A photographer looks back on her work in a film of haphazard construction.



In recent years we have had a number of documentaries about photographers, including The Salt of the Earth (Sebastiǎo Salgado), Looking for Light: Jane Bown and Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. Now we have another, this one looking at the work of Kirsten Johnson and made by Johnson herself who chooses to describe it as a memoir. In the event, it is a very different animal from those predecessors. Johnson, who has worked for various filmmakers including Michael Moore and Laura Poitras, is a photographer of moving images in contrast to Salgado and Bown and, if that would seem to equate her with Cardiff’s position, in the event it doesn’t. That's because Cardiff was involved with famous actors and famous directors and consequently looking back at his work is quite unlike viewing extracts of documentary footage taken by Johnson. As for the personal aspect especially strong in the first two films cited above, we find here that, regardless of the reference to this being a memoir, the details about Johnson's life are limited to mere glimpses of her father and of her young twins, although there is a bit more relating to her late mother who suffered from Alzheimer’s.


It has been suggested that Cameraperson has much to say about the nature of a photographer's work and on the issue of intruding on the privacy of those photographed. However, with occasional comments substituting for any detailed narrative and with only the scenes of Johnson’s mother and an episode featuring an angry boxer raising the privacy issue (and then only by implication), this question hardly plays a significant role. Other footage does indeed portray people suffering and in grief but they are handled sympathetically and even suggest that talking on camera may be helpful to those concerned.


There are individual sequences here that do have a strong impact on the viewer: these include the contrasted experiences of a midwife in Nigeria, discussion of the horrific evidence in a court hearing in Jasper, Texas and an episode about a single mother relying on help from a Health Clinic who receives reassurance from Johnson. But, while Cameraperson amply confirms the filmmaker’s abilities as a photographer, Johnson’s film totally ignores the requirement that all good art needs organisation, even if subliminal. Here there seems no rhyme or reason as to the sequence adopted as we view extracts from location shooting done by her around the world (Bosnia and various parts of America providing the most prominent settings). The films featured are listed in the end credits, but the extracts come up untitled and without any comment on the remit of the particular project. In some cases we return unexpectedly for a further extract and, when the Nigerian episode is resumed in this way, it is then interrupted by footage from Pennsylvania before being concluded. Cameraperson occasionally throws in a montage out of the blue (Wounded Knee is suddenly to be noted among shots linking the sites of mass killings) and its wholesale shapelessness is detrimental to its overall impact. Instead, we have to make do with memorable bits and pieces which are sufficiently powerful or universal to impress in their own right.




Featuring  Kirsten Johnson.


Dir Kirsten Johnson, Pro Marilyn Ness and Kirsten Johnson, Ph Kirsten Johnson, Ed Nels Bangeter.


Fork Films/Big Mouth-Dogwoof.
102 mins. USA. 2016. Rel: 27 January 2017. Cert. 15.