The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers (SMPSP) returns to the Academy 's Grand Lobby Gallery. This show includes more than 115 new images, both in color and black & white, taken on film sets by 25 SMPSP members. What is unique about this is that the exhibition depicts the work of the numerous, essential "below-the-line" craftspeople on a movie set.
The images are a glimpse inside the magic achieved during the many long days and nights of shooting a motion picture. The subjects include professions that are rarely seen on the other side of the camera, from animal wranglers, puppeteers, makeup artists, seamstresses, stunt performers and prop masters to grips, gaffers and production assistants. One series of images illustrate how production design and visual effects departments work to prepare sets and stage action sequences.
For the sake of disclosure, I was one of the founding members of the SMPSP back in 1995. I've worked as a motion picture still photographer since the middle 1970's.
The Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers is a nonprofit, honorary organization dedicated to the art of motion picture still photography. SMPSP was founded to promote the archival preservation of still pictures that are shot during the production of motion pictures for their inherent historical and cultural importance. SMPSP also provides a forum for its members to exchange ideas and discuss the ever-changing issues facing still photographers today.
Sometimes referred to as the "Unit Still Photographer," every motion picture has a still photographer on its set to document filming. We photograph the actors working on their scenes and the directors' involvement with the creative process making the movie. Also, for historical purposes, we document the crew, the cameraman, and other craftspeople responsible for the creation of the film.
On the surface it sounds like a dream assignment for a photographer. But I can tell you from personal experience that it's one of the most daunting and difficult situations a photographer can have. It demands that the photographer be stealth (invisible) to get their photographs without disturbing the actor's concentration, the director's intentions, and the crew's ability to do their jobs unhindered. Sometimes, its just plain dangerous when situations, like explosions for example, must be captured on film. You're on your own to figure it all out, to survive, to get along with everyone and most important, to create some great stills.
Many times the still photographer must create a key set of stills, which the studio will then use to help sell the film. How films are marketed and advertised is a huge part of the movie industry with literally hundreds of millions of dollars spent each year by the studios to promote their films. The photographs taken on each film become instrumental in this process.
When big budgets and big stars are involved, the significance of unit stills is tremendous; there is a lot of money at stake. You can find two in depth interviews I've done with Hollywood photographers Douglas Kirkland and Ralph Nelson (here in Samy's Newsletter) that reveal in greater detail the numerous daily challenges that Hollywood still photographers face on motion picture sets.
SMPSP membership is very selective. In order to become a member, applicants must submit a portfolio for membership review. A photographer must be of extraordinary talent, show enormous dedication and have many significant films in their resume. Applicants must also demonstrate a deep commitment to the art of photography.
Andrew Cooper, Melinda Sue Gordon, Francois Duhamel, Brian Hamill, Merie Weismiller Wallace, David James and Rolf Konow are but a few of the highly accomplished members in this group. Each member has made significant contributions to the history of cinema and each if them have explored in detail the elaborate creative process involved in the making of motion pictures. The membership is international and includes some members based in Europe and Australia.