Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thomas Vinterberg

Thomas Vinterberg, Toronto, Sept. 1998

THIS BLOG IS ABOUT MY PHOTOS, OLD AND NEW, but it's also about time passing, and the changes that mark that passage of time. One change is how old work becomes history when context and notoriety align to create what can only be described as an artifact. Another change is about technology, and the utter transformation that's swept through my business.

Thomas Vinterberg was a newsworthy young director when he brought his film, The Celebration, to the film festival. He'd joined Lars Von Trier in his Dogme 95 movement - big news then, a footnote now - and Edna Suarez at the New York Times had asked me to get a portrait of him to the paper as quickly as possible. A time was booked and arrangements were made.

Thomas Vinterberg, Toronto, Sept. 1998

I couldn't get too fancy with the shoot, so I stuck with what I did best - my Rolleis, a tripod and a hotel room with just enough light. Looking at the shot today, I'm struck at how even very good hotel rooms - this was the Park Hyatt in Yorkville, I'm pretty sure - were dressed in chintz and florals and pastels. Today this would be a sign of a hotel long in need of a refresh to the preferred palate and style of the moment - grays and neutral tones, supergraphics on the walls and sleek new furniture borrowing heavily from midcentury modern.

If I told you I shot these portraits today, you'd wonder why they put a promising filmmaker in such a tired dump, and not the venerable, pricey hotel where we actually shot: This is really what a good hotel looked like in the last years of the 20th century. (The Park Hyatt hasn't actually looked like this in years, and is currently undergoing another major renovation.)

I suppose I shot Vinterberg to look like a bit of an ingenue. He was, after all, a fresh face and a good looking - actually even rather pretty - young man, making his reputation in association with a rebel film movement that positioned itself in strident opposition to Hollywood gloss and conventions. Dogme films made a stand with their studied artlessness, and I wanted my portraits of Vinterberg to take on that quality.

Thomas Vinterberg, Toronto, Sept. 1998

Edna needed the photos quicker than the standard turnaround of commercial developing, rented darkroom time and an overnight courier could manage. As soon as I finished the shoot, I was told to head to the King Street offices of the Canadian Press where I'd had time booked on their C-41 film developing machine. I was met by a film tech who took my film and came back a half hour later with four strips of negatives. He took me over to a little machine on a nearby desk that, through some primitive magic of lens and light, let me see what the frames looked like in positive. He told me to indicate the ones I wanted sent to the Times by clipping a little notch on the edge of the negative with a hole punch.

That done, I took them back to the tech, who fed them into a marvel of technology - a drum scanner that converted my photos into files that could be sent over telephone wires to the Times office in New York. Keep in mind that the internet already existed, but it would be years before I could simply take photos from my camera to a laptop and send print-ready photos anywhere in the world in seconds. In 1998, this was how things were done, before digital cameras, cheap laptops and high speed internet we take for granted everywhere.

But even this technological marvel had a rough, shopworn analogue aspect; the wire scanner looked more like something you'd find in a machine shop than an office, and showed hard use despite its impressive cost. Scanning my negatives today, I'm shocked at how dirty they are, crusted with tiny particles of dust laminated onto the emulsion by machines that probably didn't get cleaned or maintained as often as they should. I had to spend at least an hour spotting each shot here in Photoshop to make them presentable. Each spot and speck of dust is a little souvenir from the untidy analogue world where these photos were taken.

Nobody talks about Dogme films anymore; the movement was long over by the time it was formally dissolved over a decade ago. But Vinterberg has had a career nonetheless; five years after The Celebration he directed It's All About Love, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Claire Danes and Sean Penn. He's switched back and forth between Danish and English films, and will release a film about the Kursk submarine disaster next year.

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