Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Mike Figgis

Mike Figgis, Toronto, Sept. 1997

BY THE LATE NINETIES I WAS PROBABLY MORE COMFORTABLE SHOOTING IN HOTEL ROOMS than in my own, much-loved but definitely underused, studio. Years of experience had taught me to boil down my kit to the essentials - a pair of Rolleis and a tripod. I could reload my little antique cameras in seconds, and since most of the film studios tended to book interviews into the same trio of downtown hotels - the Four Seasons, the Park Plaza and the Sutton Place (two of which are gone now) - I could anticipate the available light in almost any room.

I have a friend who lives in hotels; it's a peculiar but enviable lifestyle, and everyone who knows him wonders how he keeps his needs boiled down to essentials. Shooting in hotels helps me understand (at least partially) how he does it; when I was in what I remember as my golden age of hotel portraiture, I had to surrender to the anonymity of those spaces, with their solid, practical furniture, never too much in advance of last year's taste, and the quality of light coming through those double-glazed windows.

Mike Figgis, Toronto, Sept. 1997

I'm fairly certain I did this shoot with director Mike Figgis in the Yorkville Four Seasons, though I could be wrong. Figgis had a big hit two years previous with Leaving Las Vegas. He was known as a serious but stylish director. I know that I envied how he could pull off his striped trousers.

It helps when a subject arrives with a visual trademark. In Figgis' case, it was his wild mane of ringlets, and since I was rarely if ever in a position to have enough time or previsualization to come into a shoot intent on working against my subject's public image, I felt obliged to give that hair a very graphic role in my shots.

I have a colour roll in my files, so this was obviously meant to be a cover shoot. I was mostly over my love of cross-processed slide film by this point, but preferred colour neg to transparencies if I had the luxury of some time to make contacts and prints. I loved colour with a cool cast, but since I preferred the grain structure of Fuji film, it meant working a bit harder in the darkroom to correct for the famously warm tones of the brand. As for the black and white shots, I guess the striped pants inspired me to try for something a bit elegant.

Mike Figgis, Toronto, Sept. 1997

I always found it easier to shoot directors and writers rather than performers - which seems counter-intuitive -  but while researching Figgis' recent activities I came across an article written about his sideline as a photographer - a semi-professional, or at least an enthusiastic amateur with enviable access to famous subjects. He took to carrying a camera with him on set, shooting his stars between takes, and the experience led to an interesting observation about taking pictures of actors:
"Actors are terrified of having a single image taken of them, which used to puzzle me. It's because they feel they can't control it and if they can keep moving it will divert you away from some truth. But if you take a good photograph you can reveal something that a movie can't expose," says Figgis. "I found I had a real resistance to taking photographs on film sets, because it was already fake. Unless I could find an interesting angle and go behind the set. Then, of course, I was working with very good-looking actors and I started to ask people to sit for me."
It would be over a decade before he made this observation, but I can't help but wonder now if he was thinking about just how much truth he was willing to project into my Rolleiflex in that hotel room. Every portrait shoot is inherently a power struggle, and at this point in time, Figgis would have had more experience than me with exercising just enough gentle dominance over a subject to elicit a performance.

For the longest time I considered sitting them by a selected window or in front of a bank of lights, bounded by my framing, was enough to forcing a response for my camera. I was well out of my apprenticeship when I took these photos, but I still had a lot to learn about the brief, peculiar and sometimes intense relationship between a photographer and a sitter. Unfortunately, there would be a hiatus in my career just over the horizon, and I would slip off that learning curve.


No comments:

Post a Comment