Harry Dean Stanton on the set of “The Wendell Baker Story”, Circleville, Texas, 2003 | photo by Laura Wilson
She always carries her camera with her. Be it in the wide-open spaces of the great American West or on a movie set, whether capturing the beauty and fragility of the vast American land, the bleak reality of the Indian reservations, a pioneering cattleman on a Texas ranch, or showcasing an actor in a revealing way on the movie set, Laura Wilson’s photography evokes a sense of earnestness and closeness. It is not easy to get close to the insular and distrusting Hutterite community of Montana or to an actor emerged in his performance, but close she gets every single time.
She goes wherever it is a story worth telling to tell. And she always gets the story right. Laura Wilson is a restless, honest and profound visual storyteller. Each one of her photographs is like a world in itself. Without trying to debunk the myths, but always in search of the truth, Laura has a photojournalistic eye that enables her to seek for authenticity and an instinct for non-invasively penetrating and exploring enclosed, tightly knit societies, true to their traditional ways of life, portraying their uniqueness and independence and thus trying to preserve their identity.
As a film set photographer, Laura Wilson’s work is no less enthralling, always leaving me with a sense of wonder and privileged access to the fascinating universe of cinema. She has collaborated with the likes of Joel and Ethan Coen, Woody Allen and Wes Anderson, and also with her sons, Owen, Luke and Andrew (yes, the film actors). Her photography has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ Magazine, English Vogue, London’s Sunday Times Magazine and The Washington Post Magazine, and she has produced five photographic books, including That Day: Pictures in the American West, Hutterites of Montana and Avedon at Work.
I have talked to Laura about why it is so challenging to be a photographer on a movie set, about a photographer’s responsibility to respond to world issues and about the biggest misconception people have about Hollywood.
“There is not one time something has appeared before me
that I haven’t wanted to photograph it.”
Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody on the set of “The Darjeeling Limited”, Rajasthan, India, 2007 | photo by Laura Wilson
Laura, what does it take to go there, to want to tell a story through your photographs?
Curiosity and energy.
Your book, That Day: Pictures in the American West, depicts the majesty as well as the tragedy of the American West today, like the desolate reality of Indian reservations. As an artist, as a photographer, do you feel a responsibility not only to reveal, but also to respond to world events and issues?
Yes, I feel strongly that a photographer must respond to world events and issues to reveal these circumstances that weigh upon people.
What is the most important lesson your travels across America have taught you?
How splendid and beautiful the nation is and how varied and interesting the people are. And also how generous they are with their stories if you are serious and thoughtfully respond to their lives.
Hutterite Girl in Wheat Field, Hutterite Colony, Montana, 1994 | photo by Laura Wilson
Hutterite Girls during Haymaking Season, Hutterite Colony, Montana, 1991 | photo by Laura Wilson
Do you always carry a camera with you?
Are there moments when you simply witness a moment without shooting any picture? Is it true that even photographers keep some of the most special moments they experience to themselves?
Yes, there are times I haven’t photographed, but these moments are unplanned and always leave me wishing I’d been more alert, quicker to seize the moment. There is not one time something has appeared before me that I haven’t wanted to photograph it.
Do you try to get to know someone a little before you do a portrait? How predictable or unpredictable is the encounter between you and your subject when you do a portrait?
Yes, I always try to get to know the person ahead of time by doing research on the person, or speaking to others who might know the person, or looking at photos of the person. If none of this is possible because of limitations or lack of information, I always talk to the person while I am photographing him or her. By talking to the subject during the process, I can also find out things that I might want to reveal or to enhance in what I see before me.
Cowboys Walking, J.R. Greene Land and Cattle Company, Shackelford County, Texas, 1997 | photo by Laura Wilson
Child with Father and Sister, Colonia, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, 1993 | photo by Laura Wilson
You worked six years as the assistant of Richard Avedon and your book, Avedon at Work, documents the creative process of the photographer during his classic In the American West project. What is one thing that you and Avedon have taught each other?
I wouldn’t presume to say I taught Avedon anything. I learned from him that a good photographer, a great photographer, is not about f-stops and shutter speeds, but about the content of a photograph. This is what gives an image its power. And the more one knows about literature and psychology, mythology and the theater, the better a photographer can respond to what he or she sees before him.
In your book, That Day, there is a photograph of Harry Dean Stanton, on the set of The Wendell Baker Story, Circleville, Texas. I love that photo (and I love Harry Dean Stanton’s films, too) and I keep coming back to it. What’s the story behind that photo? I believe it is one of those photos that prove the importance of the still set photographer. Because a set photographer can not only capture the essence of a film in a shot, their photography can also reveal an actor in a moment of contemplation, in a fleeting moment of vulnerability, showing them with their guard down, just being themselves, not in character, and that’s a very rare and special thing.
I love being on a movie set for the opportunity to photograph people in revealing ways. In this moment, Harry Dean Stanton, oblivious to the heat, waited near a beautiful aluminum Beech 18 for the next scene in The Wendell Baker Story. He sang one of his favorite tunes, “Canción Mixteca”, the story of a man filled with sadness and longing for his home in Oaxaca, Mexico. With almost 200 films over 50 Hollywood years, Harry Dean is known on movie sets to regularly serenade actors and crews with Mexican Ranchera music. He has the same, strong, haunting voice he had nearly a quarter-century ago when he sang “Canción Mixteca” for Wim Wenders in Paris Texas and before that the gospel song, “A Closer Walk with Thee” for the soundtrack of Cool Hand Luke.
Like Wilson on the set of “The Royal Tenenbaums”, New York, 2001 | photo by Laura Wilson
Anjelica Huston on the set of “The Royal Tenenbaums”, New York, 2001 | photo by Laura Wilson
Many filmmakers are very particular about the set photographers they allow to document their work. Wes Anderson is one of the filmmakers you have worked with and he is well-known for his close and loyal team of collaborators. What is it that gained you his trust? Although I do not believe it is just a matter of trust, one also has to know and respect film.
I’ve known Wes since he was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, and because of his friendship with my sons, Andrew, Owen and Luke, and with us, my husband Bob and I, we have a special bond. I was the first person to photograph Wes when he began in film as the director on Bottle Rocket, and he has remained loyal to me for many years.
A set photographer has to be determined while remaining quiet, gentle, unseen. Have there been moments when you felt you didn’t want to intrude and disturb an actor in the middle of a difficult performance and at the same time that you had to remain driven to be able to get the picture? How difficult is it to get close while keeping your distance?
This question is the main issue when you are a good photographer on a film set. By the very nature of photography, you have to get in close. As Robert Capa said, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” But on a movie set, you are kept at arms length by the director, by the lighting people, by the actors themselves. It’s an extremely challenging job and to do it well is extremely difficult. And nowadays, sets are so controlled by the marketing people, they are often times impenetrable. My relationship with Wes Anderson has been a particularly happy one because I have been given tremendous access because of our long friendship.
The challenges of any set photographer have been my struggle on every movie. The actors are tired of the set photographer and bored by any request to remain longer on set. Jackie Chan and Anjelica Huston, however, were two of the most cooperative actors I have worked with.
Anjelica Huston and Wes Anderson on the set of “The Royal Tenenbaums”, New York, 2001 | photo by Laura Wilson
There is that beautiful photograph of Anjelica Huston and Wes Anderson on the set of The Royal Tenenbaums, of them both sitting down Anjelica in Wes’ lap with her legs crossed over his. Whose idea was that photo?
That photo was my idea. Wes was sitting on a low wall of the outside entry of the Royal Tenenbaum house, lost in thought, perhaps reviewing scenes that he had shot or was about to shoot when Anjelica came into the doorway. I asked if she would sit next to Wes for a portrait and she, in a lighthearted way, sat in his lap. Wes, who knew Anjelica’s lineage (she is the granddaughter of Walter Huston, and daughter of the great director John Huston), was thrilled. Anjelica is Hollywood royalty.
Speaking of Hollywood royalty, you are working on a book about making movies. Can you tell me a little bit about it, and when will it be published?
I have been working for ten or more years on this book, accumulating pictures of all sorts of people. I now need to work with our designer on the layout of the book and present it to publishers.
What is one misconception people have about Hollywood?
I think the biggest misconception is thinking the behavior of people in Hollywood is isolated to Hollywood when, in fact, people in Hollywood are like everyone else. They have the same ups and downs, talents and shortcomings. They’re just on such a large international stage, we pay more attention.
Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson get the green light, Paramount Studios
Los Angeles, California, 1992 | photo by Laura Wilson
Young Woman with Child, border camp, Arizona-Sonora border, June 30, 2000 | photo by Laura Wilson