When you see the film Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen you realize how great its Director of Photography Freddie Young was. He won an Oscar for it.
But I’m not just talking about Young as a cinematographer, I’m referring to the composed shots that appear on the screen as beautiful still images, as photographs.
One of the greatest single shots in cinema, the three-minute mirage sequence in which a figure slowly emerges from the desert haze, is a wonderful three part composition – see that tiny speck on the horizon in the image above? It’s a great suspenseful moment in the film, but visually it also functions as an elegant still photograph. There are many throughout the film. As well as being a great movie, Lawrence is also a great portfolio of landscape photographs.
The desert is a character in Lawrence and you often gaze at it as if at a star. The film immerses you in it, it paints the desert across the screen. There are points in the film where it is such an astonishing sight the filmmakers just leave it there on the screen so you to take it in.
This seems close to the indexical nature of still photography, its role of pointing, as if it’s saying “look at that.” You could argue that there is a distinct genre of ‘still’ photography contained within movies, images that have some DNA of the still within them and could be lifted out and printed. Despite plot, character, sound and movement there is also that purely optical component, subordinated to story but staying in the mind anyway. It must leave some residue in photographic culture.