As a new exhibition showcases a collection of images shot by the influential DoP over more than 50 years, he talks us through the salient moments of his career and what it took to get there
Legendary, Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins spent years wondering what to do with his photographs —“why take them if they are never seen?” — until the multiple Covid-induced lockdowns persuaded him to gather them into a book. “We were lucky to find in Damiani a publisher that was both enthusiastic and supportive,” Deakins tells Re-Edition of the publishing house behind BYWAYS: a thorough exploration of his love of still photography, spanning over five decades of artistic activity.
Launched in August 2021, the book, which is Deakins’ first monograph, comprises a collection of images emblematic of the Academy Award winner’s time off feature films. “I have always loved the process of interpreting what is around me in an image,” he says, explaining how, as a child and teenager, that brought him to experiment with painting — the first artistic medium he ever tried his hand at. Elaborating on the context in which the photographs featured in the volume were shot, he adds that still photography is something he pursues on the rare occasions when he has only himself “to answer to regarding both the choice of an image and the moment at which this one is taken”.
Weaving together a vast series of black and white shots lensed between 1969 and today, BYWAYS traces the evolution of Deakins’ unique gaze from his first photography assignment on behalf of North Devon’s Beaford Arts Centre to recently captured scenes reminiscent of a time already passed. “Perhaps it is the nostalgia for things that haven’t changed that draws me to them,” he confesses, talking about the vision uniting the photographs inhabiting the book. “Another connection might be simplicity,” adds Deakins, who argues that the same principle also informed his choice of sticking to monochromatic photography, thus following in the footsteps of pioneering image-makers including Bill Brandt, Edward Weston, Robert Capa, Alfred Steiglitz, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Cartier Bresson.
Whether of the seaside and rural landscapes of Deakins’ English childhood or depicting the compelling views he encountered on his travels around the globe, the photographs contained in BYWAYS speak of a world filled with unexpected contradictions and his desire to immortalise them. “I love images both for what they can make me feel and the stories they can tell,” he says. As for the irony permeating his visual craft, the cinematographer recounts being drawn to situations that pose questions he can’t seem to find an answer to — “why is there a statue of Michelangelo’s David in a Dartmouth alleyway? — hence sparking his imagination. Speaking of his first monograph as a project reflecting “a different side” of his life, Deakins says he hopes “people will genuinely enjoy the images, regardless of who took them or why”.
On the occasion of Roger A. Deakins: BYWAYS, a new exhibition opening at Santa Monica’s Peter Fetterman Gallery on September 17, and featuring original photographs from the book along with previously unseen images, we speak with the groundbreaking British cinematographer to learn about the ins and outs of his passion for photography, what cinema has meant to him so far, and what still inspires him to keep on going.
Re-Edition: With 15 Academy Awards nominations, two Oscars, and five BAFTA Awards for Best Cinematography, you’re one of the most influential cinematographers of all time. What were the years that preceded your successful career like?
RD: I remember being confused and insecure as a boy. The few times I thought about the future I never saw one remotely similar to the way in which mine turned out. When at school, I spent long hours in the art department, and when not at school, I could be found down by the sea with a fishing rod. Often, I could be found there both before school and after school. Some nights I would sleep on the rocks and only briefly visit home for a wash and change of clothes before walking to school.
At eighteen, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, but knowing very definitely what I didn’t want to do with my life, I applied to art college. This was as much a statement of rebellion against what was expected of me as it was my imagining that this would be a way to continue with my love of painting. It was only at art college that I discovered photography, and only at film school that I first handled a film camera. By the time I began to learn my craft I was 23 years old.
RE: What led you to approach the photographic medium?
RD: My mother was a fashion model and at the beginnings of a career as an actress before the war intervened. I only recently found out that she was driving a London ambulance during the blitz. She was in the Women’s Arm Core and my father was in the SAS. They met at a party in 1945 and made their home where my father grew up in Torquay. Sadly, my mother had MS and died when I was very young. Painting and drawing were ways for me to connect with her whilst she was bedridden.
I went to Art College thinking that I would paint but in four years I painted not a single picture. I had not been granted a place in the fine art department but one studying Graphic Design instead. I never had any intention to be a graphic designer, so I spent my days either in the printing department, wandering the countryside with my camera, or in the photographic darkroom. My final year exhibition consisted of photographs, etchings, and lithographs with little on show that could be termed ‘graphic design’.
Occasionally, Roger Mayne came in as a guest lecturer on photography. He quite bluntly told us that he couldn’t teach us photography since “how we captured the world around us” was our responsibility. I found that to be a completely honest and refreshing point of view. I was not only inspired by his personal work, which was some of the most innovative street photography of its time, but I also saw something of myself in Roger Mayne. He seemed like a very private person who had found a way of expressing himself in such a beautiful way.
RE: Can you share any insights into your first photography commission, which features among the images contained in BYWAYS?
RD: During my last year at Art College, I applied to the National Film School, but I doubt whether I was in the right state of mind at that time to make the most of the opportunity had I been accepted. I am incredibly grateful to Rosemary Ellis, principal of Bath Academy, who saw my passion for the photographic image rather than for Graphic Design and guided me to the Beaford Arts Centre.
My brief was to record the fast-disappearing rural way of life in North Devon. The world I was trying to capture there in the early 1970s was no doubt quite like the Devon of the post-war years. Little had changed at that time, which was the point of the assignment I was given.
As I quickly found out, it is not easy photographing people without gaining their trust beforehand, and doing so can take a while. By the end of nine months, I felt I had started to become part of the community, but it was then a little late to take full advantage of that.
Nonetheless, during that one year in North Devon I developed my passion for the photographic image so that, when I was finally accepted to the National Film School, I knew for certain that it was documentary filmmaking that I wanted to be involved in. I also knew that, to this point in my life, I had been wasting time and that now I was going to make the most of the opportunity that four years at the National Film School afforded me.
RE: With Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), you became the first Western cinematographer to use the ‘bleach bypass’ film processing technique to retain the silver in the print. Through your work on the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), you established yourself as the first cinematographer to have ever digitally colour-corrected a film in its entirety. You have re-adapted your style to match the artistic ideas of dozens of directors, but what are the key components of your work?
RD: I strive for naturalism and to create images that are immersive rather than ones that draw attention to themselves. In this, my use of camera movement can be quite minimal as can be my lighting. But every story is different as is every director. I don’t think I have a particular style, instead, it seems that I am starting from scratch every time I begin work on a film. A film is, of course, primarily a director’s vision but it is also moulded by the many creative department heads involved in it. Film is a collaborative process and being part of a collaborative team is something that I love about it.