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DP Nancy Schreiber Captures Life of Artist Robert Mapplethorpe in Grimy Gotham

Don’t tell cinematographer Nancy Schreiber that she’s having a renaissance. That would imply there’ve been slumps in her long career, and she won’t have any of that, even if for a time she was taking smaller jobs as the gaps widened between larger gigs.

“It’s never been about the money, for me,” says Schreiber over the phone as she preps to leave for five months to shoot a TV series in Atlanta. “It’s about the passion, the project, the director, the script and the actors attached. I would have been a banker if I were focused on money.”

Robert Mapplethorpe wasn’t focused on money either — at least not at first. The famed New York City artist, known for his sexually provocative photographs, is the subject of Schreiber’s latest film, “Mapplethorpe,” directed by Ondi Timoner, a two-time Sundance Grand Prize winner. The movie, which debuted in the Tribeca Film Festival, was released March 1 by Samuel Goldwyn Films. The film follows Mapplethorpe as he discovers himself sexually and artistically, advancing from the city’s underbelly to a world of bohemian chic. He photographs artists, musicians, film stars and members of the S&M underground, struggling for recognition even as he succumbs to self-destructive impulses.

Although they didn’t know each other, Mapplethorpe and Schreiber both lived in New York City in the 1970s, when they were in their 30s. The artist (who died of AIDS in 1989) was born on suburban Long Island, and the DP moved to New York after graduating from the University of Michigan with degrees in psychology and art history. 

Wanting to branch out from her academic background, she answered an ad in The Village Voice for a job on a movie as a production assistant. Over the next few years, she worked her way up from PA to gaffer, learning cinematography on the job. 

Having grown up shooting stills as a kid in a family with a long history of art appreciation, she realized early on that lighting is key to successful photography. As she advanced, she mixed the genres on which her work appeared. “It’s never been about one type of project,” she says. “I did television, docs, shorts, commercials. And independent film, which is wonderful because the directors have such passion.”

In February 2017, Schreiber became the first woman to receive the President’s Award from the American Society of Cinematographers. But to her, far more rewarding than the trophy is the good fortune she feels to be working in a craft that’s full of camaraderie while still providing a steady stream of challenges.

“Challenging” is a term that appropriately describes “Mapplethorpe.” It took Timoner a decade to get the film off the ground; shooting began with one week to go before the story rights expired. The 19-day shoot, covering a period spanning 25 years, taxed the film’s crafts departments. Only one camera was available most of the time, although for scenes that required more coverage, the production was able to secure two cameras.

In a somewhat rare decision, Schreiber forsook the popular digital route and shot on Kodak 16mm with an Arri 416 film camera. “It was so freeing,” she says. Film was processed at Kodak’s new lab on Long Island City. She adds with a smile, “It was like seeing an old friend, walking into that lab.” 

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