When Behind-the-Scenes Movie Photos Finally See the Light
What it’s like to be an on-set photographer
They dress in black. The crawl, they climb. Always looking. They hide around corners, doing their best to blend into the background.
Always waiting to shoot.
Known as set still photographers or unit still photographers, their job is simple: take thousands of photos on the set of a film as it’s being produced.
Document everything that happens.
Capture the entire process of filmmaking: what is happening behind the scenes, what is happening on camera. Those images will then be used to create the advertisements and posters for the film.
“One of the first unions in Hollywood was the Still Photographers Union, which morphed into the Cinematographers Guild,” Nicola Goode, co-president of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers, explained.
“There’s been a still photographer on film sets since probably 1915.”
How to Become a Unit Photographer
The most common route to becoming a set still photographer is by doing a half dozen or so non-union shoots on small or independent films. Once a small portfolio is created, the aspiring photographer joins the union, applies for work and hopefully, eventually, lands a job.
If their work is good and they can figure out how to stay out of the way on set, they will continue to get hired.
Sounds glamorous, right? You get to rub shoulders with the stars, eat free food all day and snap pictures on beautiful sets lit by the best in their field. Like shooting fish in a barrel.
Not so fast. First of all, it’s tough to break into. Only one full time photographer is allowed on each set.
And then there is the small matter of production. Crew members may ask the photographer to get lost every now and then.
“There definitely are certain situations where they might ask the photographer not to shoot because of privacy or because of scenes that are more intimate or just difficult for an actor,” Goode continued, “and because we’re the one job actually that doesn’t have anything to do with what goes on the screen, we can be asked to leave if the set is tight and if nerves are running high.”
But when the tensions subside, Goode said, “We get asked, ‘Where are the pictures?’ Everyone wants to see the stills.”
“There are many, many actors, and even directors, who are acutely aware of when the still photographer’s around and consider it a burden because it doesn’t take a still photographer to make a movie,” SMPSP co-president Merie Weismiller Wallace said.
“But it does take a still photographer to sell a movie, and to show the movie, and to archive the movie, and to have the moments go down in history.”
Some photographers who make their way on a set are there at the bequest of magazines or collectors who want their own photos from the film.
David Strick worked for years for magazines like Premiere and newspapers like the Los Angeles Times, where he would contact certain film productions who would grant him access to their set for the day.
“Unit photographers are basically always the nicest person on any given set,” Strick said, “because if you’re a photographer, you’re sort of by nature in the way a little bit. You’re not part of the actual production process. You’re the person that’s moving around behind the camera, that distracts the actor, or you’re the person that wants to shoot somebody candid between scenes. So they tend to have to be people that everybody on the crew just loves, to forgive them for being interruptive. And they have to find ways of being harmless and nice.”
“Basically, you couldn’t find a group of people who are more adapted to sociability than unit photographers.”
Strick jokingly says he is an honorary member, but not a full member. “I’m not nearly as nice or as harmless. I’m much more in-the-way and obnoxious. Because I’m from the outside. I haven’t been fully trained,” he said with a chuckle.
Sharing an Important Part of Film History
“Decades from now, when we look back at the famous filmmakers, whether they’re production designers or directors or cinematographers, their process is documented and it’s archived somewhere. Today, all those archives are dark,” Wallace said.
“And part of what the SMPSP is trying to do is bring the archives to light, and, with the things that are being made now, archive them carefully because digital archiving is different from analog, and a lot of things have been lost because they weren’t really understood or valued,” she concluded.
One of the ways to bring them to light is to participate in ways that will get the images printed and presented in front of the public.
Currently, the Academy is hosting an exhibition at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study that includes dozens of these images.
“We are very happy to have this collection here at the Academy as part of our many, many collections,” Randy Haberkamp, the Academy’s Managing Director of Preservation and Foundation Programs, said at the exhibition’s opening in June. “But even though we have studio collections, paparazzi collections, newspaper and magazine photographs… the one thing I will say is this collection is very special to us.”
Way back in 1996, Robert Cushman, the Academy Library’s Photograph Curator, and Linda Meher, its Director, were invited to the inaugural photograph exhibition in Santa Monica featuring the work of various members of the SMPSP, which was new at the time.
“We were absolutely stunned by what we saw,” Meher recalled. “These were amazing photographs on contemporary films, the likes of which had not really been seen, at least not in the standard press kits that were sent out to promote current films. They were unusual behind-the-scenes shots (cast and crew, sets, equipment, locations), and interesting portraits that told another part of the film story, a critical part of our cultural history.”
“Still photographers shoot a vast quantity, but only a fraction are used in promotion. Cushman and I suggested that these photographs — the photographer's picks — would be something the Margaret Herrick Library would be delighted to preserve and make available for research and exhibitions.”
“Our SMPSP collection is currently at 727 prints representing 40 photographers. Photographs from this collection have been shown in numerous outside exhibitions by the SMPSP, as well as at the Academy’s Wilshire building, and currently at the Pickford Center,” Meher said.
One shot currently on display is Goode’s. It’s a somber image from “Waiting to Exhale” (1995) of Whitney Houston behind the wheel of a white convertible. It’s candid, moody and beautiful.
“The work of still photographers on set, certainly I think has been overlooked,” Goode said. “There might be thousands and thousands of pictures taken over the course of one film being made. Only a small selection ends up becoming part of the press kit, and a lot of the images don’t get seen. So a show like this is very important.”
by Tony Pierce
A Single Frame: Celebrating Twenty Years of the Society of Motion Picture Still Photographers, an exhibition of 35 set photos that were taken during film productions all over the world by unit still photographers, is on display at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood through the end of 2017.