I’ve been wanting to do a series of posts about how photographers are portrayed in the media and after watching Rear Window a few nights ago I thought it would be a good film to kick off the series. I’m not going to review it as a film critic would, instead I’m going to examine the film from a photographer’s perspective.
Released in 1954, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Jimmy Stewart as L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, Grace Kelly as Lisa Fremont, Wendell Corey as Detective Thomas Doyle, Thelma Ritter as Stella, and Raymond Burr as Lars Thorwald. You may remember Raymond Burr as TVs Ironside, a detective who always got his man, or woman. Or you may remember him as Perry Mason, a lawyer who never lost a case. The screenplay was written by John Michael Hayes and was based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich.
L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is the main character. A photojournalist, staffer for an unnamed magazine.
The camera pans across an apartment to reveal Jefferies in a wheelchair. A plaster cast covers his left leg. The camera continues to pan to a nearby table where we see a smashed Graflex. The camera tilts upward and stops on a black and white photograph mounted on the wall, a crash at a dirt track speedway. Two race cars have collided and become entangled as they lift off the track. The drivers ejected from their cockpits, body’s contorted, arms flailing. A wheel has come off and is hurling toward the viewer.
The phone rings, Gunnison, the magazine’s editor, not knowing Jefferies has another week in his cast, calls. He needs a photographer in Kashmir. 60 plus years later, Kashmir is still in play.
Jefferies: Didn’t I tell you that was the next place to watch? When do I leave, an hour?
Gunnison: That one week is gonna cost me my best photographer, and you a big assignment.
Jefferies: I can take pictures from a jeep or a water buffalo, if necessary.
Gunnison: You’re too valuable to the magazine for us to play around with. I’ll send Morgan or Lambert.
Jefferies: I get myself half-killed for you, and you reward me by stealing my assignments.
Gunnison: I didn’t ask you to stand in the middle of an automobile racetrack.
We can assume that Jefferies’s leg was struck by the wheel, which would lay him up for weeks with nothing to do but spy on his neighbors out his rear window. Luckily as a staffer he had health insurance. We know that as his visiting nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) tells him,” The insurance company would be much happier If you’d sleep in bed at night instead of in that wheelchair.”
The Love Interest
Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) plays Jeffries girlfriend, a socialite working in the fashion industry. She wants him to quit the magazine, open a studio and shoot fashion and portraits. She says she can get him a dozen assignments tomorrow. Promises, promises, show me the purchase order!
When Stella asks Jefferies if he is going to marry Lisa : No, She’s too beautiful. She’s too sophisticated. She belongs to that rarefied atmosphere of Park Avenue. Can you imagine her tramping around the world with a camera bum Who never has more than a week’s salary in the bank?
So I assume back then, just like today, no photographer went into photojournalism to get rich. Maybe he should have taken Lisa’s advice and opened that studio, It worked out okay for Penn and Avedon. I also found it interesting that he refers to himself as a “camera bum.” I’m curious about the genesis of photographer as bum. Maybe it’s because people associate photojournalism with exploiting the suffering of others. Maybe it’s because it’s a hard way to make a living. Maybe it’s both.
Description of the neighborhood from Hayes’s screenplay:
The neighborhood is not a prosperous one, but neither is it poor. It is a practical, conventional dwelling place for people living on marginal incomes, luck — or hope and careful planning.
Due to the growing prosperity in the U.S. in the years following World War II the fifties saw an explosion in magazine titles such as Life and Look, giving rise to photojournalism as a profession. Television was in its infancy and print was still the main means of communication. The rise of the middle class saw Americans with greater disposable income and companies tried to capture those dollars by buying ad space in magazines making publishing a profitable venture.
The Camera Gear
The smashed Graflex in the opening scene was probably a 4×5 R.B. Super D. What was unique about it was that it was a 4×5 single lens reflex with a large mirror that reflected the image coming through the lens onto a top mounted ground glass. It had a large, collapsible focusing hood that would pop up when the lid was opened and would have been used at waist level. The R.B. designation meant it had a revolving back to allow for both horizontal and vertical images. This camera would have been a good choice for Jefferies to use to photograph auto racing as not only did it offer reflex viewing but it also had a focal plane shutter capable of speeds up to 1/1000 of a second. The following comes from an article about the Super D on Graflex.org: Do not use the Graflex for photographing near-by action such as aircraft carrier landings. When you are peering into the focusing hood, dangerous activity may come too near before you detect it. I guess Jefferies never read the manual.
Another consideration would have been that many photo editors of the time dismissed 35mm as unsuitable for publication. W. Eugene Smith was fired from Newsweek because he refused to used large format.
Another camera that featured prominently in the film was the the 35mm Exacta, mounted with a phallic, 400mm telephoto lens. Stella referred to it as “that portable keyhole,” which implies it’s use is voyeuristic and indecent. While the lens is impressive in size, in reality 400mm results in only an 8x increase in viewing size, equivalent to a good pair of binoculars. Exacta’s where made in Dresden, Germany where they developed the first 35mm Single lens reflex camera. For whatever reason they taped over the Exacta nameplate on the top of the camera.
When Jefferies is trying to discern what is different in the courtyard after a woman’s disappearance and the death of a small dog he asks Lisa to hand him a viewer and a small yellow box. So, who use to own yellow like UPS owns brown? Kodak of course. Could have been a box of Ektachrome but I’d like to believe it was Kodachrome instead. Reviewing his slides shot a few weeks ago, he realizes there IS something different in the courtyard! No spoilers, you have to watch it for yourself.
A Flash of Inspiration
So Jefferies gets caught snooping in Thorwald’s apartment. How can a man in a wheelchair defend himself against a potential attacker? With flash bulbs of course! Thorwald’s pupils would have been dilated as the apartment was dark. A blast from a flash bulb at short range would blind him at least temporarily, slowing his advance. Several flash bulbs later… you’ll have to watch the film for the ending. Turns out this is not so far-fetched an idea. When working in areas where a photojournalist might be in danger it was recommend to carry a monopod in one hand and keep a flash in your pocket. The flash would be turned on and at full power. The thinking being that you could blind an attacker with the flash, beat them bodily with the monopod then run like hell!
Be sure to look for Hitchcock’s cameo appearance too.
Photographers, Did I miss anything? If so feel free to comment. Oh, any comments about cheap erectile dysfunction medications will be trashed unless accompanied by offer of free unlimited supply, shipped directly to a friend of a friend.