Cinematography by Johanna Heer

BOMB 2 Winter 1982
002 Fall 1982
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Courtesy of Johanna Heer

There is a tree out there. A tree in front of my window. When I walk around the corner, back to my house, there are bums on the street. No, I don’t want to look at them. No, I don’t want to watch that misery… Back in my apartment I sit down and look at the tree. It is big and full. The tree fits right into the frame. My window frame. Bright and green the leaves move gently with the wind. The sky is blue, mild. It is afternoon. The sun sneaks out, it was hiding behind a building. Intensive light floods the scene. All of a sudden. Illumination. Enlightenment. Celebration.

Images from a distant past fade into superimposition. Images, memories, dreams of islands in Greece. There is a desire for clarity and simplicity. Beams of light blend in the eye. In Greece it was, where I first enjoyed being overpowered and purified by these intense white-golden-sharp-glittering sunfloods. In Greece it was, where I finally decided to move to America.

The sun moves slowly behind the trees. White-yellowish light streaks are glowing through the deep dark and green fingers and arms of the tree. I love the green. Light is drawing silhouettes and painting shadows. I love light experiences.

I look and watch. There is a constant change, a constant flow of images. The sun has disappeared, has gone further west. The wind has stopped. The air seems still. The tree has darkened another three f-stops. The tree is spinach green now drowned in the strong marine blue of the sky.

Objects don’t have objective colors. Sun adds and subtracts them as with a brush. Time moves on, the tree has plunged into the black of the night… And here comes the blue eerie morning light…and now some pink, the scales of purples of the dawn, and soon some yellow-red will start to fade in again.

Fascination with light. Cinematography is fascination with light. I love to play like the sun. I love to act like the moon. The lens is my tool. Exposure, the f-stop is a manipulative source like the sun like the moon like tungsten like neon like fluorescent light like power supplies like spot lights soft lights flood lights like carbon-arcs and xenon short arcs etc.

What brushes are to painters, lenses and other technical equipment are to cinematographers. But technology must serve the vision, not dominate it. Only the one with a vision can make full use of the technology, only the one with the knowledge of the technology can make full use of the vision.

Technology is important, it is helpful, it is essential in cinema. The cinematographer is a technologist. Cinematography is a fascination with technical equipment. The one who knows the effect it has on the image––on the colours, on the lighter parts, on the darker parts, on the depth of field, the contrast… The one who knows the effect it has to stop the lens a stop down, is the master of the frame.

I can’t deny it. Cinematography is fascination with technology. Throughout the film history important and brilliant cinematographers have designed new technical tools, have encouraged the creation of improved dollies and cranes, of new lenses, of better film printing methods, have contributed to the invention of more film stocks, have worked to reach perfection on the technique of double exposure, have been involved in pursuing optical printing methods. And these are just a few examples, not to mention video and technical realms which are just about to start… Yes. Cinematography is fascination with technology. Technology is important. But it’s just a tool. That’s all. No big deal. Nothing to worship like a god or to lose your head over and for. Vision comes first.

Through cinematography the visual arts have a chance to travel to a larger audience. Crossover sensibilities. Forget cinema versus art. Cinema is art. Cinema is not storytelling only. Cinema should be explored within the same criteria other visual and performing arts are discussed. Transcending borders. Europe and America. Fusion. No borders. No ghettos. No downtown. No uptown. Diffusion. Modernism. Enlargement. Phantasy. Imagination. Enlightenment.

I love colors. There is an absence of color in New York City life. I look at color samples. I want to eat them. I want to inhale them. I want to take them. Fascination with colors. I enjoy the luxury of raising the colors in the frame, of throwing a light pattern onto the scene, brightening up the hidden secrets, of creating a light streak to shine through the frame, of focusing the light so that the shadows will dance, of permitting the excess to leave the frame. The cinematographer as a painter. The frame as a still photograph. The frame as a painting. Window frames, borders of pictures, gates, doors and other objects serve as lines, as strokes. Composition with gels and filters, I spread the paint around. These are accessories that, along with lighting and film stock, control the color.

They serve as instruments to create the color. I am interested in developing methods which tell the story through colors.

While being deeply devoted to the dramatic language of cinema, my ambition is the creation of an extended definition of cinematography which includes an awareness of references to interrelated fields such as painting and still photography. I do not view these spheres as antagonistic ones but as open territory with unlimited dialectical creative potential.

I want to move. Cinematography is motion. The image moves, the image flies. The camera moves, the image is still. The camera circles around, dances, dollies. Cinematography is fascination with movement. The cinematographer follows the action with a camera hand held. The cinematographer anticipates the next movement the actor’s hand will pursue. The scene will be drawn by the actor’s head and the cinematographer will respond choreographically. Cinematography is fascination with rhythm. The cinematographer as a dancer. The body disciplinary exercises I trained when I studied classical ballet as a kid are of irreplaceable value now to my work as a cinematographer.

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Courtesy of Johanna Heer

As a kid in Vienna I also went a lot to the theatre. I also watched a lot of rehearsals in the theatre. The theatre was my first love. The theatre was the realm of magic, the land of dreams. For a few generations, members of my family have been involved with the theatre, now there are several actors in my family. As a kid some of my happiest memories were when my father took me to the theatre so that I could watch a rehearsal and I skipped school. Don’t get me wrong. I still had to spend much much more time at school than in the theatre but if it had been up to me it would have been the other way around. (Later on I skipped school and went to the movies.)

When a film is made during production it feels to me like theatre. The life action element of cinematography, the theatre element of creating a magic atmosphere where actors take on another identity, where a dream world is created, this luxury of observing and participating in such precious moments where people are permitted to play totally and fully in an atmosphere where imagination and inspiration are the hosts––this aspect of cinematography is maybe the one which attracts my fascination the deepest. To be able to not only watch but to make such moments not disappear, to give them birth and to create the illusion of eternity is what causes the most intriguing feelings. People have associated cameras with tools of aggression, have associated them with guns, but my thoughts make me travel into the opposite direction, to the sources of creation.

The camera gives a moment life long after it has been thrown away.

The camera participates in these moments like an actor. I like to involve the camera like an actor. The cinematographer as an actor. The cinematographer translates a particular mood, particular feelings of particular actors in a particular scene into particular frames. I have to know these feelings. I have to know the mood. The mood of a scene should be familiar to the cinematographer, should be an integral part of the cinematographer’s feelings. You could almost call it method-cinematography. This is not to say that the cinematographer should dive in and indulge excessively emotionally in the scene in order to re-experience some of her or his own past experiences. My point Is that the cinematographer has to be sensitive to the emotional capacity and potential of a scene and react to it sensitively. The gentle touch. The mood, the feelings, the emotion travel in an energy field from the actors and the action place through the camera onto the film. The cinematographer is the medium.

I think it is one of the most challenging aspects of cinematography to constantly shift gears from extremely exact technical precision to intuitive creative channels and emotional experiences of the to be created scene, back and forth, forth and back.

To love theatre also means to love drama. Whereas I focused in the last paragraphs on the relationship between Camera/actor and Camera/Life Theatre event––this is about the relationship of Camera to Script. Cinematography is a fascination with drama. The camera transforms the script onto the frame. When I create a frame I cannot just have the content of this one particular shot in mind which I am doing at this one particular moment. The drama in its entirety has to be all present. The script is the outline. It serves as a guide, a schedule, a map, a timetable. It is visually linear, the cellar of a building, the recipe of a cake. Its drama is incomplete.

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Courtesy of Johanna Heer

The cinematographer needs to know the script. I need to understand the different levels of the story. I need to know the characters. While creating a frame I need to be aware of the momentum of the specific situation plus how this moment relates to the development of previous situations and the ones still to come. As the cinematographer I want to be omniconscious of all the different themes and styles of the film while building a particular shot as a microcosmos of the mosaic to be created––the drama. The cinematographer as dramatist. The cinematographer builds the drama visually.

For instance, we designed Subway Riders as a drama of colors. Each character is represented in and through a different color—because they are different, they live in different worlds, they are disconnected, they are separated from each other, they don’t mix. And when they meet, they only have confrontations, they don’t fuse into some togetherness, they don’t enter in some harmony.

A cinematographer who is exclusively interested in visuals never can be a good cinematographer. The cinematographer has to have an awareness, an interest, a concern for the philosophy, the ideas, the politics of the film as these areas are naturally also portrayed and conveyed in the cinematography. This is a quote from the original program of Apocalypse Now.

“A philosopher and poet as well as artist, Vittorio Storaro defines his work in cinema with a single word––fotografia––the Italian word for photography, which literally means “light writing.” He states that the visual composition of the frame and the camera movement within a shot are simply the words and sentences of a paragraph. The director is responsible for the paragraph and the cinematographer’s contributions make up the sentences within it.”

Which leads us right into the cinematographer-director relationship. This is an association a lot of people have a lot of strange attitudes towards. Filmmaking is a collaboration. The director-cinematographer relationship is a very important delicate bond and it needs to be experienced as an equal relationship between the two of them.

There are cinematographers who believe that they are the ones who create the film and who view directors only as stand-bys. There are directors who believe that cinematographers secretly want to be directors and that they aren’t for some reason (for what reason?) and who look down on them as “just cinematographers.”

After celebrating the producer and the lead actors as the stars of cinema the critic’s eye has focused in the last two decades on the director. Even in reviews which appraise the cinematography of a film you hardly ever even can find the cinematographer’s name mentioned at all. Apart from the acting, in critic’s writing everything goes to the director’s credit. The blind obedient public’s eye of course largely adopts the critic’s point of view.

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Courtesy of Johanna Heer

The Cinematographers––The Forgotten Artists of the American Cinema, is the title of a book by Leonard Maltin. The cinematographer must receive the feedback and criticism which is necessary to initiate and provoke further growth process in cinema. It is time to explore and discuss cinematography in order to give it a chance to develop. But cinematography should be also discussed and explored in a dialectical way with the director’s work.

It would be wrong to knock the director off the throne and put the cinematographer up there. Recently in American Film Andrew Sarris wrote an article with the title “The Cinematographer as Superstar.” Below the subtitle in smaller letters: “Are cameramen outshining directors?” It is a very interesting essay, but I do not approve of the implication that the cinematographer-director relationship should be interpreted as an antagonistic one.

There is such a big need and worship of stars and superheroes in this culture. And this culture is also based on frequent and fast change and exchange. All right, it would be great if finally more attention would be paid to cinematography, but it would be even greater if people could see that the nature of cinema provides different equally important roles for the director and the cinematographer. They profit from each other. Their work should not be-viewed at the expense of each other. The creative process of cinema allows people with different identities to fulfill their own individual creativity and concurrently to interweave this output into the netting of their collaborators’ work. The director and the cinematographer are like the two sides of a coin. They have different functions to fulfill. In cinema, in rare situations one person can and wants to be both. I cannot talk about these exceptions because I have never been involved in any of them. I also do not have space here to discuss the esoteric “avant-garde” moviemaking scene, where the cinematographer’s and director’s role are reduced to one function, though I do have experience with it. I started out as an esoteric filmmaker.

I am writing about cinema. In a good director-cinematographer relationship the director inspires the cinematographer and the cinematographer inspires the director. The fascination is in the mutual growth exchange. Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis. At its best the director-cinematographer relationship is a dialectical one where both transcend their initial limits and expectations. Of course in many situations one or the other will be a better artist, or one will be more efficient and/or advanced but ideally the director and the cinematographer inspire each other mutually and equally. The cinematographer cannot impose some idea in a vacuum uninvited by the director just as the director cannot force the cinematographer into a tool to create something which might be only vaguely in his or her mind.

An ignorant director can ruin a cinematographer. It is like with an actor. A bad director can ruin an actor. A good director permits the actor to try, to achieve some of these special dream performances and encourages the cinematographer to reach one of these rare magic moments which make people still experience some pleasure when they remember these highlights months or even years after they have seen the movie. On set at the center there is the creative triangle between director, cinematographer and actor. The image of the film is realized and materialized in a complex process between the three of them. Don’t try to pick it apart, don’t try to analyze. Don’t try to argue who is more important. It is fusion. It is collaboration. It is like the father-mother function while creating a human being. Different roles for different people. Collaborative creativity at the heart of cinema is the form of a separate artistic identity on one level and of creative fusion on another comes close to the structure of the original creative act, the creation of life, the creation of a human being.

Johanna Heer is the cinematographer of Gordon Stevenson’s Ecstatic Stigmatic and the Director of Photography, Co-Producer and Editor (with Amos Poe) of Subway Riders.

Ed Lachman by Lynn Geller
Ed Lachman on the set of Route 66.
Kinshasa Sound: An Interview with Félicité’s Alain Gomis by Joseph Pomp
Alain Gomis 3

“A film is always an attempt, nothing more, and that allows for a sort of dialogue.”

Jay Scheib by Alix Pearlstein
​Jay Scheib 1

“I’m somewhere between Bresson, Godard, and the NBA.”

Matthew Barney and Gaspar Noé
Barney 01

“My addiction has to do with performance, with creating a very real situation and then dealing with all the physical problems surrounding it.” —Matthew Barney

Originally published in

BOMB 2, Winter 1982

Tim Burns & Jim Jarmusch, ABC No Rio, Charles Ludlam & Christopher Scott, Jacki Ochs, Michael Smith, Mirielle Cervenka, Gary Indiana, Sonia Delauney, and Phillipe Demontaut.

Read the issue
002 Fall 1982