In director Kirsten Johnson's autobiographical anthology of her twenty-five years in cinematography, Cameraperson, she includes a scene from her film Derrida, in which she trips and nearly falls while filming the French philosopher crossing a street in Manhattan.
"That's the image of the philosopher who falls in the well while looking at the stars," Derrida observes, referring to the story of Thales the astrologer made famous in Aesop's fables. It's also a potential pitfall for documentary cinematographers, who need to strike a balance between capturing the big picture and the emotional realities of the moment.
"Being focused while you're filming is what you're hired and compelled to do," says Johnson. "But you're trying to keep your peripheral vision intact, not just so you don't get hit by a car, but also so you can anticipate where the story is going, or understand the larger context in which it's happening."
This weekend, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (April 7–10) honors Johnson with its annual Tribute Award, screening a number of her previous documentaries as well as Cameraperson, which blends home videos with footage and outtakes from many of Johnson's films, including Citizenfour, The Oath, Two Towns of Jasper, The Invisible War, and Fahrenheit 9/11.
Johnson's emphasis on cinematography rather than directing makes her unique among prior honorees such as Steve James, Ken Burns, and Albert Maysles. The INDY spoke with Johnson about the unique perils of a cinematographer trying to capture the truth.
"There's a real tension between following what's happening in front of the camera," she says, "and where the story is pulling you."
INDY: Is Cameraperson more a commemoration of your life as a cinematographer or an homage to the role of the cinematographer in filmmaking?
KIRSTEN JOHNSON: This film came out of a need to understand the work that I was doing, especially in an era where we're all becoming camera people. Everyone is walking around with a phone in their pocket. I call this film a memoir, but it's a memoir of my life as a cinematographer, not of my life. It's willfully made in fragments, out of chronology. It's just evidence-based—I'm just showing you the footage. But it is questioning filmmaking itself and acknowledging the many different ways that stories can be told.
Is there deeper meaning to the film's title? After all, you didn't call it Cinematographer.
It acknowledges the relationship between cameras and people. Both words are included in the title. Certainly it has gender connotations—pretty much every day that I'm out with a camera, someone will accidentally call me "cameraman." That seems to be the default name for the job. There's also a sense of the working-class nature of the job [in the title], different from the term "cinematographer."
There's a striking scene where you film your mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, as she turns away from the camera to stare out at the hills on her Wyoming ranch. You widen the shot and show the panorama of the moment, instead of zooming closer.
That landscape meant so much to her. What that shot does in "zooming to the wide," which is not in fashion now—zooming out is more of a seventies film move—expressed my knowledge that I was losing her, and that she was alone in the landscape, and I couldn't hold onto her and protect her. I hadn't looked at that footage at all after I filmed it or after she died, and it was only in the process of making Cameraperson that I looked at that footage again and saw so much metaphor in it.
How does the cinematographer figure into the search for truth in documentary filmmaking, something we talk about more in the context of editing or direction?
We are literally the ones searching in the moment. Where we choose to turn the camera or not provides the information for the director or editor to work with while creating the film. I have this story of being detained at the border during the period where Laura Poitras was being detained, quite a bit after we had made The Oath together, and we were working on what would become Citizenfour. The border official asked me, "So, do you look for individuals to interview, or do you just hold the camera?" I responded, "I just hold the camera." But my interpretation of what that meant compared to his interpretation was quite divergent.
The opening two scenes in Cameraperson are a marriage of visual and auditory stimulation—a sheepherder accompanied by the clanking of bells, a desolate road with the sound of faraway cars passing by, punctuated by thunder in the distance. Do you view cinematography as more than just a visual medium?
That's a beautiful thing you're noticing. It's been a great joy in my life as a cameraperson to collaborate actively with the sound people I work with. They have taught me that being a cameraperson is more about listening than seeing, in many ways. That was something we thought a lot about in making Cameraperson, how to engage both the sound and image, because that's what I experience as a cameraperson, this full sensory awareness.
Is cinematography sometimes the art of knowing what not to shoot?
Sometimes people don't want you to show things, but you need to show things. That was part of my experience working with Michael Moore [on Fahrenheit 9/11], standing on the street corner at the U.S. Capitol and having congressmen run away from him as he tried to approach them and ask, "Do you want to send your kids to Iraq?" I remember thinking how extraordinary it was that he's comfortable pursuing the difficult moment, pursuing people when they don't want to be filmed.
In Two Towns of Jasper, you show the district attorney and others reacting to evidence—photos, the chain used to drag James Byrd to his death—without first showing what they're seeing or describing.
Those were questions we had in making the film. Do you show or not show photos [of the deceased James Byrd]? I dedicated Two Towns of Jasper to Mamie Till-Mobley, who helped change our perception of racism in this country by her willingness to show her son's body in the casket. There's this real tension between what we recognize and see, what we turn away from, what is exploitation, nonpermissive use, et cetera.
The Two Towns of Jasper experience was incredibly powerful. I looked inside that [photo album], and I'm haunted by the images I saw. I didn't want anyone else to see that. But the tension when you're making a film is how far to go to open up the horror that people have experienced.
Some past Full Frame Tribute Award winners tinge their gratitude with ruefulness, recognizing that it's the sort of accolade one usually receives at the twilight of their career. Has receiving it hit you the same way?
[Laughs] I was about to say that I hope I don't die while filming, but that's not true. If I get to be Albert Maysles's age and I die while filming, I'm cool with that.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Peripheral Vision"