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October 14, 2016

Unless you’re really into documentaries, you probably aren’t aware of Kirsten Johnson. Even if you do enjoy the form, you might not have heard of her. There are very few well-known cinematographers even in mainstream films. Albert Maysles, Errol Morris, and Alex Gibney might have become household names — at least in a certain kind of house — but the people who actually put their images on film generally have not.

Which is to say the audience clamoring for Johnson’s cinematic memoir, Cameraperson is somewhat limited. Assembled from the impressive library of footage she has assembled over her twenty-five year career, the shots are often as gorgeous as we might expect from a professional of her caliber. But more than just presenting a portfolio of her work, Johnson wants to explore some questions about the nature of documentary cinematography.

Chief among these, at least to me, is the whole idea of the camera as a thing. Moving images are illusions, and the state-of-the-art in recording and replaying moving images has always been just good enough to maintain the illusion of its own absence. Every cut is a lie, as Wolf Koenig put it, even if the cinematographer, the editor, and the director are using it to tell a truth. And the lies don’t begin with editing, either; the camera itself imposes four cuts at the edges of its frame, twenty four times a second.

So as we watch storm-clouds gathering in the distance across a northern Missouri sky, we hear Johnson’s sneeze. We watch a Bosnian herdsman drive his sheep along a gravel road, but we see Johnson reach in front of the camera to yank out a few stalks of grass and clean up the shot. These moments would get cut from the films she was working on, but we see them here, reminding us that there is a real person behind the camera.

The choices made in the editing room might have more direct effects on the finished product, but it’s Johnson — or someone like her — who provides them the raw material. If she didn’t capture an image, it won’t be in the film. How she lights and frames her subjects can have an enormous impact on how we understand them when watching the documentary that results.

To have this much power is an awesome responsibility. Once we become aware of the person behind the camera, we want to know who she is that is making all these decisions. Much of Cameraperson goes to answering this question. We see clips of footage that are not just talking heads, but interactions between Johnson and her subjects. And, separate from any work-for-hire, we see Johnson interacting with her family, mediating her experience with the camera in a way that seems to have become a reflex for her.

The effect of this montage can be impressionistic at times, but never quite reaches the power of Ron Fricke’s abstract documentaries. This is a calmer piece, less concerned with rendering Johnson’s thoughts into audiovisual poetry than it is in laying them out and asking the audience to make of them what we will. That’s a lot to ask for most people, to put that much effort into meeting Johnson on her turf. But those inclined to watch her memoir are probably halfway there already.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.

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