Film

Legendary Cinematographer Roger Deakins on Getting Rejected from Film School and Releasing His First Book of Photographs at 72


Shortly before Roger Deakins sat down for this interview about his new book of photographs, Byways, the cinematographer received an email from director Denis Villeneuve, with whom he’d worked on Blade Runner 2049.

“I can see it’s you,” Deakins recalled Villeneuve saying about the book, meaning that he recognized the eye behind the images. 

I can too. Embedded throughout Byways, published this month by Damiani, are many of the Deakins hallmarks made famous by his lens work for directors including Sam Mendes and the Coen brothers, and in such acclaimed films as The Shawshank Redemption and Skyfall. In the book, the yawning highways and wind-whipped hills from a set of shots taken outside Albuquerque seem to recall the landscapes of No Country for Old Men, for instance, while a handful of bleached-out Norwegian vistas put Fargo front of mind. Occasionally, the connections are more overt: here, the tree from the parting shot of Mendes’s 1917 makes a more permanent cameo on the page.  

As a cinematographer, Deakins looms large: he is, for many movie peoples’ money, the greatest person doing the job today (witness his 15 Oscar nominations, with two wins). But his reputation as a fine-art photographer is far less developed. Not only is Byways his first monograph, it’s also the first place many of these pictures have ever been shared publicly. 

It’s for this reason that, as satisfying as the similarities between his films and these pictures are, the differences are just as revealing. Comparing the two bodies of work is an exercise in comparing the essences of film and photography, and an uncommon opportunity at that: rare are the practitioners who are equally accomplished in both formats.

The central difference between Deakins’s two bodies of work makes spending time with Byways a special pleasure. Whereas a film is a collaborative endeavor, one routed through the mind of its director, this collection of still images represents a wholly personal project. It may be the purest distillation of Deakins’s vision—stark, plaintive, and reverent of land and light—we ever get.

Roger Deakins. Courtesy of the artist.

Roger Deakins. Courtesy of the artist.

There are 150-some photographs in the book, representing roughly five decades of work. How many pictures did you go through to come up with that selection? In other words, how big is your archive?

Not very big—I don’t really keep much, you see. I mean, I take a lot of photographs when I’m working on a movie, but they’re just a reference for the film. The photographs that I take for my own pleasure are quite few, really. I don’t have the time when I’m working, and thankfully I’ve had quite a productive career.

So you’re not somebody who carries a camera with you at all times? 

I’m not that obsessed by it, I must say. I do have a camera with me most of the time when I’m shooting a film, but I think it’s a very different thing to spend your own time with a stills camera, looking for something that grabs you.

Roger Deakins, <i>Albuquerque Cemetary Rainbow</i> (2014). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Albuquerque Cemetery Rainbow (2014). © Roger A. Deakins.

Do you use the camera to record memories, or is it more of an aesthetic instrument for you, a tool to make art?

I don’t like the word ‘art,’ really. [Laughs] I’ve obviously been on holiday and taken snapshots of a memory, but the photographs that are in the book, they just grabbed my attention. I liked the frame or I liked the light. Often I liked the slightly surreal quality of the image, a juxtaposition of things in the frame. It’s not art; I’m not a photographer and they’re not memory aids. I don’t sketch with a pencil. I sketch through the camera, I suppose.

 

In the foreword to the book, you write, ‘The choice of when to take a picture, and which of the resultant images has a future, reveals something of us as individuals. Each of us see differently.’ Do you think someone who knows your film work could see these images and know they were made by you? What are the ‘Deakins-isms’ we might see here? 

I think there’s definitely a sensibility. That’s true even when I work on a film. I’m not the author of the film, obviously—I’m working for a director and with anywhere up to a couple of hundred people—but I do think you stamp your point of view, your taste, on the work you do. When I shoot films, you can see there’s a continuity, that there’s an individual behind the camera. I look at some other people’s work in film and that’s true, too. I could always recognize a film that was shot by Conrad Hall, for instance; there’s a certain sensibility that he had. That’s the case for still photographers as well. 

Looking back through these photos, I wondered if my eye had changed, and I don’t think it has, really. The photographs I took back then are really quite simple; they’re pared down in terms of what’s in the frame. I guess that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. [Laughs]

Roger Deakins, <i>Teignmouth Dog Jumping</i> (2000). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Teignmouth Dog Jumping (2000). © Roger A. Deakins.

Why haven’t you shared these pictures before now? 

I don’t know, really. The earliest photographs I took in North Devon, and they’re part of a public archive. But the other images are just things I’ve shot over the years. Some of them were taken in Berlin, for instance. When we were over there working on a movie, I’d go out and explore the city on the weekend. I had my camera and would snap the odd shot. There’s probably three or four in the book from Berlin; maybe I only ever took a dozen total. I don’t take many photographs. It has to be something that grabs me, and then obviously you have to be able to get it at that moment. There are a lot of things that grab your attention but you miss the shot.

These are just photographs from here, there, and everywhere. There’s not really any structure to the book. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, other than the fact that they’re all shots that I like. Some people had asked, ‘Well, why don’t you do a book?’ And eventually I just thought, ‘Yeah, why not?’

One of the first jobs you had out of art school was as a photographer. Can you take me back to that gig? How did it impact the way you saw the world?

Originally I wanted to be a painter, a bohemian! [Laughs] Then, while I was at art college, I discovered photography. My paintings were fairly naturalistic, just based on things that I’d seen, so it made sense to have a camera and photograph the things I saw. A great photographer, Roger Mayne, was teaching at the school; he would come in for a few days every now and again. He was quite an inspiration, him and his work. So I thought I would become a photographer. But then I was talking to a friend who was applying to the National Film School, which was just opening the year that we were finishing at art college. I had always been interested in film, especially documentary filmmaking, and so it seemed like that might be a great opportunity.

Well, I didn’t get in the first time I applied. But in the interim, I was offered this job recording country life in North Devon. I was really hired as a recorder, not necessarily a photographer. I didn’t do a very good job, I don’t think, because I’m not very skilled at recording. I took a lot of photographs, but they weren’t great in terms of documenting a historical moment. Nevertheless, it was a great learning experience for me. I just spent all day every day with my camera, experimenting with framing and other things. It was a great time to play. 

Roger Deakins, <i>Weston - Super - Mare, Looking for Summer</i> (2004). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Weston-Super-Mare, Looking for Summer (2004). © Roger A. Deakins.

I was going to ask you about your relationship to painting. I know that you’ve always had a love of the medium. Does it influence your work behind the lens?

It’s funny, when somebody asks, ‘What are your influences?’ I don’t know what to say. Surely your influences are every experience you’ve had. There’s so many painters whose work I love and know quite well, whether it’s Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch or Giorgio de Chirico. I studied many of them in college. But to say how much they’ve influenced me, that’s hard. There’s a couple of photographs in the book that remind me of de Chirico, maybe, but is it an influence or just a coincidence? I’m just as influenced by growing up in South Devon and spending my childhood out at sea, fishing. These things accumulate.

All of the photos in the book are black and white, which might come as a mild surprise to people familiar with your work in film, where you have displayed such a mastery of color. What is it about black and white that interests you when it comes to still photography?

I’ve been trying to work in color and I just can’t do it. I just find it uninteresting! [Laughs] Black and white is much more about the content, the frame, and the light. Color can be so distracting. There are very few photographers that really work in color and use it well. Alex Webb is a great example of someone who can use color to his advantage.

Maybe it’s just because I grew up in love with the work of Brassaï and Bill Brandt and Alfred Stieglitz, all these great photographers that worked in black and white. Maybe I’m a bit of a dinosaur.

 

Roger Deakins, <i>Paignton Lion and the Gull</i> (2015). © Roger A. Deakins.

Roger Deakins, Paignton Lion and the Gull (2015). © Roger A. Deakins.

The relationship between film and photography is something I think about often. It’s a question I’ve asked many photographers in interviews like this one: ‘How has film informed your pictures?’ Every time, without fail, they play it down. 

I believe it.

Why do you think that is? Do you feel that there’s a line to be drawn between the work you do as a cinematographer and your experiences taking photographs?

Obviously, there are things that you learn in one that help you in the other, technically speaking. But I do think capturing a still photograph is very different.

I say at the beginning of the book that I’m not a photographer, and I’m really not; I’ve just taken some pictures. But I think with great photographers, you look at their photographs and there’s a story within them. You can’t really do that in a movie because those frames keep moving. You can’t make the frames too complex, because you’re telling the story as a composite. It’s a different way of communicating, you know? 

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Here’s the Real-Life Story Behind ‘Reefa,’ a New HBO Max Film About the Life and Death of a Miami Street Artist


This weekend, a new biopic of sorts will arrive on HBO Max, telling the story of Israel Hernandez-Llach, a real-life Miami street artist who was killed by police in August 2013.

Hernandez-Llach, 18 at the time, was spray-painting an abandoned McDonald’s when a local police unit approached. The artist fled; the officers chased and ultimately stopped the high-schooler with a taser. Hernandez-Llach later died in their custody. 

After dropping their target, the officers exchanged high-fives, according to the young artist’s friends who witnessed the incident. 

Dramatized versions of those moments form the climax of Reefa, the film written and directed by Miami-based filmmaker Jessica Kavana Dornbusch and named after Hernandez-Llach’s graffiti name.  

The rest of the movie, meanwhile, lays out the stakes for the titular subject in the summer leading up to that fateful night, often with a heavy dose of creative license.

Hernandez-Llach is depicted as a voraciously creative, constantly skateboarding, and skirting choleric cops through neon-lit streets, or butting heads with his father, a Colombian immigrant anxiously awaiting the arrival of green cards for his family. He wants to move to New York for art school.

The film opens with the street artist plotting his “magnum opus”: a statement mural on a derelict Miami hotel (a stand-in for the McDonald’s) that will introduce him to the city’s art world.

“I wanted to focus on Israel’s life in the last couple of weeks before he passed away,” Dornbusch told CBSMiami in April. “He had just gotten an art scholarship. He was about to go to New York. He had found love for the first time. He was spending time painting and time with his family and friends, and then the tragic ending.”

Originally meant for the 2020 Miami Film Festival (which was canceled because of the pandemic), Reefa debuted this spring on video-on-demand and in a few theaters. The movie will likely command its biggest audience yet when it hits HBO this weekend.

“Sadly, we could not plan a more timely moment in history to release this film,” Dornbusch said. “I think it will resonate. It puts a name and a face to the statistics.” 

Dornbusch worked on Reefa for more than six years, she explained in a recent blog post. Getting the project off the ground was a grind involved multiple fundraising efforts and a run-in with the Miami Beach police that resulted in the production temporarily being shut down. 

Tyler Dean Flores, the Harlem-born, Puerto Rican actor who plays Hernandez-Llach in the film, told CBS that he hopes “it raises a ton of awareness on his case and plenty of other cases that involve police brutality.” 

“I also hope that people feel very inspired by Israel’s family’s creativity and pursuit of whatever their passions are,” Flores added. “No matter what situations you’re in, if you want to create, create. If you want to express yourself, express yourself.”

A still from "Reefa" (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

A still from Reefa (2020). Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment.

Following their son’s death, Hernandez-Llach’s parents held a press conference in which they called for an independent investigation. Roughly two years later, in 2015, a Miami-Dade attorney announced that no criminal charges would be filed against the officers involved in the incident, saying that medical examiners had determined the death to be accidental.

In 2017, the City of Miami Beach reportedly paid $100,000 to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the victim’s family. They admitted no wrongdoing. 

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Art Industry News: Artist Amalia Ulman’s Debut Feature Film Starring Her Mom Gets Rave Reviews at Sundance + Other Stories


Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Thursday, February 4.

NEED-TO-READ

The Toledo Museum Wants to Become the World’s Most Accessible – The Toledo Museum of Art is teaming up with the Ability Center of Greater Toledo with an ambitious aim: to create the most disability-friendly museum in the US. As part of the initiative, the museum will bring on a full-time manager of access initiatives to make recommendations for the museum’s design, staffing, and physical accessibility. (The Blade)

Frieze Launches Membership Program – In celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the magazine and events company is launching a membership program with three tiers. It begins at $50 a year and includes priority booking for fairs, free digital events, and unlimited access to Frieze’s website. The top tier, designed for new collectors, will grant members early access to all Frieze events (online and IRL) and visits to private art foundations. (Press release)

Amalia Ulman Debuted a Splashy Feature at Sundance – Film critic Todd McCarthy says that the artist’s first feature film, which debuted at Sundance this week, will appeal to “downtown-style hipsters globally.” He seems to have enjoyed the “eccentric” movie, called El Planeta, which is about Ulman and her mother grifting while tumbling into poverty. It “leaves one in a good mood and certain that you’ve never seen anything quite like it before,” he writes. Interview‘s critic Patrick Sandberg describes her as an “invigorating new cinematic voice.” If you want to see the film for yourself, however, you may be out of luck for now: It is currently not seeking distribution and therefore has no release date. (DeadlineInterview)

Helen Frankenthaler Foundation Launches Climate Change Initiative – With a new $5 million grant-making program, the late painter’s foundation wants to help visual arts organizations combat climate change. The multi-year Frankenthaler Climate Initiative, the first of its kind in the US, aims to target energy efficiency and clean energy projects at US art museums with its first grant cycle. (Press release

ART MARKET

The ADAA Fair Moves to November – The Art Dealers Association of America’s annual Art Show has become the latest art fair to shift dates—but this time, it’s for keeps. The event, which has historically been held at the Park Avenue Armory in late February, will move to November permanently. The 2021 edition will take place from November 3 to 7. (The Art Newspaper)

Destinee Ross-Sutton Partners With Christie’s on Another Sale – The auction house is reuniting with the young curator for a second iteration of last year’s online sale “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).” It will take place in August 2021; the full artist lineup will be made available closer to the date. (Press release)

COMINGS & GOINGS

Parrish Museum Names New Director – The Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, has named Kelly Taxter as its new director. She replaces Terrie Sultan, who led the museum for 12 years before stepping down in June. Taxter, who owned a New York gallery before joining the Jewish Museum as curator of contemporary art in 2013, begins her new role on March 22. (New York Times)

US Artists Names Largest Grant Class Ever – The Chicago-based arts nonprofit United States Artists has named 60 fellows who will each receive a $50,000 cash award. Visual artists honored include Bisa Butler, Diedrick Brackens, Carolyn Lazard, and Njideka Akunyili Crosby. (ARTnews)

Critic and Curator Guy Brett Dies at 78 – The British art figure, who cofounded London’s short-lived but pioneering Signals gallery in the 1960s, died of unknown causes at age 78. Signals was a stomping ground for many important artists, including Lygia Clark and Takis, and played a major role in bringing international art to London. (ARTnews)

FOR ART’S SAKE

Harvard Museum to Offer Course on Beyonce’s Black Is King – The Harvard Museums of Science & Culture will offer an online course inspired by Beyoncé’s film Black Is King. “Black Is Queen: The Divine Feminine in Kush” will, according to the course’s website, integrate Beyoncé’s work into historical research “to emphasize the power and centrality of the African queen mother.” The virtual course, led by egyptologist Dr. Solange Ashby, will be held on March 25 at 6 p.m. You can register here. (Blavity)

The Getty Admits It Was Warned About Its Fake Gauguin – Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum is opening up about the history of a sculpture purportedly by Gauguin that it bought around a decade ago and later turned out to be fake. It recently revealed that Gilles Artur, the director of the Musée Gauguin in Tahiti, had written the museum in 2002 to say the piece was a curio that had been circulating on the European market. A researcher dispatched by the museum to look into the matter failed to resolve the question, and it remained unanswered until the fake came to light last year. (TAN

Head with Horns was formerly attributed to Paul Gauguin. Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

Head with Horns was formerly attributed to Paul Gauguin. Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

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