spock? Well, it turns out, Leonard Nimoy was a passionate and talented photographer.

Probably one of his most publicized portfolios is a series on full-figured women. You can see some exceptional examples of his 2007 Full Body Project HERE. Shades of Diane Arbus? Maybe.

That wasn’t all he did, though. You can see more of his work in this Buzzfeed article: 35 Beautiful Art Photographs Made by Leonard Nimoy. This shows more of the breadth and nature of his work. He definitely put at least as much of himself into his photography as he did his acting.

Yes, Mr. Spock–Leonard Nimoy–you will be missed. Thank you for what you brought to all of us through your life as an actor, photographer, and human being (well…, half human, half Vulcan).

A postscript: For an excellent discussion of the controversy generated by some of Nimoy’s images, see the article, Leonard Nimoy’s Other Legacy: His Photography and the Controversy It Caused. Also, for a really nice personal tribute to Nimoy and his art, written by someone who knew Leonard as a photographer, see Some Reflections on Photographer Leonard Nimoy, by Scott Bourne of the photofocus website fame.

A film: “Frame by Frame”

We moan, whine and complain when our rights to be photographers out in the public arena are tested. But, imagine if all photography were completely banned. All of it! And an offense of the law? Punishable by whipping, beating, or even death.

That was the situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban extremist rule from 1996 to 2001 (along with no music, no education for women, and other wonderfully intelligent, medieval, policies).

A documentary film that follows four Afghani photographers during this period (one of whom is a woman–take that, Taliban!) has been made that looks to be quite beautiful and inspirational.

The question now is…what will happen to free expression, women’s rights, and photography in Afghanistan once all foreign troops leave that country?

So, your homework for the day: view the trailer (5:47) and read about the production HERE.

Vanishing Point, Kowalski, and Cisco, Utah

Vanishing Point, The Chase Goes On. Cisco, Utah, 2013
Vanishing Point, The Chase Goes On. Cisco, Utah, 2013

The 1971 very, very low-budget cult classic, Vanishing Point…remember it?

The main protagonist: Kowalski (Barry Newman), still grieving over his dead wife and a past as a decorated Vietnam vet, a former motorcycle racer and race car driver, and an ex-cop–“ex” because he tried to do what was right among a band of bad apples.

The second main protagonist: a 1970 Dodge Challenger (in the final scene, actually a TNT-laden Camaro).

The blind oracle: Super Soul (Cleavon Little, of Blazing Saddles fame), a DJ who gives Kowalski instructions over the radio waves on how to evade the police…and turns him into “the last American hero” with thousands of the “common folk” cheering him on.

The plot: Basically a car race and chase from Colorado to California.

The significance of it all? Nothing…or everything.  Is it just a meaningless car chase film with a cool muscle car as a main star? Or, is it a treatise on existentialism…the meaning of life, freedom, the State, authority, and death? What does it all mean, anyway? As the music says: “Nobody knows, nobody sees, till the light of life stops burning, till another soul goes free.”

The last scene of the original 1971 movie was filmed in Cisco, Utah (there was no Cisco, California)…and Cisco, Utah, even today, certainly looks the part of an end times stage set. (See also: Feb 9, 2013 blog entry, “Cisco, Utah”.)

Cisco Gas Station. Cisco, Utah, 2013
Cisco Gas Station. Cisco, Utah, 2013

UFOs over the Front Range?

Lenticular Invasion. Rocky Mountains, Colorado, 2012
Lenticular Invasion. Rocky Mountains, Colorado, 2012

Remember that old 1964 film, Robinson Crusoe on Mars? Well, those evil space ships that were zapping the stranded astronaut and his buddy, Friday (as well as the poor martian slave laborers), made an appearance over the mountains this week. I wonder how many phone calls the local newsrooms received about huge alien spaceships hovering over the Front Range.

These things are called lenticular clouds and they sit stationary over mountains at the invisible crest of the high-speed air wave that is rolling over the tall peaks. It usually means very high winds aloft…or maybe a storm approaching…usually both. You can even have wave clouds downwind of the mountains and over flat terrain as the air continues to ripple as would a stream after flowing over a rock. There is often a lot of turbulence associated with waves and lenticular clouds, although the odd brave sailplane pilot will seek out standing waves (though not the ones with clouds) to gain altitude.

And speaking of sailplanes, here’s an interesting fact: The current absolute altitude record for these flying machines was set by Steve Fossett (and his co-pilot, Einar Enevoldson) and stands at over 50,000 feet. Wearing astronaut-style pressure suits and breathing supplemental oxygen, they used the wave lift generated by the Andes mountain range down near Patagonia, a place famous for its winds. Pretty impressive. You can read a short summary of the flight here. And, yes, that’s the same guy who was the first to fly solo around the world in a balloon and who also ended up disappearing in his light plane somewhere over Nevada in 2007.

But, I suppose I digress…For me, I am content to admire these unstable weather conditions from right here on terra most firma. The autumn and winter are usually prime seasons for wild weather and even though you might get some uncomfortable conditions for shooting, you’ll find some great image possibilities as well. Sunny days are usually pretty boring for landscape photography–so, along with your camera, keep your jacket, gloves, and wool hat handy!

Samsara, a must see film for photographers

Indian Peaks Dawn #2. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012
Indian Peaks Dawn #2. Boulder County, Colorado, 2012

We saw the film Samsara (2011, 102 minutes, directed by Ron Fricke) this week and I want to recommend it as a wonderful, overwhelming, and sometimes shocking, visual banquet for photographers (and anyone else with natural curiosity, really).

As photographers, though, it is always a great idea to broaden our vistas by partaking of the other arts when we get a chance–dance, music, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, opera, literature…and, most certainly, film. It’s a tremendously fun way to stimulate those little gray cells and to come up with new creative ideas for our images.

Samsara is apparently an old Sanskrit word that can be translated as “cyclic existence,” “continuous flow,” “cycle of creation and destruction,” or “the ever-turning wheel of life”. Indeed, the film deals with the tremendous range of the human experience and our relationship with other cultures and our environment. For a movie with no dialogue–only a wonderfully diverse score written by Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci–it certainly is successful in provoking thought, introspection, debate, awe, and wonder with its spectacular, ever-changing scenes and strange juxtapositions of those scenes.

The film took five years to make and was filmed in 25 different countries throughout the world. The 70mm camera work uses both slow motion and fast motion to create some really unforgettable and unusual imagery.

Some highlights for me…the repetition of the motif of the eyes–often staring, unblinking and direct, at the audience…the French performance artist Olivier de Sagazan and his wild “mud play”…the opening scenes filmed from a hot air balloon of the ancient and surreal Buddhist temple ruins in Myanmar…the 1000 Hands Dance in Beijing…the Kawah Ijen Sulfur Mine in Java, Indonesia…the mind-blowing Chinese factory scenes…the aerial views in fast motion of the pilgrims at  Mecca…just to mention a few.

For more information, see the official Samsara web site here. Better yet, find out where it’s playing and go see the film yourself–your little creative photographer gray cells will thank you!