Nighttime photos portray a B-movie Hollywood


Art Column

December 20, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Christopher Saah's atmospheric photographs of Hollywood at night, on view at C. Grimaldis Gallery, clearly are inspired by the luxuriantly decadent cinematography of film directors such as David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino.

Saah's Hollywood, with its aura of sex and violence, pays homage to the B-movie version of Hollywood in most people's minds. But it hardly resembles the glamorous movie capital fans imagine when they think of the home of the stars.

That Hollywood, if it ever existed, is long gone, having been replaced by a gritty, somewhat tattered urban environment that's a mere ghost of its storied past. (These days the stars live in tonier areas like Beverly Hills and Malibu, Calif.)

Saah's Hollywood at night is the kind of place you'd expect B-movie private eyes and bottle blondes down on their luck to cross paths. It's a murky, not-too-clean place characterized by old warehouse buildings, faded movie palaces and a built environment that's obviously seen better days.

Saah shoots with a Leica equipped with a fast lens, and he has an eye for the sort of morally ambiguous, slyly half-lit scenes that suggest faded glory.

Whatever action he manages to capture usually is as unpremeditated as a street shot by Weegee. But his mise-en-scenes -- a theater with brightly lit marquee, gas station pumps straight out of a Hitchcock thriller, a mysterious woman crossing the street, the glare of street lamps -- are as carefully set up as a murder mystery's storyboard.

Since at least the early decades of the 20th century, photography has seemed to take its cue not from painting but from the movies. When photographers began to reject the painterly style of pictorialism around the turn of the century, many of them gravitated to the motion picture frame as a model.

The pioneering works of Eugene Atget, Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson owed a debt to the visual realism of movies.

Even the diminutive Leica camera, which Cartier-Bresson used to such great effect to capture the spontaneous flux of life in the 1920s and '30s, was conceived by its designer, Oscar Barnack, as a kind of still-picture version of the motion picture camera.

And the American photographers loosely grouped together as the New York School -- artists such as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Louis Faurer and Ted Croner -- openly acknowledged the influence of 1940s and '50s film noir on their work.

Saah's photographs look like production stills from movies that were never made but nevertheless exist vividly in our imaginations. In his case, the still camera has cleverly appropriated a classic style of cinematography and invited us to inhabit its fictions as completely as we would on the silver screen.

"Christopher Saah: Nightscenes" runs through Dec. 30 at C. Grimaldis Gallery, 523 N. Charles St. Call 410-539-1080.

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