Welcome back to Talking Movies – a guide to how you can use scenes from famous (and not so famous) movies to ignite your creative juices and develop your artistic vision in your street photography. The first instalment of Talking Movies took a trip down memory lane into ‘80s nostalgia with Manhunter, and for this week’s column we’re winding the film spool right back to 1967 and the truly brilliant piece of cinematic storytelling that is ‘The Graduate’.
Introducing The Graduate
Directed by Mike Nichols (who was awarded an Oscar for his work here), The Graduate follows the travails of the 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) and his concerns and worries about his ‘future’ after he graduates from university and embarks on an affair with an older woman (Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft). The movie’s main theme is one of alienation – it plays on the seismic changes wrought by the ‘60s youth culture movement to emphasise the generational divide between Benjamin and the ‘grown ups’ – he knows he doesn’t want his life to mirror theirs or conform to their expectations. The cinematography in The Graduate plays on these themes, with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees using voyeuristic camera angles to make the viewer feel like an outsider (as Benjamin does) looking into the scene. There are parts of the movie devoid of dialogue, with the storytelling given over entirely to camera shots and effects and the iconic Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack to convey the mood and emotion of the moment.
I will select and analyse three scenes from the movie and describe with examples how they have influenced my own street photography.
This scene apes one of the most famous stills in the movie and the shot that formed the basis of the iconic movie poster promoting The Graduate. That shot showed Mrs. Robinson’s stocking-clad leg extending across the shot and seducing Benjamin. This scene shares the essence of that shot, but comes much earlier in the movie, foreshadowing what is to come later. I personally feel the scene I’ve chosen is a much stronger shot than the famous one, because of the framing and composition. Notice how Mrs. Robinson’s leg is used as a frame for the shot, with Dustin Hoffman as the focus of the scene placed right in the centre of the shot. The leg is almost entirely a silhouette – its form is only hinted at through the strong light spilling through from the main scene that highlights just the leading edges. This allows it to be clear that it is a leg that is framing the scene, but it isn’t providing too distracting an element in the shot. Hoffman and the ‘background’ by contrast are strongly lit – emphasising that they are the main focal point of the scene. The depth of field too, is shallow, throwing the leg out of focus and drawing attention towards the emotions displayed by Hoffman’s character, while still emphasising the fact he is being seduced by the ‘leg’ and its ‘owner’. Using the leg as a frame not only helps to make the scene more memorable, but also helps to break up the visual ‘weight’ of the scene and again focus the viewer’s attention on the main character – note how he is positioned perfectly at the peak of the negative space triangle formed by the back of the knee.
The unusual angle and viewpoint of the shot offer evidence of the point made earlier about the ‘voyeuristic’ camera angles employed in this movie – it really feels like the viewer is intruding on highly private moment! It should be noted also how perfectly the colours used throughout the scene compliment one another to make for an aesthetically pleasing and balanced image – the shot features predominantly green and green/blue hues, with neutral cream/white added to avoid an overly complex, busy and distracting scene. As street photographers it’s very easy to utilise the distinct framing in this shot to make for an incredibly powerful street photo. Rather than using the frame of a ‘leg’ a street photographer can use the outline of a piece of street ‘architecture’ (lamp post, window frame, archway, etc) to frame the main subject of their shot, whilst also creating an interesting street shot by showing their subject in context and interacting with surroundings. So try looking for things to shoot ‘through’ whilst out on the streets to offer a new perspective on an otherwise regular scene.
I would almost say that a ‘looking through’ shot using an unusual frame is my ‘go-to’ bread-and butter shot for street photography! I really love the outsider feel you get to a shot which looks through an impromptu frame, and particularly the way it gives an extra sense of location to the shot. This is one of my favourite shots that I made in this style, which was taken at the Venetian harbour in Rethymno Crete. This photo shows the view looking through the gear mechanism for a hoist which (I think) is used for lifting boats out of the water. I love the lines of the ‘frame’ it offers – strong straight verticals and two sweeping curves which from this angle appear to disappear into a vanishing point. I was lucky enough to be presented with two people as subjects when I captured this shot, and I like how the bright red of the moped makes it a clear focal point. The fact that a similar hue is mirrored in the t-shirt of the man in the background is a nice touch too, which links together the two people in the shot. In a perfect world of course there would be some nice strong sunlight illuminating the scene from camera right, and maybe the car would be gone too (it’s distracting). But this is a street shot after all! I plan to revisit this scene at different times of day in the future to see what else it can offer up!
This next scene is a really fantastic one – again, like the first shot I analysed, because it is so unusual. Here, the director of photography Surtees has used the characteristics of his scenery to offer the viewer a new viewpoint of the actors, without impacting negatively on the functional need for the audience to see the actors interact with one another. Through the mirrored reflective tabletop the viewer can see the movie narrative and storytelling unfold before them unimpeded, whilst they are also entertained and kept intrigued by an original scene and viewpoint that they wouldn’t normally expect. It is important to note however how perfectly this shot is set up and composed. If the whole frame were filled with the just the reflected image of the tabletop it would prove very disorientating for the viewer – however here the edges of the table and portions of the ‘real’ scene are visible to add an element of context to the shot to emphasise that we are viewing through a mirror.
It’s important to pay attention to the leading lines too – the reflected lines of the ceiling run parallel to the edge of the table – if they ran any differently it would make for a very busy and confusing shot, and would draw attention away from the actors in an already cluttered scene. It is for this reason too that a shallow depth of field is used, with the point of focus on the faces of the actors and the objects placed on the table out of focus to avoid them being too distracting. It’s important the viewer sees the cigarette packet, ashtray, and glass on the table surface in order to have a point of reference and context for the scene, as reflection shots are notoriously disorientating. However, where a broader depth of field used, these extra elements of scene dressing would prove far too off-putting and draw attention away from the characters. You can tell too that this is a movie scene – with controlled lighting that street photographers can only dream of! The faces of both actors are beautifully lit so that they aren’t lost in the reflection – they stand out against the ceiling and are easily visible and a clear focal point. Like the use of an unusual frame from the scene above, spotting (and most crucially executing) a clear shot using a reflection can really liven up an otherwise mundane street scene and really bring it to life, as well as offering the opportunity to add a depth of ‘layers’ to the shot.
I’m yet to make a reflective surface street shot that I’m truly happy with, and certainly never anything on a par with The Graduate scene! It is definitely possible to make some extraordinary street shots using reflections though – the submissions for the Street Hunters February 2015 Monthly Theme Contest on ‘Reflections’ are proof of that – so I need to keep practicing! As with The Graduate scene, I tried to add extra elements of layers to this scene to give it more depth, and keep it from being an overly simplistic or confusing reflected scene. So we have three layers of people here – the older gentleman stepping into the sunlight as the focal point, the man walking across the frame, and me, the photographer. I kept the depth of field shallow enough to have the man and I out of focus, though perhaps this shot would have been even better with an even larger aperture to further simplify it. As with the shot I analysed, I attempted to use leading lines (in this shot they are the shelves) to organise the photo, but there are so many strong lines in this image it ends up looking at little busy. With hindsight too I should have shot wider to show the mirrored surface in context with the rest of the street scene. As it is it looks a little too abstract.
This last scene which I’ve chosen to analyse is this wide shot of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson’s exchange in the doorway. It’s a powerful shot despite the fact that it’s shot very wide and the characters appear very small in the frame. This is because the lighting and composition again help to draw the viewer’s eye towards the characters, whilst also showing them within the context of the scene. The doorway’s arch serves as a perfect frame for the characters, and this is further emphasised by the way they are positioned opposite each other at either side of the door frame. Notice too how the characters facing each other in profile in this confined space not only makes for great symmetry but also suggests their exchange is about to be a tense or uncomfortable one – they are facing off against one another ‘trapped’ in the doorway. The strong backlight inside the house cuts through the frame of the doorway, and would turn Mrs Robinson into a silhouette were it not for the powerful key light illuminating the front of the house. As it is, her dark coat contrasting with the backlit hallway helps to create a strong profile image for her and add further drama to the scene. The shot utilises negative space to great effect too, with the stark white house playing a supporting role in the scene, leading the viewer’s eye to the doorway and the exchange between the two characters.
Small details add up to make the shot – the horizontal line of the grass lawn ends around a third of the way up the frame, in keeping with the ‘rule of thirds’ which posits that a shot has more impact if it is split into thirds along its horizontal or vertical and not at the half-way mark. The windows of the Alfa Romeo Spider (which itself plays an important role in the movie as a symbol of independence, mobility, and freedom) are also visible off centre in the bottom corner of the shot – showing that the car too is playing its part in the scene. In street photography we need to always look for these elements of our surroundings which can be used to draw focus to our subjects through lighting, negative space, and architecture, and not to shirk from shooting wide once in a while too!
Like the scene from the movie, this is quite a wide shot, particularly for street photography. However, like The Graduate scene, I wanted to use a frame, negative space and lighting to focus attention on my subject(s) despite their small size relative to the frame. This arch in the Rethymno Old Town is fantastically lit, with the uplights in the pavement providing a strong light that emphasises the shape of the curve of the arch as a frame, offset against the negative space of its walls, which are in shadow. As with the scene from the movie, I found this shot was most powerful with a subject shown in profile walking across the frame, helpfully lit by the lights from the street running perpendicular to the arch. As luck would have it the cat stood almost in the centre of the arch, and as a person walked into my frame he and the cat made eye contact – so I had two characters ‘facing off’ like the shot from the movie! The man’s bright orange carrier bag serves as a nice extra focal point of the image too, as it really helps him to stand out even though I was able to catch him so his dark clothes are contrasted against the light wall of the house behind. A very lucky photo!
I hope you’ve found my analysis of this selection of scenes useful as a springboard for your street photography. I really did just scratch the surface of some of the great shots that are on offer in this movie – it truly is a fantastic piece of storytelling owing to its witty script and the superb performances given by its actors. A huge part of The Graduate’s story is told by its iconic shots and scenes, which throw the viewer into the disillusioned and alienated mind of its young protagonist. Benjamin Braddock is an observer of the world around him as it unfolds, and the cinematography emphasises this. As street photographers we need to seek to emulate this effect – we’re turning our cameras towards the world that we see before us on the street. So give the movie a watch and get inspired!