Photo Gregory Crewdson, Untitled Birth

6 Photographers Who Will Make You a Better Filmmaker

Cinema inherits much of its visual language from photography. After all, the physical photography process is incredibly similar to filmmaking.

Any photograph could potentially be recreated with moving pictures. What makes photography distinct? Great photographers tell an entire story in one frame.

These six photographers come from different points in history and cover a broad range of the photography medium. They perform street photography, high art studio photography, and celebrity portraits. What they have in common is an ability to distill the world into a single image.

Each photographer communicates something different about the act of seeing, which is a cultivated ability. Learn to see the world through their lenses and you just might sharpen your own vision as a filmmaker.

Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908 – 2004)

One of the most influential photographers of all time, Henri Cartier-Bresson founded the Magnum agency and is known for the term “the decisive moment.” He believed that any place or event could be captured in one critical moment, and that it is the job of the photographer to discover that moment.

Any filmmaker could benefit from taking some time to define the decisive moments in their work. How you communicate those moments is a huge part of your vision. Cartier-Bresson is an important photographer for many filmmakers, and was a major influence for the cinema verite moment.

The camera for us is a tool, not a pretty mechanical toy…. In any case, people think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.

Gregory Crewdson (1962-)

It’s not uncommon for Gregory Crewdson to be mistaken for a film director. He makes his photos by setting up huge sets in rural spaces or building small worlds on sound stages. He lights his scenes with cinema lights like Arri HMIs. He even has a Director of Photography. But it’s Crewdson’s ability to find the mystic in the mundane that earns him a spot on this list.

If you like his photographs, you’ll enjoy the 2012 feature documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters.

I don’t deliberately look for something dark or bleak or disconnected, in fact that’s not something I’m even conscious of in the work as I’m making it. I’m always trying to create beauty, reveal hope, show the sense of loneliness that exists in isolation and loneliness, and capture the search for something greater inside all my subjects.

George Tice (1938)

Unlike many other famous photographers, George Tice didn’t travel the world taking photographs. Instead, he created almost all of his important work in his home state of New Jersey. He specialized in distilling his working-class surroundings into stunning images that are both incredibly specific and universal.

As a filmmaker, you may benefit from investigating the locations and resources you have on hand.  Tice demonstrates that you can find beauty and weirdness in even the most banal circumstances.

Photography teaches us to see, and we can see whatever we wish. When I take a photograph, I make a wish. I was always looking for beauty.

William Eggleston (1939)

William Eggleston was one of the first color photographers to be featured in art museums. As such, he’s credited with helping color photography gain acceptance in the art world. His work uses color in powerful ways, transforming the mundane into something magical.

Eggleston credits his interest in color to his love for Technicolor films as a kid. Studying his photography can teach you to find ways to tell your own cinematic stories through color and detail.

I like to think that my works flow like music. That may be one reason I work in large groups versus one picture of one thing; it’s the flow of the whole series that counts.

Jeff Wall (1946)

Deeply cinematic scenes that often mimic or refer to classic works of art. Not only are his photos beautiful and evocative, but they’re a great model for filmmakers looking to be inspired by art in other genres. His signature piece Picture for Women (1979) is a response to a classic Manet painting, transposing the painting of a barmaid and a patron into his studio. How can you transform your influences into something strikingly original?

One paradox I have found is that, the more you use computers in picture-making, the more “hand-made” the picture becomes. Oddly, then, digital technology is leading, in my work at least, toward a greater reliance on handmaking because the assembly and montage of the various parts of the picture is done very carefully by hand.

Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz went to art school before becoming the tour photographer for the Rolling Stones. From there, she’d go on to define the art of celebrity photography. She’s most famous for taking the Rolling Stone cover photo of John Lennon and Yoko Ono the day Lennon was murdered. But a look through any of her portrait photography is highly instructive on the art of blocking and staging. How can you tell a story by the way your character is dressed or posed in the scene?

A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.

Find your inspiration

This is, of course, a very small sample taken from a very deep pool of talent. You should also check out contemporary photographers like Martin Parr, Alex Prager, and David LaChappelle… the list goes on. Fundamentally, it’s less important who you’re inspired by, but that you’re simply inspired.

Stephen Heleker

Stephen is a producer and writer/director living in Los Angeles. His first feature film as a producer—Good, starring Keith David—debuted at the 2020 Austin Film Festival. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @stephenheleker

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