H'wood photo exhib focuses on top lensers

The idea is so intrinsically Hollywood, it’s a wonder it took so long to materialize. Take some of the world’s most venerated cinematographers — whose images are indelibly etched in the minds of film buffs far and wide — and get them to display their private collection of still photography.

And yet the concept surfaced as a lark. Floyd Byars, who with fellow screenwriter Laurie Frank is curating Still/Moving — an ongoing series of photo exhibits at the New Alchemy Gallery by such notable directors of photography as Vilmos Zsigmond, Haskell Wexler and Stephen Goldblatt — spotted a provocative snapshot from the 1992 L.A. riots in, of all places, a fundraising auction at his daughter’s school.

Byars bought the still, taken by indie DP Phil Parmet (“In the Soup”), and took it to a gallery on La Brea to get it framed. “It just sort of dawned on me that a lot of great DPs do great still work, and I said to the owner, ‘You have all this wall space here, why don’t you show their work?.’”

Like many Hollywood development deals, the pitch met with initial enthusiasm, then got relegated to the back burner. By sheer chance, Byars ran into the man who framed his photo, Thomas Parker, three months later. Parker was about to open his own gallery and proposed that they pursue Byars’ concept as partners. “I said, ‘I have a friend (Frank) who’s got a Rolodex the size of the Ritz and great taste, and if she’ll do it with me, then let’s do it,’ ” recalls Byars.

The first opening in May — which showcased the work of Parmet and Oscar winner Zsigmond (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “The Deer Hunter”) — drew a packed house comprised of a mix of insiders from the indie film and gallery worlds, as well as esteemed DPs John Toll (“Legends of the Fall,” “Braveheart”) and Lazlo Kovacs (“Shampoo,” “New York, New York”). Parmet’s work was especially well received, attracting such buyers as actors Steve Buscemi and Robert De Niro and directors Jonathan Demme and Roger Donaldson.

“I’ve had shows, but never shows where things were sold,” says Parmet, whose stark, photojournalistic style can be traced back to his work with Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple (“American Dream,” “Harlan County USA”). “It’s very in-your-face kind of photography, not the kind of stuff you’d normally want to hang in your house.”

Even in a town of self-proclaimed cineastes, the work of cinematographers is rarely acknowledged outside their own peer group. To members of the American Society of Cinematographers, the tightest mutual admiration society in Hollywood, guys like Zsigmond, Wexler and Conrad Hall — all ASC lifetime achievement honorees — are superstars. But on a feature shoot, the director still is credited as the primary creative force, even if a seasoned DP can make an ordinary director shine.

In the Still/Moving exhibits, however, these masters of light become, in effect, their own auteurs.

“Film is such a collaborative medium, these talents have no opportunity to be the star,” Frank says. “If people appreciate cinematographers, they can focus on their work and even take a piece of it home.”

Adds Parmet: “Moving film and still photography are very different disciplines. The cinematography I do is part of a collective effort trying to realize the director’s vision. When I’m a still photographer, I am the master of my own fate.”

In the three shows so far, Byars and Frank have made it a habit to pair a well-known cinematographer with a lesser-known talent, with the results being exhibits of a consistently high caliber. From Zsigmond’s elegiac studies of Hungary in the ’50s to Goldblatt’s iconographic pop portraits from the ’60s to documentarian Christine Burrill’s Hockney-like photocollages to Karl Herrmann’s lush rock- and-sandscapes that recall the work of Edward Weston, the Still/Moving series has shown remarkable range and personality.

The exhibits also double as a kind of journal of the cinematographer’s life. Zsigmond’s work spans from the early ’50s to the present, while Parmet’s photos were culled from the last three decades. Mike Figgis, whose work is paired with indie film and commercial director John Drake in the exhibit that opened Nov. 14, includes shots that date back to age 12, when he first picked up a camera.

Writer-director Figgis, who’s worked as second cameraman on all his films, including “Leaving Las Vegas” and the upcoming “Loss of Sexual Innocence,” takes pains to say his photos will not concentrate on his films.

“I have a really perverse relationship as a photographer on film sets, because I always feel they look great, but I know they’re not real,” Figgis says. “And photography for me is a different form of reality than filmmaking. It tests your ability to see an image that you haven’t constructed yourself, and to frame it and instinctively go with it.”

The exhibits have developed such a following, at least within industry circles, that plans to take them to Paris and London are in the works. Also, Byars and Frank are organizing a museum show of Bertolucci DP Vittorio Storaro in conjunction with an upcoming LACMA retrospective of Storaro’s work.

And there’s talk of resurrecting the photos of the late Nestor Almendros, whose collaborations with Truffaut and Terrence Malick (“Days of Heaven”) made him a legend.

“These exhibits are the best that the industry has to offer,” says Frank, “a part of Hollywood that’s really a celebration of people as artists rather than as merchants.”

The New Alchemy Gallery is located at 6909 Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles.

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