Art Will Set You Free: In Conversation with Photographer Bill Phelps

Tracy Perrizo photographed by Bill Phelps

 

As life was turning constantly during this past year, when at times there seemed to be no belief in hope, but only in the present, one of the things that constantly kept me looking, hoping to see beyond what I saw was my on-going conversation with photographer Bill Phelps. From the very beginning, we both agreed to keep our conversations in writing, in mutual appreciation of the time we would afford each other to truly carve out time and space for a little more communication, for letting our thoughts form, for coping with everything that was going on in life. Bill’s creative process came up in our interview, but it was his openness and honesty about his feelings, about navigating life, about his New York City bar that stood as Café Moto for more than a decade before it had to close last year, about homeschooling his daughter, about a day’s perspective that started from sitting by a burning fire, that made me fully understand that his creativity came from and was reborn from his perception of everything in life.

His photography is like that. It has no hurried departure, nor a preconceived destination. It’s more like a wondrous path in which spontaneity, intimacy and a truthful eye are at play time and again. It’s about discovery, letting something unfold, full of the unexpected, but always looking for what’s genuine and real, and relating to people, to the human part of people. I remember how moved beyond words I was when Bill wrote to me one day, telling me how emotional a recent shooting had been, the first one since lockdown, when he was able to be among people again, sharing with them the excitement of feeling alive and creating. Creativity is his basis of self-expression. Affection runs through all of his work, sprung from his desire to express himself, to give everything he can give, to let it go and be part of life, art and heart his greatest companions, and resulting in such a deep and profound experience for everyone being part of, witnessing or viewing it.
 

Photograph by Bill Phelps

 
For as long as possible, he hung on to analog photography, which I believe has enabled him to shape his stories, like a maker. He is a storyteller. The most important thing is to tell a story – through light and shadow, through a personality, a gaze, a mindset – that genuinely talks about life, and being, and that he can share with people through his pictures. He doesn’t just capture something or someone, it’s more like a connection between him and his subject and the space around them. He captures what makes sense to him, just a moment of pure sincerity (even when he is shooting a landscape), just an evanescent moment of life.

His photos of musicians, actors, artists, performers, people and places display the diversity of his work. His latest creative project, started in the course of last year, is a food and culture magazine (Meal magazine) with really no pictures of food started by a local man, “an opportunity to stretch some new muscles and work on the project as a whole”, he tells me, art directing and illustrating it almost entirely with his own photographs. As an artist, he feels he must try different things. He is not after perfection, but awareness, truthfulness and emotion.

He lights up when he talks about his daughter, revealing a special bond that can once again be traced to his photography. His portraits of women go beyond physical beauty and his perception of women nurtures not only our own perception of his models and muses, but them as well, leading to the most powerful thing, to feeling something, to an inner truth and the beauty of life itself.
 

Jazz singer Lizz Wright. Photograph by Bill Phelps

 

If you could be anywhere in the world right now preparing to shoot, where would you want to be?

As the days continue to shape us, in these ever so surreal times, I find I want to make pictures more and more a part of the fiber of my life. Not just creative inspiration rising to the top, but a very real part of my well being. I would be on the North West coast of France, with my daughter, absorbing the new. I would be shooting for myself, for a book, something personal.

Your words remind me of what another photographer told me some years ago, saying that the lightness of not having to be creating something important reminded him of the joy he discovered when he first picked up a camera. Does that relate to you?

By important I think you might mean for an assignment? For someone else?

Yes, I believe that’s what he meant.

I have always felt whatever I was doing was important in the idea that it will no matter what be a part of my communication, whether it personal or commissioned. This conviction is not always easy to maintain. It is often we are hired to be a vehicle for someone else’s very literal idea, often overlooking the nuance the photographer can bring, from the more personal side. This is an age old struggle no doubt. I will never forget what it felt like when I made my first pictures in high school, the thrill, I saw my whole life flash before my eyes. A powerful part of the excitement was in what I imagined I could bring to an audience, whether personal or professional.
 

Marie-Yan Morvan photographed by Bill Phelps

 

Eve Rydberg photographed by Bill Phelps

 

Was that the moment you knew you wanted to be a photographer, in high school?

I think I had a sensitivity to the idea of “gathering” images since I was very young. Not very different from now, I am always collecting memories. I grew up painting and drawing, but it was when I found the camera in high school that I knew this would be my path. It was true magic, all of it.

What does it take to go there, to want to tell a story through your photographs?

Storytelling is at the heart. I feel my work is always trying to communicate. The implied narrative is always running through me, the sensory, the lyrical. This can come through character creation, setting, mood, but also through design. I often feel like a designer with a camera. I take great satisfaction in experiencing design, architecture, furniture, graphic design, typography. I find it very powerful, informative, exciting.

Do you always carry a camera with you?

I have not always carried a camera with me, but do so now. I spent many years shooting large format as my main tool. I traveled extensively with a mountain of equipment. I came to digital quite late, it has taken me years to feel comfortable with it. The large format view camera was made by hand, rosewood, nickel plated brass, ground glass. As I admire the technology of the new cameras, something I never thought I would see in my lifetime, but I am not remotely romanced by them.

Do you shoot only digitally now?

I shoot digitally now with the occasional polaroid luxury when the film is available. I miss the 8×10 format more than anything.

Photograph by Bill Phelps

 

Do you search for a photograph? Is simply being observant and taking in the world around you enough for taking a good photo?

Awareness is key, to life, to creative process, everything. Shadow and light, the weather, movement, even scent, can be a part of the process, they can all influence each other. When they are woven together they can tell a unique story I might not have thought of, but they are all tools to be honed. It can be somewhat symphonic, each element a part of the bigger narrative. Design is a conscious sensitivity for me. A naturally flowing experience of shooting in the street may very well lead to a meditation on a still life to be created later, a contribution to the narrative.

The photographer is much more a creator than he is a witness, right?

I think it again comes to awareness. I am constantly aware of what is inherent in the day to day, exceptionally aware of beauty, composition, design, balance, symmetry. It is all a part of my well being, my meditation, a vision, a plan for how I want to live. So, I think they work together. In the case of a journalist who takes it upon themselves to deliver the truth of a real life situation the approach might be different. In the case of the creator, there is also truth.
 

Calabria. Photographs by Bill Phelps

 

Calabria. Photograph by Bill Phelps

 

I find that your style of photography, the way you use the smoke that snakes from the bustling Tokyo streets as a way to manipulate the saturation of light, or your striking, abstract black and white photography, or the way you shoot colours that complement each other, or shooting through shadow a street scene in Calabria and showing just the face of a woman walking and concealing half of the scene, creates mystery and evokes a story, it leaves you with the desire to discover more. That’s not usual in photography because not all photographers are storytellers. Is this something you have been perfecting or has it come naturally to you from the beginning?

I love to get lost in spaces in-between, caught in light and shadow, or darkness, or in a space of shallow focus for example. I was immediately attracted to the focus field inherent to the 8 x 10 camera, different from anything else in my personal experience. It has such a otherworldly quality to it. I tended not to use its capabilities of manipulating focus, tilt, shift, swing, the movement of the standards. It already has a special poetry when used as is. It offers a unique meditative space as well. Pause, clarity, patience, privacy under the dark cloth, hidden in plain sight, are all a part of living with this tool. I suppose the “suspended space” I feel so strongly about has influenced the use of other elements, such as those you have mentioned. The story is often in the undefined, or in the blackness of the dark.

The set of pictures from Calabria is a good example. Not only of the approach, but also the
unique offerings of my client to engage in a conversation about narrative beforehand. My editor at Conde Nast Traveler brought some unusual and exciting references to the table, it’s always a gift to have this kind of communication. She threw both Homer’s Odyssey, as well as Alexander Rodchenko at me in our preproduction meetings. She talked about how Calabria, particularly Tropea, had a “built in” dichotomy similar to Naples. The shiny life of the beach front, contrasting the somewhat seedy backstreets. Tropea sits on the strait of Messina, the same waters Odysseus wandered in Homer’s tale. All of this came together in the thought of trying to illustrate this dichotomy visually, and with a kind of mythological twist. In Greek mythology the world is divided into three parts, the overworld, the underworld, and the heavens. I loved the idea. After giving it some careful thought, I realized there would be a challenge in the final edit, fearing it might be out of my hands, and possibly threatening the original idea. I decided to take it one step further, and try to capture the idea of these worlds in single frames. The woman in the triangle of light against the wall, the man walking on the edge of shadow along the beach, the dwelling on the cliff inverted in the prism of water, Mount Aetna releasing its power, the young girl at dusk – as though she’s trying to get home before the doors to her world are locked for the day. The whole experience was a truly special one for me, and I thank both Linda Denahan and Yolanda Edwards at Conde Nast.
 

Woman in Calabria. Photograph by Bill Phelps

 

I always sense that there is so much depth and history and meaning behind your photographs, as you have demonstrated above. Do you ever feel the need to add words to your photographs?

I have never been one to title my pictures, only when pushed by a gallery to do so, I think the work should speak for itself. I would like to at some point mix text and pictures in a storytelling way. I am however curious to hear what the work inspires in other people. I do find it a personal responsibility to find a way to communicate, to speak about my work, as we are doing here. I find great satisfaction in conversation, I feel it to be a lost art in itself.

Your portraits capture beauty in so many forms and go beyond physical beauty. Do you try to get to know someone a little before you do a portrait? How close do you have to get, physically, emotionally, mentally, in order to be able to tell a story through your portraits?

It is always a luxury to have a connection to the subject. Chance, spontaneity, and luck can all be helpful elements. On one assignment in Mexico City, I was moving through the streets as an afternoon storm was building. There was a pressure in the air, and a kinetic energy among the people. There seemed to be so much electricity in the air, and I was feeling it all. The light was shifting, the wind was shifting, it was all very cinematic, nothing was planned. I came upon an outdoor art installation, a garden of vertical metal poles, white in color against a black wall. I noticed a woman through the forest of metal. I could feel something, and wanted to make a photo. I approached her and simply asked. She was immediately open to it, and I could tell she was no stranger to a camera, though I was not sure what she did in her life. There was a sense of urgency, the rain was starting, and the wind was blowing harder. We simply aligned, and made a strong connection in a fraction of a second. I can feel that day, the moment, in the photo, in her eyes.
 

Woman in Mexico City. Photograph by Bill Phelps

 

It is incredible the power a photograph has to transport you back in time to a precise moment. But do you ever feel that an ever changing interpretation of a memory of a moment is more favorable, in the long run, than that of a photographic image?

Yes, I do. I feel a photographic image can have a similar trigger effect, as does scent for example, or music. For me, inspiration can come from a memory just as powerfully as it can come from having another sensory experience. As photographers, making memories is kind of built into our craft, but we are also storytellers. Sometimes without preconception we can find ourselves in worlds of surrealism, or magical realism. This is part of the experience as a member of the audience as well as the creator. When a work of art offers me options or ways of thinking, or even living, it is alive, and forever changing.

Do people usually respond well to the camera, as the woman in Mexico City did?

For the most part, yes. I have had wonderful experiences with people who are strangers to me. I find that taking my time, integrating myself with their environment when I have the luxury to do so, creating a curiosity, can often be an invitation. If they sense you are safe, and are involved in a creative process, they sometimes want to be a part of it. I can feel when there is a connection.
 

John Malkovich photographed by Bill Phelps

 

Does your process differ when you are photographing actors? How much directing is involved, how much do you have to work to get them into a body attitude and language?

This is always a tricky space. Again, I can feel when there is a connection, everyone is different. It is much easier to work with actors one on one, rather than in a group, especially if they are high profile. There is often an unspoken tribal energy among them. This can work for and against me. Sometimes it creates an exciting atmosphere, when other times it only takes one person to bring the morale down for the whole room. There is an incredible amount of ego involved, and it is not always positive. Again, everyone is different. I have found my best experiences to be without anyone else around, no publicists, stylists, personal assistants. When I first shot Bradley Cooper, I shot him in my own cafe bar, which I had designed and built myself. He arrived by subway with a backpack, alone. I used my own clothes, my own motorbike as a prop, shooting in my own bar, it was a rare and wonderful experience, we got great shots. This is not always the case. Usually it’s ten minutes, and six hands on the artist at any given time. It also can have something to do with why you are making the pictures in the first place, who you are shooting for. I have had photo editors show great trust in me, this is often a key element. Most of my experiences have been with men, I am eager to work with more women, it’s quite different and suits me well.
 

Bradley Cooper photographed by Bill Phelps

 

You say this was your first time when you photographed Bradley Cooper. Are there people you have photographed many times over the years? Is your process different when you shoot someone you know well?

There have been periods in my life when I have felt the power of a muse. There have been a very small handful of women mainly, who have been truly inspirational to me in this way. Where they are a part of the concept from the beginning. They appear to me as I am thinking about the picture I want to craft. Sometimes I am surprised by someone, the unexpected happens with someone I don’t know. A picture is made and their spirit rushes to the front to introduce itself.

An example of someone I have worked with on several occasions is the musical artist DESSA. I have shot three albums for her, and there is definitely trust, an inspiration, an electricity between us.
 

DESSA photographed by Bill Phelps

 

Is that why you say you would like to work more with women, because of those inspirational times you have experienced? How is it different working with women?

My experiences collaborating with women are something unto themselves, very different form working with men. It is a more “spiritual” experience. I think one of the most powerful things about working with, or living with for that matter, that spiritual energy is that everything seems possible. I find women are connected to the world, the universe, in a way that is truly special and incredibly powerful.

I perceive your photography as a microcosm of human experiences. And that the woman has a special place there, as you remarked, it just makes perfect sense. In photography, as in life, the eyes are not enough, you have to feel, to free yourself, to go with intuition, to hold your breath. A way of understanding, living, and expressing it visually. That’s how I see your photography.
 

Bill Phelps and his daughter, Hazel. Photograph by Bill Phelps

 

Do you often find yourself turning your camera to your daughter, eager to capture moments, or do you keep your most precious shared experiences just to yourself?

I am always wanting to photograph her, she is stubborn like I am, and can be very convincing, so it’s not always smooth. The older she gets, the more sensitive it is. I’m always hoping for a bridge, a comfort level to be found, I’m so inspired by her.

Does Hazel share any of your enthusiasm when it comes to photography?

She does, she loves it, along with many other forms of artistic expression, she is innately sensitive to the power it holds. She often surprises me with her storytelling through image.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that at the moment women have monopolized the discussion about their daughters, about being parents of daughters, and I have to admit I have a little problem with that, as someone who has always had a great relationship with my father, grandfather, brother and husband, have always been admired and treated admirably and equally, protected and given total freedom, and I, in turn, admired back. And because I am a mother of a boy, I would really want to hear the point of view of a father in regard to his daughter.

I grew up with two very strong women. With fire and strength comes a conviction, but can also come with feeling conflicted. My mother always showed us both, my sister and I, that “art will set you free” and she is right. She raised us alone, I have never met my father. I do believe that my sister (also an artist) and myself are two of the most intense people I know. It has never been easy for either of us, in many ways – especially with each other. I believe I had a good window into what the possible options could be for me, as an adult, through my mother. She was direct, caring, honest, kind, but most of all trusting. I feel there is no greater bond you can create with your child than trust. My mother trusted me in ways I can hardly believe now that I am a parent, but I am unbelievably grateful. As selfish as it sounds, I always wanted a daughter, it was easy for me to imagine a lifetime with a girl. I believe I have a great deal to give to a boy also, but the idea of a friendship with a daughter has always been truly, deeply inspiring. There is a depth I can see in her very naturally, and I stare into her eyes often seeking her wisdom, I simply don’t find this as naturally with men.

How has fatherhood changed you as an artist?

Having children is unquestionably a powerful creative process in itself. I have wanted children for as long as I can remember. I can say it has made me a better person in that it has given me a new sense of purpose. It has given permission, and in many cases urgency, to use everything I have inside of me. I no longer have the option to push aside uncomfortable or inconvenient distractions or discomforts when the safety and nourishment of a child depends on moving through them, rather than around them. In this, I am forced to live in the present, to use every bit of my imagination, my sensitivity, my courage, to get to the next moment.

In my life as a working photographer, I spent a great deal of energy, most of it wasted, imagining the next job or accomplishment. I knew deep down that what I really wanted was to slow down and simply listen to myself. I’m more closer to that now than I have ever been. I dream in shapes and shadows, messages, truths, stories, light. We are much too concerned with our audience, especially now, in this age of desensitization, and the ever powerful platforms of social media. I find now that I am letting my own truths rise to the surface in a more fluid way. My relationship to them has always been there, but the conversation is different now. I will continue to hear my mother’s words that “art will set you free” and speak it truthfully to Hazel along the way.

I hope your next journey will take you to the North-West coast of France, with Hazel, in wander and tranquility.
 
 

Website: billphelps.com | Instagram: @billphelpsstudio

 
 

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Very, Very Natural and Herself: Katharine Hepburn in “Bringing Up Baby”

”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
Is Katharine Hepburn playing herself in Bringing Up Baby? And if so, why not? Katharine Hepburn turned Hollywood on its head. She fearlessly and uncompromisingly set out to become a star in an industry that wanted greatness on its own terms, an industry that often tried to destroy the original few. She wanted greatness on her own unconventional terms, and she became the reluctant and the most natural movie star. So why wouldn’t she play some version of herself in at least some of her movies?

In his screenplay of Son, John Cassavetes had a line saying you gotta have “a few more people like Katharine Hepburn. You know? Charlie Chaplins. People that are higher class, you can’t have all low class, so that everybody’s low. Put more high class in there, you know, with graceful people like Garbo, so that people can look up a little instead of looking down all the time.”

So, here I am asking again, why wouldn’t Katharine Hepburn play some version of herself in at least some of her movies?

The role of Susan in Bringing Up Baby was indeed tailored to her. However, Katharine hadn’t done screwball comedy before and she wasn’t getting the hang of it when the filming started. In his book, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, Todd McCarthy recounts: “Hawks had figured she would have no problem as the role was so close to her own background as a clever, imaginative, outspoken New England heiress, but she was trying too hard, desperately trying to ‘act’ funny, and constantly cracking up at her own antics and those of her costar. “I tried to explain to her that the greatest clowns, Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, simply weren’t out there making funny faces, they were serious, sad, solemn, and the humour sprang from what happened around them… Cary understood this at once. Katie didn’t.”

Only after Hawks turned to veteran comic Walter Catlett, asking him to play a scene of Katharine’s with Cary, and Catlett played it “with every mannerism of hers, very serious, she was entranced. After that, she played perfectly – not trying to be funny, but being very, very natural and herself.”

Hepburn also credited Cary Grant with guiding her through. “Cary told me that the more depressed I looked when I went into a pratfall, the more the audience would laugh.” Cary knew how to be funny and the only direction he took from Hawks was to keep “the bumbling, bespectacled, always-anxious screen character created by Harold Lloyd”. “Cary was so funny on this picture”, Katharine wrote in her book, Me: Stories of My Life. “He was fatter, and at this point his boiling energy was at its peak. We would laugh from morning to night. Hawks was fun too. He usually got to work late. Cary and I were always early there. Everyone contributed anything and everything they could think of to that script.”

Hepburn and Grant liked to hang out together off the set, too, and brought all that energy and thrill on the set. And it shows on the screen. The laughs in Bringing Up Baby are real, not for one minute letting the gender, sex, and marriage connotations, or the exploration of middle-class repressions and upper-class eccentricities that subtly permeate the film turn it into being too serious. It remains funny and breakneck-paced until the very end. Another scene recalled by Hawks in McCarthy’s book involves Cary asking Katharine at one point in the story “What happened to the bone?”. Hawks continues: “And Katharine said something like “It’s in the box.” They started to laugh – it was ten o’clock in the morning – and at four o’clock in the afternoon we were still trying to make this scene and I didn’t think we were ever going to get it. I tried changing the line. It didn’t do any good. They were just putting dirty connotations on it and then they’d go off on peaks of laughter.”
 

”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
Howard Hawks preferred making comedies to dramas, according to Todd McCarthy, but he wasn’t interested in joke-derived humour. “For him, humour had to flow out of the characters and their attitude to what was going on around them.” He also liked spirited, good-humored give-and-take between men and women and he also liked to play up his female characters’ allure, especially in comedies, like in the case of Bringing Up Baby, where Cary Grant’s shy, naïve and awkward paleontologist, David Huxley, becomes entangled with Katharine’s outworldly, outspoken and willful heiress Susan Vance.

Katharine was born in a liberal family and had an extraordinary relationship with her parents. They were her greatest role models. “Mother and Dad were perfect parents. They brought us up with a feeling of freedom. There were NO RULES. There were simply certain things which we did – and certain things which we didn’t because they would hurt others. […]
And I think, how I miss you two. I was so used to turning to you. It was heaven. Always to have you two to turn to in despair, in joy. There you were: strong – funny. What you did for me – wow! What luck to be born out of love and to live in an atmosphere of warmth and interest.” Such was the confidence and love that they instilled in her that Hepburn’s liberal point of view, her strong sense of right and wrong, her courage and determination, her bluntness and pragmatism, her bullheadedness, and, yes, her bigger than life persona, often came off on screen. So of course it makes sense that Hawks wanted nobody else in the role of Susan.

“I must say that I didn’t have brains enough to be scared, so I did a lot of scenes with the leopard just roaming around,” Katharine further wrote in her autobiography. “Olga Celeste, the trainer, had a big whip. We were inside a cage – Olga and I and the leopard – no one else. The cage was for us alone. The camera and sound were picked up through holes in the fencing. The first scene I had was in a floor-length negligee, walking around. I was talking madly on the telephone with a long cord. The leopard followed me around pushing at my thigh, which they had covered with perfume. I would pat its head. The scene went very satisfactorily. Then I changed into a knee-length dress with tabs on the bottom of the skirt covering metal pieces to make the skirt swing prettily. But – a large but – one large swirl and that leopard made a spring for my back and Olga brought that whip down right on his head. That was the end of my freedom with the leopard.”
 

”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
Katharine also had natural, unaffected looks and a slim figure that were very much in the Hawksian mood. It would be another two years until Hepburn’s favourite costume designer, Adrian (part of whose incredible talent was that he let an actor’s true personality and natural beauty shine through even behind the most extravagant gowns, and I am especially referring to Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo), would dress her in The Philadelphia Story, but Howard Greer did a pretty good job in Hawks’ film, too. Greer (who, after he served in France during World War I, remained in Paris and worked for Lucille, Paul Poiret and Molyneux and designed clothes for the theater in Paris and London for three years before returning to America and starting to work in film costume design) dressed Hepburn in a couple of glamorous gowns and several dresses in the film, unlike the masculine style she appropriated in real life, but the way she wears them is singlehanded and evokes such an ease in movements, the kind that had been perfected in years growing up as a trouser-wearing and sports-loving tomboy. But I like her in dresses. She’s a sight to be seen in that kind of dress, statuesque yet natural, transcending the magnetism of her personality, highlighting her beauty and femininity, yet revealing an unexpected side, too.

When David first meets Susan on the golf course, she sports a white under-the-knee skirt and white blouse. But the bias cut of the skirt allows freedom of movement, and the collar of the blouse is appropriately a Peter Pan collar, so the clothes certainly carried some of the independent spirit of the film character, and of Katharine’s too. Even the most extravagant costume in Susan’s wardrobe, the gold lamé evening dress with the veil encircling her head, is more than the Old Hollywood glamour that one would expect. First of all, despite its extravagance, it’s still Katharine you notice, not the dress, and I can’t think of any other I could say the same thing about. Secondly, the dress is meant to be costumey (many Golden Age of Hollywood movie costumes were), but the scene is so particularly funny – David accidentally steps on her dress and tears off its rear revealing her lingeried back, which he then tries to cover up with his top hat – that one can not help interpreting both the scene and the dress as a pratfall. Especially that the sequence was inspired by something similar which had happened to Cary in real life and Hawks had to put it in the film because it was his kind of situation-derived humour.

In another scene, Katharine accidentally broke a heel off her shoe. Cary immediately whispered a line into her ear, “I was born on the side of a hill”, whereupon she reprised the ad-lip on the spot as she continued to limp along. Grant’s dazzling quickness made perfect team with Hepburn’s wit and adventurous side.

Katharine does wear a pair of trousers in one scene, paired with a baggy shirt, and there are many pictures of her dressed in slacks (as she liked to call them) on the set, a clear sign that she was bringing part of her own style on screen – her costar, too, would perfect the art of the man dressing the character throughout his career. But my favourite look in the film is the light-coloured, floor-length gown that Susan wears at night when she and David are looking for the escaped leopard. It has a black bow around the neck, another black bow around the waist and ruffles around the shoulders. But the silhouette is flowy and playful and the way I would describe it is high society meets classic elegance meets tomboy attitude. And Susan certainly defies its purely fashion statement when she throws a black, thick-knitted cardigan over it when she goes to get David out of jail. It’s like she’s saying she’s trying Hollywood out, but definitely setting out to play Katharine Hepburn. She had fun doing it.
 

Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hawks on the set of ”Bringing Up Baby”, 1938. RKO Radio Pictures

 
 

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April Newsletter: On Personal Space and Actors’ Private Lives

Photos: Classiq Journal

 
 
I have watched Nomadland this week. Fern, Frances McDormand, moves around country with the weather and with the work. After the economic collapse of her working-class town, Fern, a former substitute teacher and a widow in her sixties, hits the road with her van, joining a group of older itinerant workers, real-life nomads in fact who play some version of themselves in the film. This is a great American road movie and Fern is a pioneer, this independent spirit breaking with the standard of modern day society. The road becomes her space to pause, to think, to being, to keep going and searching. It is a quiet performance, but one that goes so deep and one that bestows such power on the viewer. I am not sure if the word “performance” is the right word. It’s raw, naked emotion, intensely human and which might change, or at least challenge, the way you think about your own life. It is a very intimate, ineffable portrait that seems to connect you not just with the character, but maybe with Frances McDormand a little, too, who has long been so adamant about keeping much of her private life to herself. And with that, she has also kept that mystery that I personally find very difficult to rediscover in the work of so many actors who are always in the public’s eye. She brings her own search for truth in performance to the screen.

“I made a very conscious effort not to do press and publicity for 10 years in what other people would think would be a very dangerous moment in a female actor’s career, but it paid off for exactly the reasons I wanted it to,” Frances McDormand said in The New York Times about her decision for staying away from the public’s eyes. “It gave me a mystery back to who I was, and then in the roles I performed, I could take an audience to a place where someone who sold watches or perfume and magazines couldn’t.”

Did you know that trees need personal space, too? In an edition of Ernest Journal, they write how “crown shyness is a naturally occurring phenomenon observed in forests where the crowns of trees avoid touching each other, creating a stunning visual effect akin to a network of cracks in the canopy.” The exact explanation is not yet fully known, “but the most popular theory is that it’s a preventative measure against shading; to optimise the tree’s exposure to light and maximise photosynthesis.” In other words, trees need room to breathe and thrive and grow, they need room in order to live.

I believe that is true for every individual and it is true for every actor. An actor must carve out some personal space, as much further from the public as possible in order to breathe new life into each role.

I do like to read about my favourite actors from time to time. I think I mostly enjoy the long-form written interviews in magazines, the kind that take time to research and to prepare and to write and to go back to, because I love a good conversation. But I do not care for knowing about what actors do in their day-to-day lives, and I don’t particularly care for them to stare at me from behind an advertising campaign. Leave something to the imagination, leave room for your audience to think where your vulnerability or strength you display on screen comes from. Where is the mystique? What is fascinating about an actor who makes himself/herself so publicly available?

The actor’s face gives you a perspective into the character’s story. What can you see new in a face that you see seven days a week on social media when it appears before you on the big screen? And now that we have been away from the movie theater for more than a year, the line between that real face and a character face, on a screen that becomes smaller and smaller, becomes even more blurry.

The world of film today is certainly also a product of our modern-day society, a society governed by advertisers, marketers and the media, all of whom use celebrity culture as a weapon of mass distraction. And it’s such a shame that actors are willingly part of it. I keep thinking of François Truffaut’s tribute words to Gloria Grahame: “The beautiful eyes of Gloria Grahame make you die of love, then wait a little longer, until another movie is released.” That kind of screen magnetism is lost today. Not only that, but even before the pandemic, the media machine had made it impossible to look forward to a promising film without already knowing the smallest details about the production. As for films that linger on in your memory for years, performances that impress you in the way a classic actor held the screen, a genuine moment that makes you feel as if something special is created in front of you? That is something much more difficult to attain with new than with old movies.

Listening to the archives of one of my favourite podcasts (there are not many), Desert Island Discs, from the days when Kirsty Young was the host, I came across the episode with Christopher Nolan, where she recalled how he had once said that he didn’t want people to know much about him personally because he wanted people to remain interested in his films, and they wouldn’t show the same interest if he were to put himself out there all the time. I dug up that interview, it was for The Hollywood Reporter, and this is what he said: “No, I don’t want people to know anything about me. I mean, I’m not being facetious. The more you know about somebody who makes the films, the less you can just watch the movies — that’s my feeling — which is why doing these things [interviews] always feels a bit like — (laughs) I mean, you have to do a certain amount of promotion for the film, you have to put yourself out there, but I actually don’t want people to have me in mind at all when they’re watching the films, genuinely.” Well, I am one of those people, and I don’t think I am the only one.

During a festival I attended three or four years ago, I had the chance to meet a few filmmakers and actors and take part in Q&A’s with some of them. Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix, who had just released their film You Were Never Really Here, were among them. And I simply rejoice every time I think of that film because these two creative outsiders (Phoenix and Ramsay are both known for their no-bullshit attitudes when it comes to the Hollywood system and its promotional games) united to make this film together. Because not only did they break away from the system, but they broke the form of the crime genre, too. But I also can not forget Joaquin’s unease when someone asked him a stupid personal question. I was embarrassed for having to be present in that moment. We were there because these two people had made a great film, and one of the reasons for this was that their integrity had allowed them to remain creative and have a heavy word to say in the world of cinema today. And for whoever doesn’t get that, for whoever is nourished on celebrity rubbish and Instagram feeds, watching movies, watching that kind of film, is a useless exercise*.
 

Left: Photo by Classiq Journal
Right: “Above the Rooftops at Sunrise in Venice” by David C. Phillips, photographic print available in the shop.

 
 
The Classiq Journal newsletter goes out the first Sunday of each month. It’s a culture trip.
 
Reading

“I was an alien there (ed. note: in Hollywood). I loved solitude.” One of the most distinctive actors of the silent era, Louise Brooks, could write, too. Her book Lulu in Hollywood gathers her essays on Gish and Garbo, Bogart, Chaplin, W.C. Fields, G.W. Pabst, the one who cast her in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, “essays striking in their evenhandedness and insight,” Lotte H. Eisner writes in her afterward to the book. I have read countless books and essays on classic Hollywood, but Louise Brooks’ writing about Hollywood and its stars is such a unique point of view that it’s made me realise how very few writers search for truth, observe and see with their own eyes. Although her writings draw from her own encounters and personal observations on cinema from her life in the movies, this is not a memoir book, because she didn’t care to write her memoirs. “In writing the history of a life I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person’s sexual lives and hates and conflicts. It is the only way he reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions.” And she didn’t want to get that personal. Talk about personal space. And she would stop writing altogether, too, because, as she wrote to Lotte once, “I shall write no more. Writing the truth for readers nourished on publicity rubbish is a useless exercise.” – *It’s Louise Brooks’ words that I adapted in the paragraph above.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. For children and adults alike. There are not enough books celebrating magical worlds, for either children or adults. This is an anniversary edition released last year by Egmont books, but I prefer this one (pictured further down) because of the cover. Both editions feature the original illustrations by E.H. Shepard.

Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, where he tells five stories at a time, about the making of five movies at a pivotal moment for the future of the American cinema, in the 1960s, and the birth of the New Hollywood, is a great account of making movies. I am therefore enthusiastic about his new book, Mike Nichols: A Life.

A long-form written interview is my favourite kind of interview. In this interview with Rui Nogueira, Gloria Swanson reflects on her life spent as one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era, a time before the pictures got small. And the screens even smaller.
 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal. Image to the right, from the book Lulu in Hollywood.
“I did not possess the appeal of a child star, but I possessed a more powerful attraction: a pupil’s total attention.” Louise Brooks

 
 
Viewing

Micki and Maude (1984), directed by Blake Edwards. Good comedies are hard to come by, especially today. And nobody has the guts to make truly funny comedies nowadays.

Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (released 40 years ago this March) is the kind of film where style overrides content, a striking triumph of an electrifying, dark aesthetic that draws more from pop culture than from the cinema itself. The images guide you rather than the plot. And I like that. Beinoix is interested in telling his story visually, vibrantly and dynamically, independent of any kind of form. It transports you.

La ligne de démarcation (1966). It’s Claude Chabrol, and it’s Jean Seberg and Maurice Ronet in different roles than how I had seen them before, her different from the sensuous tomboy with a pixie-cut and “a glint of boyish malice” (again Truffaut) in her eyes in Bonjour tristesse (1958) or again the girl with a pixie-cut, all light and cool and mischief, in Breathless (1960), him different from his leisurely and good-looking characters rivaling Alain Delon in both Plein soleil (1960) and La piscine (1969).

Hillbilly Ellegy, directed by Ron Howard. If only for Glenn Close alone and this film would be worth watching.

Chasing Childhood. Let the children play and give them freedom and just carry them through.
 
 
Listening

Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing is part of my Regulars (see the end of this newsletter), but I still like to highlight particular episodes, like the one with Sam Wasson, where they talk about Wasson’s book about the making of Chinatown, especially that they talk about the thing that I may appreciate the most about the book, especially in these right or wrong times we are living, in a world that displays so little regard for preserving family and privacy, and fair and measured public scrutiny: and that’s the fact that the book does right by Roman Polanski. And I want to quote the author in the interview about his hoping to have written a “balanced but sympathetic” portrait of Polanski: “We live in such an extreme yes or no culture, there is no grey area and Roman is the definition of grey, the way every great character is. Every great character is.”

The other Here’s The Thing episode I want to point out is the one with Malcolm McDowell.

“I like not doing the obvious.” Mark Strong selects the eight soundtracks of his life for Desert Island Discs. Punk has a special place in there, because punk happened in a particular period in his life when he realised that music can give you your sense of self. Yes, that’s what good music does. And most of all I love that he chose Heroes from David Bowie. And I love it even more that he chose the German version, Helden, sung by Bowie himself, one I wasn’t even aware of. And he chose it because he speaks German and that’s why Helden has a special resonance to him. I love German, too, and I don’t speak it as much as I would like, but from now on I am going to listen to Helden.

The playlist.
 
 

 
 
Making

Each month I highlight one lifestyle/design brand that I believe in 100%. I love SAYA Designs for their products and their values, and because its founder, Victoria Jones, is an inspiration. About her own inspirations, Victoria told me: “I am inspired by many, many people, but especially artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Barbara Hepworth, whose organic forms I love. Activists like Dian Fossey, who was an American Conservationist in 1966 who went out to live alone in the jungle to protect mountain gorillas. She was so brave and courageous, especially at a time that when hardly any people, let alone women, were doing what she way doing.”
 
 
Exploring

In a recent edition of Monocle, the magazine covers a beautiful story very dear to my heart. Kodomo Hon no Mori (Nakanoshima Children’s Book Forest) is a children’s library housing 18,000 books that has been gifted to Osaka by architect Tadao Ando, who calls the city home. “I wanted to execute the idea of creating a facility in which children can read as much as possible. Reading is an essential part of nurturing our abilities to judge, express and raise creativity,” says Ando. The library carries books that adults can also read, because “you cannot just tell children to read. But they’ll get into it if they see that their parents are into it.” That’s the kind of personal space that I understand.

 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters, Roden, and Ridgeline, and Huh (yes, all three of them). Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Monocle magazine, in print.
 
 

 

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below
and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little
house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

The Wind in the Willows

 

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Newsletter | Leave a comment

Anny Romand in “Diva”: An Agnès B. Kind of Sensibility

Anny Romand and Jean-Jacques Moreau in “Diva”, 1981. Les Films Galaxie, Greenwich Film Productions, France 2

 
We go to different films for different reasons, Roger Ebert once said. And, of course, we love each film for different reasons. Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (released 40 years ago this March) is the kind of film where style overrides content, a striking triumph of an electrifying, dark aesthetic that draws more from pop culture than from the cinema itself. The images guide you rather than the plot. And I like that. It’s a realistic, graphic and underground vision that creates a spectacular universe where detached characters move around industrial wastelands or indoor locations and the Paris Métro to symbolise an alternative, underground society, characters who have trouble in entering the real world and who take pleasure in the illusion of their own story. Beineix, who was at his filmmaking debut with Diva and who in an interview for Télérama in 2013 said that his raw material is more about sound than anything else, is interested in telling his story visually, vibrantly and dynamically, independent of any kind of form. It transports you.

Jules (Frédéric Andrés) is a young postman who has a passion for an opera singer, Cynthia Hawkins (Wilhelmenia Wiggins-Fernandez) who categorically refuses to make records. During a concert in Paris, he manages to make a bootleg tape of her performance, but only with the intention of keeping it to himself. But then it gets mistaken for a tape containing vital evidence about a human trafficking investigation and it prompts Jules’ being chased all around Paris by those who will do anything to retrieve it, but also by two Taiwanese gangsters from the pirate music mafia who obviously want the tape for what it is. But the most eccentric character is Gorodish (Richard Bohringer), someone who has retreated from the public and lives isolated (his only companion being a Vietnamese, Alba, played by Thuy An Lulu), thus reflecting the essential attitude of 1980s France and the social misfits who had turned their back on ideological struggle and accepted the fact that the world struggles in a grey zone rather than exists in black or white.
 

Anny Romand and Patrick Floersheim in “Diva”, 1981. Les Films Galaxie, Greenwich Film Productions, France 2

 
This universe is intersecting only tangentially with the real city of Paris, and when that happens, it’s like a window into reality and, with the risk of sounding counterintuitive to the film’s aesthetic and vision, I love those parts. It’s that street-wise quality that brings me to a particular clothing in the film. And if it is supposed to be ironic (the cynical view on the police is a recurring element in the cinéma du look movement), then I appreciate it even more. It’s the look of Paula, a detective played by Anny Romand. Paula appears in about three scenes and she is wearing the same outfit: a roller neck and a down-the-knee straight skirt, both in a shade of grey-light blue and a sort of an oversized windbreaker, in light green (such beautiful colour blocking, too, grey-light blue and green). In her first scene, Paula is sitting at a street-side café with her detective partner and, dressed like that, with her grey cross-body bag tossed on the table next to her coffee, she just seems so of the Paris street scene. Real. And that whole look and setting of Anny reminded me of Agnès B. (not only that, but even Jules’ living arrangement in that abandoned industrial place reminded me of the Agnès B. 1984 summer collection campaign shot in the André-Citroën Park in Paris).

“In the 1980s, Agnès’s personal style subtly evolved into that of women on the street who did not want to look like the women in Blade Runner or Mad Max (popular movies of the time) or in magazines or on runways,” writes in the book Agnès B.: styliste. It’s this realistic contrast of Anny’s look to the whole fantasy-like aesthetic of the film, and of other costumes in the film as a matter of fact (Alba’s neon clothes, for example), that I find very interesting. In fact, it looks modern. Because it also happens to be in contrast (and so are her young partner’s blue jeans, plain t-shirt and leather jacket) with the shabby and outdated suits of her boss, the chief of the police (here may be the irony in fact).

Agnès has always made friends on the street. And she loves movies. Movie posters always hung alongside urban styles in her boutiques. A designer who loves movies is not interested in the fleeting fashion, she is interested in making clothes that go beyond trends and the ephemerality. She is interested in people, people for whom clothes are part of their personality. Agnès has never followed the norm, going against the stream, never radical but always seeing forward, relaxing the men’s rigidness and breathing androgyny into the women’s line. Real work uniforms were one of her inspirations. But she made them interesting, she took them out of the context and moved them into a new playground. And I think that relates here. Anny’s look is kind of a uniform, too, but it’s cool, because it is like it still has a primary function, but a new way of wearing it. It’s freeing and practical, and most of all, modern and very individual. I will take Agnès B.’s guidance and not apply too many words “to what is essentially a subtle, almost indefinable quality”.
 
 

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Posted by classiq in Film, Style in film | | Leave a comment

Be Kinder Than Necessary


 
There are hardly any other words I have heard or read more often in the past year in conversations touching on the subject of how we can navigate everything that has been happening than be kind. Something to do yourself and something to hope from others as well. Amidst all the explosive news, instability, reactionary outbursts and critical behaviour towards what you should or shouldn’t do, real life is happening away from screens and we need to remain humans.

People are in dire need of communication and human connection. For our collective sanity. Human connection is vital. Just a simple hello said in person has come to go such a long way. If I am in line at the bookshop or at the bakery, and someone asks me something and my response is more than a telegraphic answer, they are surprised and grateful, and I can see their smiles ever with their masks on. People actually thank me for talking to them. But this doesn’t make me happy, because why has the world had to change so much in such a short time? “I was relocated for most of last year,” a kindergarten mother was telling me when the schools reopened. “I have just gotten back and I am out of touch with everything and everyone, I don’t recognise people’s behaviours. It feels good to talk to someone I don’t know face to face.” I know, I’ve been there. I am again taken aback when she thanks me for talking to her. In a time when we have learned not to take anything for granted, being kind should be a given.

Once again a piece written by Gerard Merzorati last year during lockdown for Racquet magazine comes to mind. He wrote about the “weak ties that bind”, those casual acquaintances that never bloom into a friendship but which are so important for someone’s well-being. They are a little more than strangers, like his tennis buddies, with whom conversations never go into intimacies or personal stuff, just casual talk that keeps you present, in the now, makes you realise you are part of a community and does you good. “These low-stakes relations, strangers to us except when not – bookshop owners, farmers-market-stand operators, tennis opponents – provide us a sense of belonging, bind us more strongly to place. They aren’t nearly as important as the love we share with family members or intimate partners or lifelong friends. Still, studies show, they make us happier. And research shows too that weak ties are especially important as we age. Social interactions of the kind I have with my tennis buddies—infrequent, low-intensity, limited, verbally, to the exchange of a few words before and after a match—are nevertheless preserving my cognitive function and helping to keep depression at bay.”

I also remember what Ian Buruma wrote in his book, A Tokyo Romance, about his fellow spectators in the darkness of the Tokyo theater he used to frequent, who always sat on the same seats, in the second row of the movie theater. “I don’t think they were close friends. After the screenings, each would go his way. But inside the cinema they were inseparable. Between films, they would huddle in the corridor, recalling different scenes from favourite movies.” The weak ties that bind.

A few weeks back, we were only three people on an early morning in one of my favourite local bookshops: an elderly gentleman, my husband and I. We overheard him asking a shop assistant about an album of Fleetwood Mac. We had just discussed how the band has been experiencing a revival after the band’s 1977 album Rumors broke through Billboard 100 again last year thanks to a Tik Tok of a man on a skateboard lipsyncing to Dreams and introducing a whole new generation to Fleetwood Mac’s music – Alec Baldwin interviewed Mick Fleetwood in January and it’s such a great conversation. And now we overhear this gentleman asking about placing an order because the bookshop has run out of that album. And when they answer they can’t do that because it is currently unavailable from the producer as well, we offer to help with a couple of recommendations of indie record shops in the city which might carry the album. The gentleman says he had already checked one of them – he and my husband start to talk about the shop’s owner, who they both are on first name basis with – and the other shop he has yet to check. If everything else fails, you can turn to ordering it online, we mutter, feeling almost sorry to make this kind of suggestion. “No, that doesn’t do it for me. I have hundreds of records at home. And I have to hand pick each and every one of them.” We understand each other. And now we thank each other for talking to each other. I have always appreciated these talks with strangers – which feels a little less alien in a constantly alienated world – but we have to lose that “thank you for talking to me”.

Tomorrow the clocks turn forward and, with that extra time of light and the streak of optimism, beauty and warmth back into the world, I am hoping for a shift to a gentler, informal dialogue, whether in front of a newsstand, at the coffee shop or on a hiking trail, too. Empathy and trust in people aren’t cultivated over a video call, our children don’t learn to nurture friendships on Zoom, camaraderie can’t be shared online, actual communities aren’t built on Instagram, life is lived in the whole wide world (which doesn’t mean hopping on a plane), not in the world wide web.

Be kinder.
 
 

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