• Stills of Memory: Monochrome Magic of Movies

    I’m pretty sure I loved movies before I loved photography. What I mean is from childhood on, I have loved how movies look and the way the images string together, how they reveal a story through visuals. I wasn’t (and still am not) always drawn to the narrative but to cinematic language of film.

    After I started taking photographs as a young adult, I began to understand just how strongly I was impressed by movies.

    I grew up in the 1970s when broadcast television still regularly showed old black and white movies. My memory of sick days or rainy weekends (there were a lot in Seattle) are marked by hours spent half asleep in front of our family’s console color television watching Hollywood movies in so many shades of grey, shadows, and light.

    My father worked swing-shift, so early afternoons in the summer also meant eating lunch on T.V. trays watching Westerns, gangster movies, and detective sagas. Of course there were gameshows and soap operas to choose, but more often than not, the movies were a strong pull. I’m sure my sense of time was off, too, because it always seemed like the movies went on and on, lasted much longer than the 90 or so minutes I know they were.

    These were cinematic worlds that held very little resemblances to the one I lived in, and maybe that was also the draw, at least for me. Black and white was fantasy and beauty, drama and humor, exuberance and melancholy. Even if they weren’t always ‘cool,’ they were always mesmerizing.

    Those images and stories have stayed with me. I love classic Hollywood movies. I love the black and white ones most of all. They don’t seem to date for me and maybe that is because those world’s were never really my worlds to begin with.

    I think my own visual aesthetic is deeply informed by those movies, when I take photographs and when I view them. It’s hard to shake those early impressions or the context in which they were made. I was born in Saigon, Vietnam in the late 1960s, and there my grandmother took be matinees to see Hong Kong movies, many I have only faint recollections of beyond flashes of color, swords, fighting, and brightness. In America a few years later, movies were a touchstone and an entry to place & culture, especially as an immigrant child learning English and American culture.

    I don’t remember how important to me or well understood the words were in Saigon or in Seattle: I’m not sure I cared or could fully understand in either context. But the images? Those frames and sequences on the screen: they did the trick, even if they aren’t quite accurate. There’s plenty of room for “between-ness” in monochrome–of something being neither black or white. The liminal space, not unlike what I was feeling myself swaying in a bicultural and biracial youth. There is also beauty. Sometimes beauty brings sense and calm unlike anything else.

    I have a different understanding, I guess, after spending this morning looking at and thinking about movies, about black and white film as aesthetic and comfort for why I am drawn to my own photography through the monochromatic lens. It feels at once like an exotic adventure and also so very much like home: a way to see and a place to be.


    Metropolis 1927 director: Fritz Lang / cinematographer: Karl Freund, Günther Rittau, Walter Ruttmann

    Pandora’s Box 1929 director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst / cinematographer: Günther Krampf

    Grapes of Wrath 1940 director: John Ford / cinematographer: Greg Toland

    Notorious 1946 director: Alfred Hitchcock / cinematographer: Ted Tetzlaff

    Sunset Boulevard 1950 director: Billy Wilder / cinematographer: John F. Seitz

    Touch of Evil 1958 director: Orson Welles / cinematography: Russell Metty

    Psycho 1960 director: Alfred Hitchcock / cinematographer: Joseph Stefano

    Breathless 1960 director: Jean-Luc Godard / cinematographer Raoul Coutard

    The Last Picture Show 1971 director: Peter Bogdanovich cinematographer: Robert Surtees