It’s now 30 years since I first saw Gary Oldman act – as Sid Vicious in Sid and Nancy (1986) – and almost 20 since I first met him in person – at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, for an interview about his debut as writer-director, Nil by Mouth (1997). Though both those works – like many others on his CV – were notable not only for their credibility and honesty but for their remarkable freshness, you’d think that by now, after all these years, he would perhaps have lost that capacity to surprise us. After all, he knows what he’s doing. Yet he keeps on surprising us with a pleasing frequency. Perhaps the last big on-screen surprise was his wonderfully quiet, subtly suggestive and rightly acclaimed performance as George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) – though I should confess that at the time of the film’s release I was equally impressed by an accompanying exhibition of photographs Oldman had taken behind the scenes during the production of the movie. In case you missed it, you can see some of the pictures here. There’s one I especially like of John Hurt, entitled ‘You’re never alone with a Strand’ (after the old cigarette advert); the framing and the sense of atmosphere are spot-on.
If I remember correctly what he told me then, Oldman’s enthusiasm for taking on-set photos with a Widelux panoramic camera had originated when he acted in (and produced) The Contender (2000) alongside Jeff Bridges, who’d been documenting his own experiences and encounters while shooting since 1984, using the same swing-lens camera. (I’m happy, incidentally, to number among my possessions two books of Bridges’ photos, taken on the sets of The Fabulous Baker Boys and – what else? – The Big Lewbowski.) But Oldman, I suspect, must have been interested in photography before that particular development. After all, he has long been friends with the photographer Jack English (the man responsible for the terrific pictures taken on set for Nil by Mouth, not to mention numerous
movies since), and for some years he has been looking to direct a film from a script he’s written about Eadweard Muybridge, the pioneering and influential photographer and inventor whose innovations in capturing and projecting the movements of humans and animals anticipated the birth of the cinema.
I for one very much hope that the Muybridge film will get made – it’s been far too long since the extraordinary Nil by Mouth – but in the meantime, here comes another welcome surprise: Oldman has been busy extending the range of his own photographic work. In addition to the 35mm panoramic pictures taken on the sets of various movies, he has been experimenting with the ambrotype, a wet-plate collodion process used by Muybridge and other early photographers. It’s a notoriously tricky process – and one I readily admit to not really understanding – but the results can be superb, in terms both of rich visual detail and of an often haunting, almost otherworldly loveliness.
I found out about Oldman’s work in this field thanks to a screening and Q&A at BFI Southbank which had been organised by Nigel Daly of the Laboratory Arts Collective. The film screened was The Carnival of Dreams, a half-hour
documentary by Lauren Vance about the photographic adventures of Oldman and Ian Ruhter – a specialist in ambrotypes with a particular interest in large-scale work that can require a massive 12-feet-long box camera (visible to the left of Oldman’s photo at the top of this article) – who has been working with Vance on a full-length documentary about Slab City, an extensive community of the impoverished, marginalised and other squatters in California’s Sonora Desert. For the Q&A afterwards, Daly interviewed Oldman and Gisele Schmidt, a curator and archivist who introduced the actor-director to Ruhter and who has written highly informatively about the two men’s collaborative efforts in BUILD, the latest edition of the Laboratory Arts Collective’s magazine.
During the Q&A, Oldman likened Ian Ruhter to a mentor, explaining that learning to use the highly temperamental ambrotype process had been creatively both challenging and invigorating; he compared the learning curve to the one he’d had to negotiate as a young actor. Certainly, though he told me afterwards that he was currently greatly enjoying working on Darkest Hour, notwithstanding the time he has to spend being made up to look like Winston Churchill, Oldman’s passion for the very process of creating photographic images – as well as for the finished results – was evident throughout the evening. But what’s fascinating (and, perhaps, enviable) is that his appears to be an unusually relaxed form of passion: he speaks of how the pace and rhythms of practising photography – be it taking pictures or developing and printing them – feel like a lowering of the blood pressure, a physically and mentally healthy way of using one’s time. Moreover, he actively welcomes the accidents, errors and unforeseen results that are almost inevitably concomitant with the wet-plate process (especially out in the desert!). And it’s impossible not to concur. Whereas we can see, in Oldman’s 35mm Widelux pictures, what a fine eye he has for content, composition, framing and so on, the ambrotypes, with their strange borders, blots, blemishes and spots evocative of fragility and vulnerability, ageing and decay, have a magical beauty all of their own.
All photos by Gary Oldman; thanks to Gary for permission to reproduce them.
Further examples of Gary Oldman’s photographic work (both ambrotype and digital) – as well as some by Ian Ruhter and Jack English – can be found in BUILD, the latest edition of the Laboratory Arts Collective magazine. See https://www.laboratoryartscollective.com for details of the collective and the magazine.