Gordon Willis vs. the Still Image

When the film Manhattan by Woody Allen came out in 1979 I was Blown. A. Way. The vignettes of sound, words, and amazing black and white cinematography by Gordon Willis seemed to me to be a vehicle of narrative that the still image couldn’t touch.

I was in grad school at Arizona State University for photography at the time. There we digested Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, the New Topographic–New Mexico-gang, and Ansel Adams was even on the cover of Time Magazine Sept. 3, 1979. Photography had finally arrived onto the Fine Art Center Stage. Our graduate class had the amazing fortune to have Bill Jenkins, Jim Hajicek, Mark Klett in the studio, Historian Bill Jay in the classroom so every corner of the medium was touched. Grad school then and there was a three-year immersion into making, thinking, and living this medium of expression and translation.

Then came Manhattan. Believing the single image wasn’t ‘enough’ for me I was inspired to work with sequence. So there was some super-8 experimenting, some book making (that’s what I do for a living now: design books and teach graphic design—a full-circle kind of realization), but in my personal photographic work, while I’ve always worked in series (who doesn’t?), and explored meaning by groups of images juxtaposed in various forms, I’ve never gotten into real time-based work except for bits of slideshows as pure documents, or film-ditties of pattern and repetition.

In April of this year I went with my son’s Jr. HS class to West Virginia where they worked on documentaries of the locals of Pendelton County in teams of four. Each student was in charge of either sound, video, still photography, or conducted the interview. I helped the photographers. It wasn’t much, but I was there reviewing and coaching. Afterwards each team produced a 3-minute documentary video with imovie. I went into the classroom to witness their learning, coax a bit, and be astonished at the energy, encouragement, and passion of the lead teacher of this project.

Also on the trip was a sound engineer/journalist – a real one who does this for a living. After we got back to Portland, and oh –last week– he and I decided to do a simple piece together for the culmination event at SALT Institute where the student’s work premiered on Tuesday. Had I known I’d be producing something I’d have taken very different images. So we let his sound tell the story and my images be the quality of the intense respect we both felt for not only these students but the process of their learning. I think we did alright. But now more importantly, we plan on working again together. And, since 1979 where I still remember the visceral moment of wanting to engage with the more narrative aspect of film making and story telling, maybe now is the time. Somehow I’m ready. So here it is: my first project in Final Cut of which some of the technical aspects had me by the throat but the broad strokes of image and story make me happy, satisfied, and wanting to do more.