Cinema Scope

Steven Poster’s “STILL” presents discerning snapshot stories 

By: Stacy Davies

Sometimes people don’t like people who can do more than one thing brilliantly. Dolly Parton once remarked about how much grief she always received for writing, singing, playing music, and acting, and while she’s no Meryl Streep, one couldn’t ask for a more spot-on performance by a totally untrained latecomer than her turn in Nine to Five. And then you actually have Meryl Streep and Minnie Driver and Toni Collette, all with solid acting chops and excellent singing pipes, yet no one buys their records (unless Streep sings ABBA, of course).


On the other hand, Sly Stallone and Anthony Quinn never sold many paintings, Martin Mull’s photography is middle tier and a bit derivative, and though Billy Bob Thornton wants to be known only for his singing these days, um, we’d rather just keep loving him in Sling Blade.


When it comes to the job of cinematographer, however, it isn’t much of a leap to embrace still photography, or, in the case of Steven Poster, channel photographic talents from the still images world into moving pictures. As the eye behind Donnie Darko, and a contributing photographer to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, among other films, and a graduate of the Pasadena Art Center College of Design, Poster has had great success in both visual mediums. 


Most people don’t even know what a cinematographer does, of course, and don’t realize that in 99 percent of the movies you see, whatever is on the screen has not been created by the director, who gives the cinematographer (also called the Director of Photography) the gist of what he or she wants—but rather by the DP who composes each shot, choosing lighting, film stock and lenses, and sometimes even operates the camera himself.


It’s not surprising then that the images we see in Poster’s show “STILL” at Andi Campognone Projects this month (which is part of L.A.’s Fine Art and Photography Month) are multi-layered compositions of storytelling, much like silent, black-and-white arias. While the images are static (first filmed and then extracted from celluloid), each one is much like a mini movie and certainly filled with more fascinating narrative detail than anything you’ve seen on the big screen in years.


In Hollywood Halloween, a foggy silhouetted shot of costumed, gypsy-like revelers walking through a park (or cemetery?) and Living Theater, a far-out LSD tripping tribal circle of screaming and growling dancers (and some exposed breasts), we find the most action, with the compositions carved out of riveting scenes of debauchery and delicate enactments of merrymaking.  


More sedate moments appear in Mt. Rushmore and Wisconsin Carnival. In the first, we happen upon a woman sitting in front of an enormous, multi-paned window, through which we see the towering monument of our past presidents. Almost centered on the window frame is a television, however, and we are left to wonder if this woman is more captivated by the carved mountain faces of history or the Marlboro Man on the screen. Carnival is even more bucolic—two carnival workers, a woman in the sock monster booth and a young man in the balloon pop, sit lethargic and listless, each chained to their boredom and sluggish movement of their minimum wage clock.


Other successful executions include Piggy Banks (a window shot of the over-sized, scary-happy porkers one might pick up from a Latino vendor), and Coiffeur, an exterior of a curtained salon; look closely for a self-portrait of Poster reflecting from the mirrored back walls. Comedy rears its quirky head several times as well, most notably using handmade signs, as in Wonderland Divorce, in which one paper taped to a neighborhood street post points to a wedding and the other to one that apparently shouldn’t have happened) and in Fleischkuechle,  where a lonely sandwich board in front of a Piggly Wiggly tells you that you can eat that word at the Lutheran Church across the street.

The two most striking images, however, come to us in Winged Victory and Metro Man. The first image, a five-person shot of two middle-aged male photographers bookending two young women who have also come to shoot the prestigious event, yet are caught in a moment of reflection, is exceptional. And in Metro Man, we travel to the interior of a subway car and meet an elderly fellow in whose face seems carved the very essence of a life lived hard; in contrast, surrounding him are a host of other men of varying younger ages and ethnicities, none who have (yet) fallen into his obvious economic peril. Both Winged and Metro contain a perfect balance of motion, inertia and story, with Metro offering a deeply penetrating and eloquent glimpse of human existence.


Steven Poster: STILL at Andi Campognone Projects, 300 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 629-4500; Thru Feb. 19.