The Greatest Movies about Photographers: Rear Window

This article was inspired by classic film cameras in movies, taken from my own observations and from internet research and initially focused on the cameras in the films. From cameras in movies, it’s a short step to movies about photographers. My favourite movie about photographers is undoubtedly Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but there are several others – some of which I’ve yet to see.

  • Blow-Up (1966)
  • Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White (1989) 
  • Proof (1991)
  • The Killing Fields (1991)
  • High Art (1998)
  • Pecker (1998)
  • Harrison’s Flowers (2000)
  • Gentlemen’s Relish (2001)
  • City of God (2002)
  • Closer (2004)
  • Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)
  • Everlasting Moments (2008)
  • The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
  • Kodachrome (2017)
  • Photograph (2019)
The greatest movies featuring photographers
Jimmy Stewart, his Exacta Varex with Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter in Rear Window

Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window contains probably the most iconic photographer/film camera combinations in movie history. The film is based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” and stars Jimmy Stewart as LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, a New York magazine photographer. Recuperating from a broken leg, Jeffries is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment in Greenwich Village.

Jeff’s rear window looks out onto a courtyard and his neighbour’s apartments, which he observes during his convalescence in a stifling Manhattan summer. The include a lonely middle-aged woman, a new wed couple, a dancer, a husband and his sick wife, an alcoholic pianist and a couple who often sleep out in the balcony in the hot weather. Jeff’s observations include some suspicious sounds and behaviour and he becomes convinced one of his neighbours, Lars Thorwald, has committed a murder.

Inspirations for a Murderer

Mischievously, Hitchcock modelled the murderer on a former meddling producer he did not care for, David O. Selznick. Grace Kelly plays the archetypical Hitchcock blonde heroine in Lisa Carol Fremont, a stylish and resourceful socialite who has to engage in much of the action as Jeff is wheelchair bound. Although he did not write the the screenplay, Hitchcock also supplied colour for the murder story from two cases he head read about in the newspapers: the infamous Dr. Crippen and the less well remembered Patrick Mohan, both of whom dismembered their victims.

The Role of the Photographer

Rear Window is another of my favourite films, and the role of the photographer is pure Hitchcock. David Campany describes it well in the essay Re-viewing Rear Window:

“For Hitchcock’s purposes, a photographer is above all someone who looks. It is their socially accepted voyeurism that is significant, not their images. Voyeurism requires a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer beyond the reach of the observed (much like a movie audience, watching but not accountable). In Rear Window, the photographer is cut off not just by the lens of his camera, or by the glass window of his apartment, or indeed by the abyss of the courtyard across which he stares. It is his professionalized looking, with its fantasy of objectivity, that cuts him off. It demands his separation from the world. Despite witnessing what he believes is a murderer covering his traces, he feels no urge to get it on film. Rather, he uses his camera’s long lens as a telescope to watch, swapping it for binoculars when things get really intense.”

That Obscure Object of Desire

Jeff’s camera was an Exakta Varex VX 35mm film SLR made by the improbably named Ihagee of Dresden, which was in East Germany at the time. This manufacturer is best known for the Kine Exakta (1936-1948), the first 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera in regular production.

The Exakta Varex VX was introduced in 1951 and was based on the Kine Exakta. The Exakta Varex VX was a system camera that could be used with either a waist level finder or with a pentaprism and a variety of focusing screens. Other specialised equipment available for the camera system included microscope adaptors, extension bellows, stereo attachments and medical attachments.

Exakta as Witness

In addition to a staring role in Rear Window Josef Koudelka used an Exacta Varex to photograph the invasion of Prague in 1968. He had returned to Czechoslovakia from Romania recording his photo-essay Gypsies (also with an Exacta Varex) two days before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

These photographs, of crowds staring down the barrels of tank guns, defiant youths waving resistance flags in smouldering streets and anti-Soviet graffiti that sprang up every day and was whitewashed every night, came to define one of the pivotal moments of 20th-century history. However Josef Koudelka would have to wait another 16 years for an exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery before being credited as the photographer. Until then, the pictures had been attributed to PP (Prague Photographer) to protect Koudelka and his family from reprisals. Josef Koudelka: the lonely, rebel photographer

Rear Window

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window the Exakta Varex VX was paired with a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model. The f/5.6 400mm lens weighed 1.76kg and almost certainly required a tripod to obtain sharp shots.

Collectively the camera/lens combination is known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and is much desired by collectors.

Although scarcely known today beyond its association with the Hitchcock classic, Kilfitt was an innovative German lens manufacturer who introduced the first production varifocal (zoom) lens for still 35mm photography – The Zoomar of 1959, which arrived the same year as the Nikon’s game changing F. Kilfitt also produced the first macro lens to provide continuous close focusing in 1955. If you are interested in photography milestones such as these, take a look at the timeline on this site.

My Own 400mm Rear Window Lens

Greatest movies featuring photographers - Rear Window
The Nikon 400mm f3.5 prime mounted on an F6

I have a 400mm lens prime also. Not wanting to spend several thousand on a lens I would use only occasionally I purchased an old school manual focus Nikon Ai-S 400m f3.5 IF-ED from a Japanese eBay seller – just like this reviewer, who has included a couple of great sample shots.

A Beast of a Lens

It’s an all-metal 2.8kg beast of a lens, a whole 1kg heavier than the Rear Window 400mm, and built like the proverbial tank. Mine came with a protective clear 122mm filter, which made it even better value. It is an amazing piece of kit but not the most practical. There’s no VR and it requires a tripod and a gimbal head, which makes the combined shooting weight pretty substantial.

The first version of the lens was introduced in 1976 and was followed in 1977 by an Ai version. Mine is the Ai-S lens version introduced in 1982 and which can be identified by the minimum aperture number which is engraved in orange. The expression ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ was never more true than with this lens which is an incredibly solidly engineered piece of work.

I used it originally for shots of the moon with the Z7 and the FTZ adapter using focus peaking, but I have recently acquired the new 100-400 mm zoom for that kind of shot. It’s better optically of course, and far lighter, but has nothing like the presence. I’ve kept the old monster for use with my older Nikon cameras – the F series and FM film classics. Sometimes, only film will do.

Brassaï’s Dark and Beautiful Realm

William Klein and The Zero Degree of Street Photography

© William Klein
Dance in Brooklyn 1955 © William Klein

I came across the work of William Klein when browsing though photography books in a book shop.  It didn’t take many turns of the pages for me to decide to buy the book and learn more about the man and his photography.  I found his raw, ironic, high contrast and grainy street photography vibrant, often strange and compelling.

The anti-photograph

William Klein came to the notice of the world in the 1960s after he was talent spotted by the art director of Vogue who saw an exhibition of his early abstract work and offered him a job on the spot.  Klein had studied painting in Paris but was untrained as a photographer and considered himself an an outsider – lacking any respect for the photographic technique he didn’t possess.  In later years he ascribed this to a contrarian instinct: “Having little technical background, I became a photographer. Adopting a machine, I do my utmost to make it malfunction. For me, to make a photograph is to make an anti-photograph.”

Fashion photography is traditionally highly polished, and his untutored, highly dynamic and ironic approach was revolutionary.  Vogue subsequently financed a street photography project in New York where Klein, encountering culture shock after his time in Paris – which he feared would soon wear off – went “in search of the rawest snapshot, the zero degree of photography”.  To get there he employed “A technique of no taboos: blur, grain, contrast, cockeyed framing, accidents, whatever happens…” and adopted the role of  “a make-believe ethnographer”.

Life is good…

The resulting book ‘Life is Good and Good For You in New York’ (1955)  became a prize winning route to celebrity, though no American publisher was willing to publish it (and didn’t for 40 years), considering it unflattering to the point of being anti-American.  Instead it was first published in Paris, Klein’s adopted home.  He followed up with books on Rome, Moscow and Tokyo all in the same inimitable, rebellious style.   Despite his success he became restless and turned to film making.  His first film was Broadway by Jazz, described here in an article in the Financial Times in 2012:

Broadway by Light is often described as the “first pop film”, and to watch it now is still an exhilarating 11-minute roller-coaster ride through the neon of Broadway and Times Square. Klein invented his own kind of visual jazz – violent, vulgar, seductive and beautiful, with a soundtrack to match. The camera moves ceaselessly in and out of the alphabet of signs as the bulbs bloom and fade into abstract blobs of pure colour: Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Rock Hudson, The New York Times. Fascination. Continuous till 4am. Orson Welles said it was the first film in which “colour was necessary”.

Klein only returned to photography in the 1980s, where his pioneering role was recognised.  Since then he has won many more awards and become known for his graphic design work, which applies bold slashes of paint to the enlarged contact sheets he had marked up in pencil years before.

The Street style of William Klein

In his street photography William Klein likes to get into the thick of things; filling the frame with the chaos of the city.  He mixes and moves with his subjects, embracing a wide lens for close up shots and motion blur in a way no one has before.  As he said: “sometimes, I’d take shots without aiming, just to see what happened, I’d rush into crowds – bang! bang! I liked the idea of luck and taking a chance. Other times I’d frame a composition I saw and plant myself somewhere, longing for some accident to happen.”  An article in the  Independent in 1998 sums up his approach:

In Klein’s New York people press themselves up against the lens, dancing around the photographer, pulling faces, pretending to shoot each other, or the photographer, with toy guns. It is the kind of photography that is impossible to do today: people are no longer delighted to be snapped in the street, do not dance or horse around in Harlem on Easter Sunday for a photographer. They were intrigued by this white guy with his beautiful French wife.

William Klein
“Moves + Pepsi”, Harlem © William Klein

His preference for the wide angle lens came from the “contradictions and confusion” that it revealed, and enabled him to include many subjects in his innovative composition.  Of the blur he said: “If you look carefully at life, you see blur. Shake your hand. Blur is part of life“.   His prints use extreme contrast and grain complete the visceral effect.  The combined effect is perfect for street photography, as this post in Streethunters from 2015 describes:

Perfection. We all strive for it when it comes to photography. Perfect exposure. Composition. Tack-sharp images. But, street photography isn’t about perfection. At it’s core, street photography is about capturing life. And life is far from perfect. William Klein, in his own way, mastered imperfection within street photography and became a trailblazer.

Klein’s maverick work has an immediate impact but is difficult to interpret. This is apparently by design.  In what has become my favourite William Klein quote he said: “My photographs are the fragments of a shapeless cry that tries to say who knows what… What would please me most is to make photographs as incomprehensible as life.”  Or maybe not as, in an interview in 2013, when asked which is the most gratifying medium he chose film on the basis that “people don’t know how to read photographs. There isn’t this dialogue….What you put in a photograph is not always perceived by the other people who look at them as what you wanted to say. There isn’t a culture of photography. You learn about music appreciation at schools or go to museums, but I found that generally people don’t study photography. There are a lot of things that can be said in photographs but people don’t relate to them.”

Many photographers have been inspired as much by his attitude as his photographs, which is why you will see so many William Klein quotes in posts and articles about his life and work.  More artist than photojournalist, his lack of respect for the established order, his raw technique and the way he interacts with his subjects make him  one of photography’s great sources of inspiration.

Fox Talbot and Early Photography

Fox Talbot Early Photography

Fox Talbot at dawn

The recent exhibition Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph at the Science Museum in London which ended on September 11th 2016 was described as ‘magical to behold’ by  Time Out  and ‘ground-breaking’ by The Times.  I found it extremely enjoyable as it told the story of the pioneers of early photography very capably as well as displaying a great body of their work.

Central to the story of early photography is William Henry Fox Talbot, who was born in February 1800.  He attended Cambridge University in 1817 and went onto become a gentleman scientist, inventor, Egyptologist, member of parliament, mathematician, astronomer, archaeologist and transcriber of Chaldean cuneiform texts as well as a pioneer of photography.

It was a struggle with his sketchbook that put him on the road to photography: in 1833 at Lake Como in Italy, he found it difficult to capture the scenery adequately by sketching it with the aid of a Camera Lucida (an instrument used by draftsmen at the time which uses a prism to direct rays of light onto paper producing an image and from which a drawing can be made.)  This started him on the journey of discovery with light-sensitive paper to automate the process that he was to pursue at his home in Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Science, silver and sunlight

Investigations with silver nitrate and sunlight actually go back as far as Angelo Sala (1576-1637).  Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) was the first to create photograms (a process that does not require a camera) with paper masks and Talbot would have been well aware of the work of Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805) and Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) who also worked on photograms of leaves and other objects.  These could not adequately fixed and faded quickly. Talbot built on this work, experimenting with plants and lace on paper coated with silver nitrate and fixing the images with salt to produce sciagraphs – drawings of shadows.

Talbot created the first negative in 1835, which minimized exposure time considerably compared to previous methods.  He had help from his friend Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), one of the leading British scientists of the time, and another formidable polymath, who was an astronomer, mathematician, chemist, inventor and experimental photographer. It was Herschel who solved the problem of ‘fixing’ pictures (used by both Talbot and Daguerre) and was also the first to use the terms ‘photography’ and ‘negative’.

Inventors and pioneers

There is some debate as to is the inventor of photography or even who was the most influential of the pioneers.  France can claim Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), inventor of a process known as heliography, who used a Camera Obscura to record an image of his country estate in 1826 via an eight-hour exposure.  Better known is Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, (1787-1851), a former architect and artist who collaborated with Niépce, and who had used the Camera Obscura to assist with his paintings in his earlier career.  He developed the Daguerrotype process after Niépce‘s death – a process based on light-sensitive, silver-plated copper, unique in the family of photographic process, in that the image is produced on metal directly without an intervening negative.   Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887) also holds a claim as the developer of the direct positive process and the first in the world to hold a photo exhibition.  Bayard’s story embodies the struggle for recognition and adds a human dimension in the midst of all the science on show at the museum.   It also serves up one of the most interesting images of the exhibition. Bayard was persuaded to postpone announcing his new positive process to the French Academy of Sciences by a friend of Daguerre, which cost him the recognition he deserved, and led him to create the first staged (or faked) photograph entitled, Self Portrait as a Drowned Man, which was on show at the Science Museum exhibition. The image portrays the photographer as a corpse, and M. Bayard wrote a fake suicide note on the back:

“The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard, inventor of the process that has just been shown to you. As far as I know this indefatigable experimenter has been occupied for about three years with his discovery. The Government which has been only too generous to Monsieur Daguerre, has said it can do nothing for Monsieur Bayard, and the poor wretch has drowned himself. Oh the vagaries of human life….! … He has been at the morgue for several days, and no-one has recognised or claimed him. Ladies and gentlemen, you’d better pass along for fear of offending your sense of smell, for as you can observe, the face and hands of the gentleman are beginning to decay.”

Continue reading “Fox Talbot and Early Photography”

Photographers on Photography

These are some of the most interesting thoughts of photographers on photography, expressed as quotes.  Some of them I agree with, some I don’t – but they are all thought provoking.  I restricted myself to one quote per photographer, which in many cases, such as Ansel Adams and Henri Cartier-Bresson, was difficult.   In the next post I will collect the thoughts of other creatives such as artists, film makers and writers on the same topic.

Ansel Adams –  Landscape Photographer

“Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”

William Albert Allard – Documentary Photographer

“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer. ”

Diane Arbus – Documentary Photographer 

“I tend to think of the act of photographing, generally speaking, as an adventure. My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been.”

Richard Avedon – Fashion & Portrait Photographer

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. ”

David Bailey – Fashion & Portrait Photographer

“If anyone gets in my way when I’m making a picture, I become irrational. I’m never sure what I am going to do, or sometimes even aware of what I do – only that I want that picture.”

Brassai – Photographer, Sculptor, Writer & Film Maker

“Chance is always there. We all use it. The difference is a poor photographer meets chance one out of a hundred times and a good photographer meets chance all the time.”

Andri Cauldwell – Photographer

“To see in color is a delight for the eye but to see in black and white is a delight for the soul.”

Robert Capa – War Photographer

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Continue reading “Photographers on Photography”