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Influencers: Ed Lachman Looked Back to Expand the Cinematographer’s Paintbox

The "Dark Waters" cinematographer is one of IndieWire's craftspeople shaping the art of cinema today.

Director of photography Edward Lachman on the set of DARK WATERS, a Focus Features release. Credit : Mary Cybulski / Focus Features

Director of photography Edward Lachman on the set of “Dark Waters.”

Mary Cybulski/Focus Features

Walk into an event at the yearly gathering of cinematographers at Poland’s Camerimage Film Festival and you are likely to find Ed Lachman, the unassuming DP with his trademark hat, tucked away in a back corner holding court as a collection of his celebrated colleagues hang on his every word. They aren’t simply there to hear how Lachman created the look of a chemically-tainted light on his most recent film, “Dark Waters” — or one of the dozens of his peers’ “how the hell did Ed do that?” queries — but also how a master like Robby Müller sculpted low light, or Sven Nykvist studied natural light, or Vittorio Storaro manufactured his chiaroscuro light. Lachman serving as a common thread to these three diverse pillars of the craft, each of whom he considers a close mentor, having studied under and worked for them as he learned the craft himself.

Lachman’s knowledge, though, far pre-dates the great European art films of the ’60s and ’70s. His longtime colorist Joe Gawler tells the story of being brought in to supervise Criterion’s remastering of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s technicolor melodramas with Lachman. “It was incredible how Ed knew everything about what they did to shoot these films back in the day,” Gawler told IndieWire. “He’s like a mad scientist, this encyclopedia of film history, lenses, lights filters, technique and practices.”

In his own practice as a cinematographer, Lachman has used this knowledge to enrich his palette. Whether it’s recreating the manufactured studio look of Douglas Sirk’s ’50s Universal melodramas while shooting on real locations (“Far From Heaven”), or shooting an entire film so it looks like a mid-century Saul Leiter color photograph (“Carol”), or producing images that look like ’70s stock footage of New York while using our modern grainless film stocks (“Wonderstruck”), Lachman takes a forensic approach to adapt a look and recreate the tools of the past. It’s been an extremely influential approach that more than anything has helped steer today’s period movies away from the tea-stained filtering being put between the modern viewer and stories of the past.

Yet it’s a mistake to reduce Lachman’s cinematography to his virtuoso recreation of period style — for Lachman it is always about the ideas behind the images, the way cinematic language of different eras can mirror society and the culture of the time. It’s for this reason that in his collaboration with director Todd Haynes, who takes a semiotic approach to images, that Lachman’s career soared to new heights. Haynes intentionally calls attention to the filmmaking apparatus and forces the viewer to be conscience of his relationship to the past on screen, while at the same time participating in the emotion of the story. Lachman, in turn, supplies the canvas and tools the two collaborators need to paint the emotion inside Haynes’ theoretical framework.

“It just sounds so silly and banal, but Ed is such an artist and he’s such an art nerd,” Haynes told IndieWire. “We both love the image, we love collecting the references, watching the movies, thinking of photography and painting and just purely a visual relevance to what we’re doing, but this is of course in a way the most non-intellectual part because it’s purely about color and form and composition. It’s beyond maybe even narrative emotion, because it’s sometimes just gut emotion where you respond to a warm palette over a cool palette.”

Haynes tells IndieWire he sometimes even needs to remind Lachman where they are in a scene while shooting, because the cinematographer dives straight into color and form in an almost abstract sense. “He really is like a painter, more so than any other cinematographer I’ve ever met,” said Haynes.

Having gone to fine arts school in Paris, to become a painter, when he fell in love with film, and then going to the unorthodox, collaborative film program on the Athens campus of Ohio University, Lachman entered the American film industry rooted in distinctly non-Hollywood traditions. Always more concerned with a director’s artistic intentions, he has never let his distinct skill set be utilized as a style generator for the studios’ more manufactured fare. His body of work, even beyond the masterworks with Haynes — David Byrne’s “True Stories,” Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala,” Steven Soderbergh’s “The Limey,” Sofia Coppola’s “Virgin Suicides,” Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy — has served as a north star for international and indie cinematographers unwilling to compromise and accept their practice as an art form itself.

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