March 7, 1999, Sunday
Arts and Leisure Desk
New York Times
ART / ARCHITECTURE; Turning Back From Films To
Long Forgotten Photos
By DAVID HAY
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
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
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
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
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,www.still-moving.com,
where the photographs from the exhibitions can be
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
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.''