Shooting Still Lifes: A Photographer on Set

*Photographing movies can be tricky business, but emerging stills photographer Kimberley French has built a solid career on carefully crafted relationships with her movie star subjects.*

It may surprise some to learn that stills photography-the practice of documenting the every day actions on a film set for later use in publicity, as well as for posterity-can be a controversial occupation. On a congested and tense set, emotions are high (see: the Christian Bale incident), and an actor will sometimes exercise control by way of the stills photographer.

"Kicking the photographer off the set is one of the cards an actor will play, and no one on set is watching out for you," says Kimberley French, an emerging star in the stills industry. But French, whose big break came when she was hired to photograph Brokeback Mountain, has learned how to maneuver the job's difficulties through subtle relationships-with amazing photos as her reward.

"My relationship with the actors is the most important," she explains. "They have to be comfortable with you being there, and it has to be established right away. It's a trust issue; they have to trust that you won't take more than you need."

While French has intoned this skill of easing her way into an actor's good graces from every film she's worked on since her debut, she has been particularly fortunate to work consistently with actors who-contrary to the aforementioned tendencies-appreciate her as a photographer. Aaron Eckhart, Brad Pitt, and the late Heath Ledger are known for their interest in photography (American Photo even featured Eckhart's photos in its March/April 2008 issue), and their admiration led to intimate photos for French-and bonds that a stills photographer doesn't always make.

"As an actor, when you develop that relationship with the photographer, you get enthusiastic, you start trying things," explains Eckhart, who French worked with on the upcoming film, Traveling. "You let her in, you let her close. A lot of times there are scenes where you don't want a photographer there because you have to break down, or they're long takes, but Kimberley manages to become part of the background. It allows her into an actor's world, and she's able to get intimate shots that other photographers wouldn't."

This is perhaps best illustrated by French's first big-time studio picture, which featured Heath Ledger. French met him on a movie set when he was visiting then-girlfriend Naomi Watts, and when they met again on the set of Brokeback the two instantly bonded over cameras and cigarettes. As a result, French was able to capture poignant photos of the actor. "It felt really great from the start, that I already had a relationship with one of the actors," French muses. "And it just continued."

"Heath would let me get so close to his eyeline. Getting in an actor's eyeline-between them and the camera or another actor, or whatever they think they're looking at-is a big deal. He also later allowed me to shoot him while he was concentrating on his lines."

On one such occasion, when Ledger was pacing back and forth rehearsing a scene, French snapped an introspective portrait that was used in composite for the movie's iconic poster. The other portion of the final image, featuring actor Jake Gyllenhaal, was taken during a special photography session that lasted all of five minutes.

"I had very little time, so I had no lights, just reflectors," she now laughs. "It's nerve-wracking, but the job is totally about being fast."

While a film crew may only give her minute windows of opportunity to conduct her work, the movie industry is increasingly aware of the important role that a stills photographer plays. Images have always been used to sell movies, but today still photos are used not only for posters and press photos, but also for online viral ad campaigns and behind-the-scenes material for DVDs.

"I think filmmakers are paying more attention to the hiring of the stills photographer," she says. "In the past I think they didn't really care. They just thought, 'Oh we'll need posters.'"

All the more reason to forge strong relationships with actors in order to achieve consistent results-which French managed to do once again during the filming of The Assassination of Jesse James. Brad Pitt, the star of the film, is an avid photography enthusiast (he has published his photos in W magazine), and this led to a mutual respect between actor and photographer.

"It was subtle and intangible," French recounts. "For example, we were on a frozen pond in Alberta, and it was minus 35. I could barely keep my hands on my camera. Brad could see me struggling, and as soon as I put the camera up to my face, he would give me something, a pose. He recognized how hard it was for me; not all actors will do that."

"You can tell from her photos that she has the cooperation of the actors," explains Eckhart. "She gains their trust. And that's simply said, but it's not easy."

Though Eckhart is known to approach photographers on set, feeding his personal interest in the art, he believes Kim's enthusiasm for her profession sets her apart. "A lot of times on a film, people feel jaded or like they're not contributing," he says. "Like they're somehow on the lower part of the totem pole. But she loves her work. And she took the time to talk to me about photography."

In fact, French often went on early morning photography hikes with Eckhart, and when possible, she would explain her process and technique while working on set. On one occasion, Eckhart recalls, French experimented with shutter speeds at night-something he had never thought to do. "And these weren't for herself, they were for work," he marvels. "She makes it work in a creative, yet professional, way."

Eckhart believes French's skillful, artistic approach is the key to her success. "The most important thing is that she comes up with good shots," he explains. "If you can show an actor that he looks good and that he's well-lit, then he'll start experimenting. Because obviously we're all natural hams."

French pursues fine art photography in her spare time (her second solo exhibition takes place in June at the Axis Contemporary Gallery in Calgary), but she notes that her work with movies has been on display for years. "Walk into any video store, and that's a gallery for still photography," she says happily.