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Who watches the watchers?

8/10
Author: tieman64 from United Kingdom
16 May 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

"I never knew what to call it – until I read an essay that my wife, who's a psychotherapist, had on connecting with patients. It said you had to use the gaze. First meeting: your eyes, their eyes, the gaze. And you develop that with empathy. Constant empathy. And I thought, yeah, the gaze and empathy. That's my technique." - Albert Maysles

"Close Up: Photographers at Work" is documentary film-maker Rebecca Dreyfus' interesting and tender look at a handful of acclaimed photographers. Chief among them is Albert Maysles, a photographer Jean Luc Godard once called "the best American cameraman". In the world of cinema, Maysles is best known for two trend setting documentaries, "Salesman" and "Gimme Shelter". Some of his earlier documentaries went so far as to provide glimpses into the workings of Soviet mental hospitals. But its Maysles' photographs which "Close Up" celebrates, which, whether they be of notable figures (Brando, Capote, Dali Lama, Castro etc) or simple shots of sleeping passengers, often ooze a rare compassion. Your classic Maysles photograph is eerily tranquil, silent and still. It invites the eye to study detail, the folds of skin, to "feel" or "tease out" the thoughts of others as they flutter, almost imperceptibly, behind eyelids. Mayles had a way of homing in on details; tiny strokes which illuminate character.

Timothy Greenfield Sanders is another photographer featured by Dreyfus, probably the least interesting of the group. He shoots in large-format, loves medium shots of celebrities, and is notable mostly for how bland and commodified his art has become. It's a Vanity Fair, Levis, mega-corp, front cover, up-scale tabloid aesthetic. There's a pretence to his work, a desire to "reveal" a kind of "stripped down", naked, humanity. He's trying to banalize flesh, but the effect is always the opposite, thanks largely to how these photos are then appropriated.

Sylvia Plachy's work is also on display. She's very Hungarian, very post-war Europe, fond of the grotesque, the scarred, the warped. With her canted angles, macabre images, bizarre juxtapositions and overt sexuality, she's a far cry from photographer Alan Moore, also featured by Dreyfus. Moore photographs architecture, buildings, wide spaces, prefers large canvases, loves the relationship between clutter and spaces, the feel of fabrics, metals and materials, but also has a fondness for overlays, which at times lends his work an odd quality; less Architecture Digest than weird works of new agey, magic realism.

Dreyfus' documentary is less interested in photographs, however, than it is in the working methods and thought processes of photographers. Of course it quickly becomes clear that these processes inform both the form and content of the artists' work.

8.5/10 - Worth one viewing.

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