In college, I took a film class called Mise-en-scène. That expression means the visual storytelling of each frame in a movie – the choice of lighting, set, design, and composition that comes together to further a storyline. It’s basically everything you see in a scene.
Sitting in that dank, basement room in the theater building was the first time I ever considered that directors carefully frame and design, rather than just direct actors. It was a revelation to me, an aspiring film student who knew little to nothing about film theory. In the end, the class was horribly pretentious, and despite my best efforts, that was, quite literally, all I took home with me. But after many years, mise-en-scène suddenly came back to my mind when I saw these photos taken by a young Stanley Kubrick.
I’ve seen nearly all of Kubrick’s films, from The Shining to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, and Lolita. And he was a master of mise-en-scène in each. Curating every aspect of the film, creating unsettling tension from close-ups, and unbelievably chilling imagery were his specialties. However, I had no idea his skills came earlier than that and in the form of photography!
When Kubrick was 17-years-old, he became an apprentice photographer for Look magazine, and for the few short years before he discovered a love of film, he took photos around New York City. What I love most about these images, and what inspires me as I continue to improve my own photography, is how much of a story there is in each frozen moment. You know exactly what is happening in these seconds, no words, movement, or color required. Between the framing, expressions, and perspective, these portraits are absolutely captivating.
I’ve included my favorites below, but it’s up to you to figure out what’s happening in each photo! (There’s a little hint for you in the titles).
As someone who hopes to improve their photography, I can tell you it helps leaps and bounds to find artists whose work speaks to you. Many of the photographers whose work I gravitate towards take portraits or scenes that look almost frozen from a movie. It’s the perfect blend of my love for film, an interest in staging, and a fascination with people and their stories.
I’m working on getting more comfortable with my new camera, and taking photos of people in their element is truly a goal of mine. It’s an intimate exchange, that most people are uncomfortable with. While I’m not sure how Kubrick so quietly blended into the scene so that his subjects behaved naturally, I aspire to one day be as effective a storyteller as he was. If not, I can always settle for watching The Shining one more time.
Prints of these awesome images are available here. Have you seen any of Kubrick’s films? Which one is your favorite? Share with me in the comments below! And to see another photographer I love, click here!
Images courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York via deMilked.