Thursday, June 14, 2018

Alejandro González Iñárritu

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

I USED TO SEE A LOT OF MOVIES. At some point in my twenties I went from enthusiastic moviegoer to cineaste, and the time I used to spend in clubs seeing bands shifted to cinemas, rep houses and video rentals. I've been paid to write about movies for almost as long as I've been taking photos professionally, so I've always had a lot of respect for movie directors, mostly because they have a job that I think I'd hate.

Filmmaking is a collaborative art - everybody knows that - but what that mostly means is that if you're really good and live with the certainty that you know what a movie should look like better than any producer, writer or actor, you're essentially at war with everyone you need to help you make that film. I have a lot of respect for directors who can maintain a personal vision - an aesthetic brand, the mark of the auteur - when they could just as easily choose compromise and have a journeyman career, for which they'd get paid just as well, and probably work more often.

They keep saying that the idea of the auteur is dead, but a handful of working directors still get tagged with the word - like Alejandro González Iñárritu. Part of a wave of visually distinctive directors that came out of Mexico in the '80s and '90s - his peers are Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro - he's made the shift to Hollywood without losing his identity, and along the way has won pretty much every award worth winning: Oscars, BAFTAs, Independent Spirits and Golden Globes, and awards from the DGA, AACTA, the AFI, the PGA and the National Board of Review, and from Venice, Cannes and Palm Springs.

Alejandro González Iñárritu, Toronto, Sept. 9, 2006

Iñárritu had made his breakthrough with Amores Perros, and was at the festival with Babel, his second Hollywood film after 21 Grams. He was a big deal, which meant that it was implicit that he didn't have much time for my photos. (Well, nobody ever did, really, but PR and handlers never seemed to tire of letting you know it.) I panicked when I realized that I was in one of the suites in the Intercontinental on Bloor without any usable windows, so I took a quick run around the suite (three small rooms, basically) and found a blank wall behind a door in a room where there seemed just enough light.

There is a level - don't ask me to tell you where it begins - where portrait photography might be about revealing something about your subject (or yourself. Or both.) But on the most basic level, a portrait shoot is much like this one, where you stand there and try to figure out what to do with a good-looking man wearing an expensive-looking grey crewneck sweater and a corduroy bucket hat. It's a matter of colour and texture and geometry, and with years of experience your mind immediately flips through a file of references and short cuts looking for somewhere to start.

The great thing about most photography that isn't advertising or high level editorial is that it isn't really collaborative; you're alone with a subject who, since they can't look at themselves through the viewfinder, doesn't really know what you're doing. You make some decisions based on instinct, like composing vertically with the rule of seconds, letting the texture of that nice sweater take up half your frame.

You make others based on an assumption of technical skill after the fact - like how am I going to balance the colour in this shot that I'm taking in a room with mixed light sources, most of which are hotel bulbs bouncing light all around the walls? A couple of days later, you're on deadline so you just hit the white balance button in Photoshop and let the software give you a rough approximation of proper skin tone. Twelve years later you say "fuck it" to correct skin tone and play with the CMY sliders till you get that burnished golden tone in the highlights you like so much right now. I often think it's a shame no one would ever hire me to teach photography, but then it occurs to me that it's probably not very useful to tell young people that the best creative decision you can make is likely to be "fuck it."

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