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Roger Deakins Opens Up About the Personal Photography in His First Book, ‘Byways’

The legendary cinematographer is publishing for the first time a collection of his still photos that date back to the '70s.

A photo taken in 2007 by Roger Deakins shows chimneys beyond a playground in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg area.

With a career that spans four decades, includes 15 Oscar nominations, two wins, and credits on modern classics like “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Blade Runner 2049,” cinematographer Roger Deakins’ work is some of the most recognizable in the business. But there’s a side of Deakins’ creative output that’s been less visible over his many years in Hollywood: his personal photography.

Some of Deakins’ photos are now being printed for the very first time in “Byways,” a book due out next week from Damiani. Deakins has rarely shown his photographs publicly and this marks the first time they’ve been published as a collection. Deakins likens his photography to a sketchbook, something “very personal.” Still, his command of light and eye for composition is as evident in his snapshots as it is in his cinematography.

Starting as a hobby in his youth, Deakins soon dreamed of turning his photography into a career. Of course, he would end up finding great success in motion pictures instead. But he often carries his still camera with him, from jaunts around his hometown of Devon, England; to New Mexico, using the last of the light for one last shot after “Sicario” wrapped for the day; and on to New Zealand and Mozambique and Rapa Nui and Budapest and plenty more stunning locations.

The photos published in the book date back to the 1970s. His preference then, before the advent of digital cameras, was to shoot black and white film; he would process the negatives himself in a darkroom set up in the basement of his Santa Monica home. He’s long since transitioned to digital, but some of his early inclinations still stick.

Deakins spoke to IndieWire about his photography in an interview published below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: How do you approach your cinematography work and how does that differ from the approach you take with your personal photography?

Roger Deakins: People try and relate the two, but I’m not sure they are. Anything you do creating images, it’s about composition and light within the frame. But other than that, I don’t think there’s any connection for me.

It very much is a way I relax. I like exploring different places, I like very much exploring the same places. And observing people. Taking the camera’s my excuse. I don’t really relate it to film. I like working on film because I like the camaraderie: I like working with a director, I like working on something that’s part of more than just me. Photographs are personal to me, they’re just like sketches. There’s some sense of humor in the photos I take.

The photos in “Byways” are all black and white. Why is that?

I find it hard taking color photographs. I see in black and white, in some strange way. I think color can be a distraction — it certainly can be in cinema, in films. I think there’s very few still photographers who can work in color. I used to shoot black and white film, now I shoot a color file and use Photoshop.

What was your process of choosing which photos to include in the book? How do you have your work stored?

Most are actually scanned prints. I make quite large prints and just scan them. I found that gave me better quality than scanning the negative.

I’ve always selected as I’ve gone along over the years. I’ve never really kept a huge number of negatives. I don’t take too many shots. I rarely take a shot unless I’m really confident there’s something there. I’ve been quite selective as I’ve gone along.

What do you hope people take away from the book?

I’ve taken photographs most of my life. And I thought, “Well, what are you going to do with it?” The book was published by Damiani in Italy, they were very encouraging. But what people take from it, I don’t know.

James [his wife] and I really didn’t want to do anything that was about movies. That’s why it was hard to get it published. They wanted that book, they wanted a behind-the-scenes book. This is not that. This is something that was very personal to me — it’s like my sketchbook.

There’s one photo on the back cover that I took on set that’s tongue-in-cheek, there’s no actors.

Do you have a favorite photo from the book?

I think my favorite photograph is a lady standing at a bus stop in the rain in Weston-super-Mare. The woman’s looking at a poster of a naked girl lying in the sun. I like that photograph because it’s kind of enigmatic — you wonder what the woman’s thinking about. Is she thinking about her age, wishing she were young? Or she’s thinking of the weather, wishing is was sunny. Or was she shocked by the poster?

More information on how to purchase “Byways” is available here.

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