Famous Photographs That Inspired Film.


There has always been a sibling-like relationship between film and photography. “The Horse in Motion” (1878) was a famous photographic series using an early movie projector called the zoopraxiscope invented by Eadweard Muybridge, a 19th-century photographer who understood the phenomena better than any of his contemporaries. Attempting to capture every muscle movement the horse made Muybridge fired his shutter in quick succession to discern whether horses always keep one hoof on the ground when galloping. He effectively created a very short film by using the zoopraxiscope to project the images in rapid succession.

As they conceive the look and feel of their work directors frequently look to still images and since the time of Muybridge the influence of photography on film has been undeniable. Taking photographs that owed an aesthetic debt to the famous crime photographer Weegee, director Stanley Kubrick actually got his start as a teenage press photographer. When filming the crimes scenes of the movie Dr. Strangelove (1964)Kubrick hired Weegee to take still photographs on the set since he was so captivated by Weegee’s gritty, and lurid style.

In the Library of Congress director Wes Anderson stumbled upon a series of hand-tinted travel postcards, a specific set of photographs that inspired the look of the titular hotel in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Drawing inspiration from the person behind the lens, other directors have taken visual cues from a single image.

Below are 6 famous photographs that have gone on to inspire film …

Her (2013), directed by Spike Jonze.

Plotted as a love story with only one truly sentient lover and a futuristic cautionary tale doused generously with nostalgia, Her was a paradox of a film. When conceiving of his 2013 Academy Award-winning masterpiece it is no wonder that director Spike Jonze drew from photographer Todd Hido’s intriguing, enigmatic image “Untitled #2653” (2000). In the film, Scarlett Johansson voices Samantha, a scary-smart virtual assistant who Joaquin Phoenix, playing disillusioned writer Theodore Twombly, who spends his days composing intimate letters for other people, becomes infatuated with. “It feels like a memory. The mood of a day without the specifics. A memory of this girl,in this beautiful, funny forest,” was how director Jonze described the photo that inspired hi, in an interview with New York Magazine. The subdued colour scheme of Jonze’s film is a reflection of the image’s muted palette.


Theodore’s love for Samantha is implicit in the contradictions captured on a deeper level in Hido’s photograph. With her face being explicitly unavailable to us the image depicts a literal blank slate of a woman. Because of that, and just as Theodore romanticises Samantha into his lover, the viewer can project whatever they want onto her.

The Virgin Suicides (1999), directed by Sofia Coppola.

Through the eyes of young, adoring neighbours the tragic lives and deaths of five adolescent Lisbon daughters are chronicled in The Virgin Suicides, which is screenwriter and director Sofia Coppola’s beloved film, in which an intoxicating, dreamy gloom fills every frame. Aided by the ethereal look of cinematographer Ed Lachman’s work, the film has a distinctly feminine melancholia. Coppola drew inspiration from photographer Bill Owens, and she has pointed to one photograph in particular, “Our eighth-grade graduation dance was really far out” (1973), saying it was “definitely in my mind when I worked on the film.”


Right down to the twinkling cut-out stars dangling from the ceiling in the film’s homecoming dance scene the photograph shares very literal similarities to The Virgin Suicides. With her conservative white prairie dress and blonde curls the girl in the centre of the frame could easily be a Lisbon daughter. Similarly permeating the film is the awkward tenderness to the still image which emphasizes the connection between the two more so. Cinematographer Lachman said: “We wanted to really create the world of adolescence.” The girls’ fervent desire to escape their claustrophobic family life to experience something more as well as the narrators’ youthful desire to know and save the sisters evokes a feeling of wistful teenage longing in the film.

Moonlight (2016), directed by Barry Jenkins.

The life of a black queer person called Chiron coming of age in Miami is captured in Moonlight which won the Academy Aware for Best Picture in 2016. The viewer is immersed in a lush, dreamlike world in this intoxicating film in which three different actors portray the character of Chiron through three extended vignettes. Relying heavily on photographs for inspiration was how the film’s director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton achieved this.


The work of Dutch photographer Viviane Sassen and the work of American photographer Earlie Hudnall Jr. was what the pair of film makers looked at specifically for inspiration. With images showing close moments among families, friends and neighbours, they were captivated by Hudnall’s loving, realistic depictions in these themes from within African-American communities in the 1970s south. With a remarkable sense of intimacy and empathy Moonlight tells Chiron’s story. An abstract appreciation for the human form and a deeply decadent saturated colour palette was what Jenkins and Laxton were able to draw from Sassen’s images.

“When I look at still images, my brain becomes actively engaged and I am able to picture a whole experience, a different world … photography enhances my sense of what happened just before or after the frame was captured,” sad Laxton in 2016 when explaining his fascination with photography. A scene in which the camera cuts suddenly to a close-up of Chiron’s hand digging into the sand in moments like the beach kissing scene is evidence of Laxton’s photographic approach. It’s a film brimming with honest and subjective moments such as these.

Carol (2015), directed by Todd Haynes.

For the way he simultaneously captured the grit and beauty of 1950s New York City, photographer Saul Leiter is beloved in his own right. The 2015 film Carol, which took place in Manhattan during that decade, was a work conceived by Todd Haynes conceived from the inspiration drawn from Leiter. In a society hardset against their love a young female shop-clerk and a jaded housewife start a romance. Cinematographer Ed Lachman chose to the film on 16mm film giving it the grainy, electric feel of an old-school photograph, in order to evoke the look of 1950s street photography.


While accurately portraying the chaotic forces of city life, director Haynes praised photographer Leiter’s ability to merge both street photography and abstract art. “While at times you think you’re looking at an abstract painting,” he said, “it actually gives such a specific sense of time and place because of the kind of light and how it plays on glass and how it interferes with dust and dirt and grime.” By distancing the viewer from the scene, Leiter was able to obscure the object of his gaze by framing his images through plexiglass or windows, a technique that informed the directorial choice of Haynes’ film.

Nightcrawler (2014), directed by Dan Gilroy.

The photographer known as Weegee (a pseudonym for artist Arthur Fellig), became known in the 1930s as the master photographer of brutal crime scenes on the dirty, dark streets of New York. His life sounds pretty cinematic to begin with, he reportedly slept clothed next to a police radar waiting to wake up and bolt to the latest crime scene, but it was reimagined in Dan Gilroy’s debut film, Nightcrawler, about a similarly determined cameraman, Lou Boom. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal, Lou prowled the streets of Los Angeles, on the hunt for photogenic bloodshed.


Gilroy was first inspired by Weegee when he stumbled upon his book “Naked City” in 1988. The director said he “wanted to tell that story but make it contemporary.” Gilroy maintained the gritty desperation that Weegee so captivating despite using the opportunity with Nightcrawler to update Weegee’s life and his film equipment, giving Lou a digital camcorder rather than a 4 x 5 camera. The film captures the immediacy and luridness of Weegee’s work as much of the film is conveyed through Lou’s viewfinder.

Saving Private Ryan (1998), directed by Steven Spielberg.

Director Steven Spielberg sought to realistically capture the events of World War II’s D-Day through the eyes of a soldier for his wartime epic Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg consulted the photographs captured by the famous Life magazine photojournalist Robert Capa during the D-Day attacks in 1944 in building fidelity to this moment in history. While embedded with Allied soldiers during the landing in Normandy, Capa was a master war journalist, capturing images up-close and with unflinching realism. While discussing Capa as a reference for the film, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński said: “In Saving Private Ryan, I wanted to take a major Hollywood production and make it look like it was shot on 16mm by a bunch of combat cameramen.”


Importantly, Capa followed the maxim that, “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Similarly, Spielberg did everything he could to bring the violence and paralyzing fear of war straight to the viewer, even insisting that the camera shake as a bomb went off, as if the camera itself is also experiencing the impact of the explosions.

Words by Elijah (Content Marketer) via Artsy.