For all the exciting lives they live, photographers seldom are swashbuckling heroes in films. I have always wondered why that is; after all, on Planet Hollywood, writers, professors, and lawyers — people who are so boring in real life – got thrown into a global conspiracy every week, and even archeologists lead exciting lives.
Robert Kincaid, also, never existed but that didn’t stop hundreds of people writing to National Geographic demanding more info about the photographer whose story on covered bridges in Iowa graced the cover of the magazine in May 1966. Kincaid was the subject of the book and the movie “The Bridges of Madison County“. The magazine was a mock up; the real edition that month had the Golden Gate Bridge on its cover.
War photographers enjoyed a brief vogue in the 1980s. Photographers in The Killing Fields, Apocalypse Now, Salvador, and Under Fire were partially based upon many real-life photographers who covered those tumultuous years in Cambodia, Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua respectively. (Watchmen parodied this with fictional Alan Guillon). Linda Hunt won an Oscar for playing Billy Kwan, a Chinese-Australian dwarf photographer in The Year of Living Dangerously, setting against the background of a failed coup against President Sukarno of Indonesia in 1965.
But two most exciting films about photographers are unexpectedly centered on fashion photographers. Blowup by Michelangelo Antonioni begins with what is probably the sexiest scene sans nudity in film history, and follows Thomas Hemmings (an amalgam of the swinging London’s top photonames) as he accidentally captures a murder in one of his photos. Or did he?
Thomas’s female counterpart is, no doubt, the titular character inEyes of Laura Mars. Mars, a glamor fashion photographer, whose images are often criticized for glorifying violence and demeaning women, was thrust into the middle of a police investigation when a series of unsolved murders closely mirror her fashion shoots.
On film, camera often is treated as a priapic instrument and photographers as fatalists and voyeurs. Nowhere is this encapsulated better than in Robert Capa-inspired L.B. Jefferies, the hero(?) of the film considered as the ultimate camera-movie, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In Midnight Meat Train, Femme Fatale, Closer, and even in that quirky comedy Pecker, this is proven to be true.
Unlike film photographers, print photographers are a curious mixture of lovers, killers, cynics and sleuths. In Ronit Matalon’s Bliss, an Israeli photographer pursues a doomed affair with a Palestinian man. The protagonist of Douglas Kennedy’s The Big Picture kills his wife’s lover and assumes the latter’s identity as a lensman. Julie Hecht’s unnamed narrator, she of many short stories and the novel The Unprofessionals, explores the mundane and tawdry periphery of modern existence with her idiosyncratic photo-essays (flowers in decline, reproductive surgeons and their dogs). There is a sleuth in Kay Farrow (The Magician’s Tale by David Hunt), an achromat — someone who is completely color blind rather than the much more usual red-green variety — who is kept from the blinding daylight by her condition, and who explores the underbelly of San Francisco night life in gritty black-and-white photos.
Schemes, entanglements and women who kept getting into his bed thwart Nicholas Almaza’s bildung in The Adventures of a Photographer in La Plata. Another Germanic affliction, this time that of weltschmerz, plagues glamor photographer and inveterate womanizer Carter Cox in Keith Kachtick’s Hungry Ghost. In Afterimage by Helen Humpherys, a Victorian girl (modeled on photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron) dreams about a creative career as a photographer.
Often a generational gap is bridged via photographic memories in novels. In Peter Henisch’s Negatives of My Father, the rocky relationship between the narrator and his well-known photographer father were explored via the photos his father took as a leading photojournalist for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front. Conor Lyons searches for his rootless photographer father across four countries and two continents via negative fragments in Collum McCann’s Songdongs. In Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hands, two self-destructive photographers, Cass Neary, who documents punk’s most squalid moments and Aphrodite Kamestos, the photographer of the ’60s counterculture fringe, find a common bond in their morbid nihilistic visions of the infamous, the damned, and the dead.
It’s the photography that got small for larger-than-life Maude Coffin Pratt, the heroine of Paul Theroux’sPicture Palace, who witnessed the history of photography unfolds itself before her lens. Pratt began her career taking photos of her brother (with whom she was incestuously obsessed) and ended up capturing the century’s greatest literary minds from e e cummings to Hemingway. In between, she also photographed black servants, blind people and a pathetic “Pig Dinner” at which circus acrobats perform in the nude (which made her famous).
While it is a study of trials, traumas and tribulations of a war photographer’s life, The Painter of Battles by Arturo Pérez-Reverte was mainly about the fallout from an iconic photo. On one side, there is Andrés Faulques, the retired combat photographer haunted by the battles he photographed and by the girlfriend he lost. On the other side is Ivan Markovic, a young Croatian soldier whose face came to symbolize defeat after Faulques immortalized the Croatian Army’s retreat from the Serbian onslaught at Vukovar.
Another Manichean clash was at the center of Del Corso’s Gallery: the friction between the titular photographer who insouciantly photographed mangled corpses and his former mentor P. X. Dunlop who won Pulitzer for his artful portraits of dignity and sacrifice on the battlefields of Beirut and Vietnam. In the background enfolded a larger picture of photographers’ divorce from reality and atrocities by a thin layer of glass — a theme often explored in novels about war photography, such as The Lotus Eaters, where the battlefield is once again Vietnam.