l.a. times:
reed johnson
barbara king
laurie frank

March 7, 1999, Sunday
Arts and Leisure Desk
New York Times

ART / ARCHITECTURE; Turning Back From Films To Long Forgotten Photos


STANDING in the courtyard of Harold Becker's Hollywood Hills home is a 10-foot-tall wooden frame that bears a striking resemblance to a guillotine.Halfway down, however, rests not a murderously sharp blade but rather an old-fashioned camera, its black bellows extending nearly three feet from the lens to an 11-by-14-inch glass panel at the rear. It looks like a piece of elegant furniture, perfectly appropriate for a house belonging to the director of ''Sea of Love'' and ''City Hall.''

But more than 30 years ago, before he got into movies, when he was a commercial photographer in New York, Mr. Becker restored this 1920's camera to working order. He used it to take a series of abstract portraits of the female form. Thanks to the camera's unusually large format, the texture of the skin and the contours of the body could be revealed in surreal detail. In a photograph titled ''Nude Study No. 3,'' for example, a viewer first sees a vast map of tiny cracks in the skin of a model's shaved leg before being surprised by a harsh callous protruding from her heel.

This image is included in an exhibition of Mr. Becker's photography that opened in Los Angeles last month at the New Alchemy Gallery. The show is the fifth in a series titled ''Still/Moving'' and runs through April 6. Since last May, it has been a showcase for the still photography of Hollywood professionals, for the most part cinematographers.

Mr. Becker, sitting in his office at the Warner-Hollywood Studios, confessed that the invitation to be part of ''Still/Moving'' had at first sent him into a panic. The original photographs had been an experiment; he had never envisioned exhibiting them. ''I had not framed the bulk of the work, and I hadn't kept track of where any of it was,'' he said. Digging through boxes in his house, he was relieved to discover the negatives. Printed once again, the results surprised him. ''I like them better now than I did then,'' said Mr. Becker, who is 65. ''They have some weight to them.''

The unearthing of his photographs mirrors the experience of many of the Hollywood professionals whose work is being shown in the ''Still/Moving'' series. Few had picked up their still cameras with the idea that the results would be seen in public. Whatever photographs they took were rarely on display, even in their own homes. Most had forgotten about them. ''There is a sense we have discovered art that otherwise wouldn't have existed,'' said Laurie Frank, a screenwriter and a curator of ''Still/Moving.''

Among the most startling discoveries were early photographs taken by the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, who is now 68. Fleeing his native Hungary in 1956, he left his negatives behind; luckily, a close friend and cinematographer, Tibor Vajyoczky, went to Mr. Zsigmond's apartment and picked them up. When Mr. Zsigmond next returned to Budapest, in 1966, Mr. Vajyocksy handed them back. ''I didn't ever think about them; I was so sure they were lost,'' Mr. Zsigmond said. One of his photographs has become the best-selling print at the exhibitions: a 1954 self-portrait, titled ''Vilmos's World'' by the curators in an obvious nod to Andrew Wyeth's ''Christina's World.'' Mr. Zsigmond had originally placed his girlfriend in the composition before deciding, on a whim, to use himself.

The inspiration for ''Still/Moving'' came when Ms. Frank's partner, Floyd Byars, also a screenwriter, attended a benefit auction for the Open Magnet Charter School in Los Angeles. On the block was a photograph of the Los Angeles riots, ''Pico Boulevard at 6:45 P.M., 4/ 30/92.'' The picture had been taken by Phil Parmut, a cinematographer on the Academy Award-winning documentary ''Harlan County.'' Mr. Byars took one look at the photograph and snapped it up. At the framing shop, he got into a discussion about the fact that many cinematographers were also excellent still photographers.

''Two months later, I was walking down Melrose Avenue, and I ran into the guy from the framing store,'' Mr. Byars said. ''He had now opened his own gallery on Melrose.''

The gallery was the New Alchemy and the owner was Thomas Parker, who suggested that they put on a show. Mr. Byars demurred but remembered that he had ''a friend with good taste and a Rolodex the size of the Ritz.'' This was Ms. Frank. Twelve hundred people turned up at the opening of the first ''Still/Moving'' exhibition, which showed the work of Mr. Zsigmond alongside that of Mr. Parmut. A subsequent exhibition featured the photographs of two-time Oscar winner Haskell Wexler as well as huge photographic collages assembled by the documentary cinematographer Christine Burrill.

In October, Stephen Goldblatt, the cinematographer on ''The Hunger'' and ''Batman Forever,'' exhibited some of his London shots. They included his 1968 portraits of the Beatles, the last taken of the group. In the same show were sensuous desert landscapes by Karl Herrmann, the visual-effects camera operator on ''The Right Stuff'' and ''One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.'' Yet another ''Still/Moving'' exhibit featured 100 miniature photographs by Mike Figgis, the director of ''Leaving Las Vegas.''

Next month, the curators will present stills taken by three generations of cinematographers in the Suschitsky family: Peter Suschitsky, who photographed ''The Empire Strikes Back'' as well as David Cronenberg's ''Dead Ringers,'' will be joined by his his son, Tom, and his father, Wolfgang. The positive reaction to the ''Still/Moving'' series in Los Angeles has led the curators to seek exhibitions in New York and Paris. They have also created a Web site,, where the photographs from the exhibitions can be seen.

The most difficult task facing the two curators, who became friends when they wrote the screenplay for the 1987 film ''Making Mr. Right,'' was persuading the cinematographers to let their photographs be shown. ''We had to plead with Vilmos Zsigmond,'' recalled Ms. Frank, an elegantly thin woman in her mid-40's.

Such resistance comes about in part because cinematography is a group activity, so when cameramen pick up their still cameras they are looking for peace and privacy. ''When you are taking your pictures, there is no one there with you, no director, no production designer, none of the crew,'' said Mr. Zsigmond, who rarely goes out without his 35-millimeter still camera. The result is more personal. ''A movie frame you can't claim as your own,'' he said.

The still photograph also challenges the ways in which these cinematographers compose an image. ''The moment of capturing an instant on still film is so different from the continuous imaging of shooting a movie,'' said Lisa Rinzler, a New York-based cinematographer, in a telephone interview. Ms. Rinzler, who is 45, won the award for best cinematography at the recent Sundance Film Festival for her work on the forthcoming ''Three Seasons.''

Referring to her photograph of a 1992 boxing match in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, Ms. Rinzler said that if she had been shooting the event with a movie camera, she would have been ''all over it.'' With enough carefully shot footage, the meaning of this scene to her -- how boxing is both violent yet intimate -- would be there somewhere. ''Whereas,'' she said, ''in still photography, the question always is, Am I going to get it in a single image?''

THE photographs in the ''Still/Moving'' series, which rarely center on the film industry, serve as records of the private lives and passions of these Hollywood insiders. Mr. Parmut, for example, who has shot independent features like Alexander Rockwell's ''In the Soup,'' exhibited 20 photographs taken over two decades in such places as Haiti, Israel and New York. Captured in moments of crisis, his subjects look directly, often harshly, into the lens. ''In that sort of crucible, people are more likely not to be hiding behind their normal facades,'' said Mr. Parmut, 56. He did not have to travel far for his powerful images of Los Angeles's riots; they were photographed barely a block from his apartment in the Carthay Circle area of the city.

The artistic freedom and solace offered the still photographer has yet to persuade any of those featured in the ''Still/Moving'' exhibitions to leave their industry jobs, although Mr. Becker confessed that rediscovering his stills had reawakened something in him. . ''When I look at these stills,'' he said, ''I get scared that they will draw me back into that world all over again.''