Finding Vivian Maier is a fascinating documentary about a recently discovered “street photographer” that raises as many questions as it answers. But it’s not just the story of the nanny whose thousands of negatives and rolls of films were in many cases developed and printed only after her death. It’s also a record of a type of photography that is fast becoming obsolete, as well as an ode to those skilled and gifted individuals whose mystique is waning in the era of fully automatic digital cameras that now offer perfect focus, perfect exposure and a wide range of special effects filters to make everyone’s pictures look instantly antique or hi-tech or avant-garde. We are all photographers now.
But traditional photographic practices will be forever enshrined in the movies, perhaps to be puzzled over by future generations. One can foresee a time, for example, when audiences will think the red lighting in the darkroom scenes of Funny Face, Pecker or Crazy/Beautiful was purely a stylistic choice by the film-makers, as opposed to an obligatory safe light for use while developing black and white prints. Or when the ominous portents in David Warner’s photos in The Omen are seen as primitive scratchings by an evil entity who really needs a few lessons in Photoshop to make the images truly ominous, or maybe Snapseed so it can scrawl “CANNON FODDER” across someone’s forehead.
Why the fuss about Peter Parker’s exclusive Spider-Man pictures, when any Citizen Photojournalist in New York can whip out a cameraphone while the superhero is swinging past? And what’s so special about that disposable camera in The Man Who Fell to Earth? (“Within four years of filming it,” director Nicolas Roeg said in an interview with GQ in 2012, “I was at L.A. airport and saw a Fuji disposable camera.”) Or how about the “hi-tech” image enhancement in Blade Runner, which now looks about as futuristic as a 1980s Amstrad word processor?
And will there even be any professional photographers in a future where people can help themselves to images from the internet (as indeed I have done with some of the screengrabs on this page) and in which publications increasingly expect photographers, alongside illustrators and writers, to work for no pay and be grateful for “the exposure”? Or the online tabloids simply recycle pictures they find on Twitter, and good luck to anyone who tries to claim ownership. All images are up for grabs, and creators are fortunate even to get a credit out of it.
The rituals of taking, developing and printing photographs the old-fashioned way will soon be consigned to the history books alongside Aztec sacrifice and the paraphernalia for the upkeep of moustaches. But we’ll still be able to revisit them via the movies!
Here are eleven of the most memorable movie photographers.
Rear Window (1954)
James Stewart plays professional photographer L.B. Jeffries, laid up in his Greenwich Village apartment with his leg in plaster after an accident at the motor-racing track. But that long lens comes in handy for spying on his neighbours across the yard, and he’s able to slow down the killer who is advancing on him by dazzling him with his flash.
Nowadays, if you wanted to dazzle a killer you would have to close the iPhone camera and open the flashlight app. It’s just not the same.
Funny Face (1957)
Fred Astaire, still nimble on his pins at 58, plays a Richard Avedon-like fashion photographer taking pictures of Audrey Hepburn in Paris. Indeed, Avedon himself was credited as “Special Visual Consultant” and set up the fashion shots in the film. Needless to say, we don’t see any of the elaborate preparation, lighting and crowd control that must have gone into staging these elaborate shots – all we see is Fred, clicking away “spontaneously”.
Nowadays American fashion magazines would probably chicken out of going to Paris anyway, and simply shoot their models posing in front of a blue screen in the studio back home.
A young and heartbreakingly beautiful David Hemmings stars as a David Bailey-ish photographer who zooms around swinging London in his two-way-radio-equipped Rolls-Royce, canoodles with semi-naked supermodels and inadvertently snaps a murder in the park (or does he?), studying the photographs obsessively in an attempt to get at the truth of what happened.
But will future generations know why he’s dipping his prints into liquid? And why is he weighing down the corners with bulldog clips? Nowadays you could examine those photographs you’d taken instantly, without having to go home and develop them in baths of chemicals before printing them up. Plus the touchscreen interface on your camera would enable you to zoom in on details of the image before you had even left the park.
The Wrecking Crew (1969)
Dean Martin saunters through the last of his four outings as secret agent-cum-glamour photographer Matt Helm, accompanied by lovely Sharon Tate in her penultimate film. Dino wears a camera strung around his neck like a playboy’s medallion, though is more often to be seen snogging his scantily-clad models than actually taking photographs of them.
When he does finally point his lens at someone, it’s only to make it squirt poisonous green gas at his enemies. That’s something an iPhone can’t do.
The Omen (1976)
Natty cravat-wearing David Warner plays the photographer whose pictures hint at horrible fates in store for anyone who crosses the Antichrist’s path, and realises his own life is hanging in the balance when an accidental self-portrait reveals a strange mark across his neck.
Nowadays, you’d probably just use the Photoshop retouch tool to eradicate the anomaly without even thinking, along with all the other flaws in the picture. Supernatural photography can also be seen in Amityville 3-D (in which Candy Clark’s photos spontaneously combust!) and both versions of Shutter.
Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)
Faye Dunaway plays a fashion photographer who takes “controversial” sex-and-violence pics featuring lots of hair-tugging and garter belts, not a million miles away from the work of Helmut Newton and Rebecca Blake, both of whom supplied photographs for this Preposterous Thriller adapted from a story by John Carpenter.
Faye also shares a psychic connection with the killer who is going around stabbing her friends and colleagues to death, but that’s not half as bizarre as the split-down-the-side skirt she wears and the daft poses she strikes during her fashion shoot.
No need for a psychic connection nowadays, when you can just freak someone out by posing pervy pictures on their Twitter or Facebook timelines.
Apocalypse Now (1979)
When Martin Sheen finally arrives at Kurtz’s compound, his welcome committee is none other than Dennis Hopper flapping his arms as a babbling snapper, a character reportedly inspired by real-life gonzo war photojournalist Tim Page. Hopper was an accomplished photographer in real life, but director Francis Coppola decreed there should be no film in his cameras, which was perhaps just as well since the actor was reportedly stoned out of his gourd during the shoot.
Nowadays Sheen would arrive at the compound to find Kurtz’s natives all taking selfies with their smartphones. And Kurtz would be photobombing them.
Under Fire (1983)
Brave war photographers like the one played by Nick Nolte in Roger Spottiswoode’s Nicaragua-set thriller take so many risks they’re unlikely to be replaced by volunteer Citizen Photojournalists any day soon, but the roll of film depicted in this trailer, and on which the whole plot hinges, is already obsolete.
Nowadays, one imagines, the photographs would stored on a memory card, or instantly uploaded to The Cloud.
Hugo Weaving plays a blind man who takes photos and gets people to describe them to him, something at which fresh-faced young Russell Crowe proves particularly gifted. The blind photographer is a metaphor – but he’s also real! And he takes pretty good photographs, considering. The taking of artless photos is surely an art in itself, especially now that cameras do everything for you.
Nowadays, thanks to automatic focus and exposure, it’s easier than ever for a blind photographer to take pictures.
Edward Furlong plays a fast-food server who is first seen taking photos from a moving bus. Well, good luck with that. But the pictures of his eccentric blue-collar Baltimore family and neighbours tickle the fancy of Manhattan’s arty hipsters who say things like, “Pecker’s like a humane Diane Arbus!”
John Waters’ endearing and affectionate moral fable ends with the teen photographer turning the tables on the art world, and a toast to the end of irony. Hear, hear! Plus there’s another blind photographer, who takes pictures while dancing.
Nowadays Pecker’s friends and family would all be taking photos of themselves and each other and posting them all over social media.
High Art (1998)
Manhattan hipsters also feature in Lisa Cholodenko’s first feature, which (knowingly) offers something of a primer in pretentious photo talk. Radha Mitchell plays the ambitious office dogsbody at an arty photography magazine whose New York apartment ceiling springs a leak. Going upstairs to investigate, she discovers her upstairs neighbour is Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy, formerly of The Breakfast Club), a once-famous photographer who now just hangs out with a gaggle of boho junkies. “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time,” she says.
Well, she’s certainly going to be deconstructed now, not least by Patricia Clarkson, stealing scenes, if not the film, as the stoned German girlfriend who used to work with Fassbinder.
Nowadays, retired or not, Lucy Berliner would have a website.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in July 2014. It has since been considerably edited and expanded.