Keith Bernstein: I shoot film sets like I would real life

    Payback member Keith Bernstein talks to DACS about his life as a photographer, from his first ventures into reportage and photographing Nelson Mandela, to shooting stills on Anthony Minghella’s film sets.

    What made you pick up a camera?

    I was inspired by my mother, who was an artist and used a Canonet to photograph street scenes for reference. From the age of 13 or 14, I just knew I wasn’t interested in anything else - I wanted to be a photographer. I was determined to get out of school as quick as I could, so I left school just after I turned 18.
    It was a completely different time back then. Photography assistant jobs were advertised and it was quite easy to get a job. The first week after I left school I got a job with Mark Gerson, quite a famous portrait photographer. He was just around the corner in St John’s Wood and had a studio opposite Paul McCartney’s house. There were many jobs around at that period so you could move on quite quickly. After about nine months of working for Gerson I decided I knew everything there was to know about photography, so I went out on my own and set myself up – which was a terrible decision!

    What did you do after that?

    I started working for a travel company doing holiday brochures. I’d spend five or six months of the year in Greece taking pictures of beaches and putting hats on donkeys, things like that. Then I became more interested in different areas of photography and began going to exhibitions. I worked for magazines like Time Out, doing street photography and small picture stories in London. Over a long period, I eventually moved into reportage and I really loved that. I met by chance a new picture editor at the Sunday Telegraph who’d come from Time Out. I went to show him my work and he started giving me freelance assignments. That marked my progression into editorial work.

    How would you describe your style of photography?

    It’s a kind of naturalistic style, I try not to pose people. Even when I’m shooting films, which is obviously a very different area from photojournalism, I just treat it in the same way – the day just happens in front of you and you shoot it.

    Are there any particular photographers or artists have inspired you?

    There are three photographers that I come back to all the time. Guy Bourdin was the first one. I still look at his work probably once a week and I’ve got every book that he’s done, which is weird because I don’t do any fashion or studio photography. Larry Burrows is the second and his book, Vietnam, is archetypal type of photojournalism. The third one is the American photographer O. Winston Link, who was most famous for doing huge set-ups in black and white of steam trains going through rural America.

    Can you tell me a bit about your experience photographing Nelson Mandela in the nineties?

    I’m South African and my dad was in jail with Mandela and knew him very well. In ’94 and ’95 I was photographing the elections in South Africa for quite a long period and then in ’96 when Mandela came to the UK on a state visit, I was assigned to cover his visit.
    He was big, physically - an ex-boxer - and even in the ‘90s when he was elderly he still had a huge physical presence. He had quite a sharp temper, a sharp voice. But he just had a natural relaxation about him that I’ve never seen in any other politician, ever. And he did things which no other politician in certain situations would do and could carry off without appearing ridiculous.
    It’s weird looking back. When you’re younger, you sort of complete the job and move on. But it impacts you as you get older. The other day I was looking back at a picture and thought ‘God, I was standing in his living room and he was reading a newspaper and looking at his watch’ - in hindsight it’s amazing. But it was also a coincidence of being in the right place at the right time.

    How did you get into stills photography in the film industry?

    I started on The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency with Anthony Minghella and that was the first film I worked on. I was introduced by a friend who’s a publicist and went to show him my work. I’d worked a lot in Africa but I hadn’t done film stills so I asked Anthony Minghella what to shoot. He said “Just shoot whatever’s in front of you, treat it like real life” - and that’s stayed with me ever since. So when you enter the set and there’s hundreds of people running around you just treat it as if you’ve wandered into a real life situation - that’s how I shot The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency.

    How would you describe a typical day on a film set?

    Long! Film days are always long – they say it’s going to be ten hours but they’re always longer than that. I work in the camera department and I’m on set all day, every day.
    I shoot during the scenes, I never shoot a run-through afterwards. None of it is set up. Then there are periods when it might be quiet during the day but there’s always stuff to do, particularly now with social media. The demand for pictures has gone from being the traditional press pack of 20 photographs - which they might send out to newspapers and magazines, and use for a film poster – but now there’s an insatiable demand on social media for images and short videos.
    The uses are kind of incredible. Obviously, it’s the star names that sell a movie and that’s what we have to concentrate on. But there are so many online publications now which deal with cinematography, hair and make-up, costume design, set decoration and so forth. They all have a demand for pictures and they appear in the most obscure places. But you might shoot a make-up artist with a wig or a hairpiece and, if you’ve got enough pictures, that becomes a small feature in a magazine and then that’s used to publicise the film.

    It’s notoriously difficult to sustain a career as photographer. What do you see as DACS’ role in this area?

    It is difficult. There’s no career map that says how it’s going to be - it’s really just a ball of string and you follow it. Sometimes it leads to dead ends and sometimes it leads to fantastic things. There’s no predictability about it, particularly now with the decline of editorial markets.
    DACS is important to me for two reasons. When a film comes out and my pictures are very widely reproduced, it becomes impossible to monitor and police it all. I have neither the time and energy nor the will to chase those infringements. The Payback royalty I receive from DACS goes part of the way to redressing the experience of your work being infringed. It’s also important because platforms like Facebook and Google have made it very clear that they’re not publishers and that frees them from the responsibility of copyright infringement. It’s part of keeping the balance between the work you get paid for and the work that gets stolen.

    As a Payback member, how do the royalties help you?

    I’ve been claiming Payback royalties for about 10 to 12 years. They come at a good time of year. I tend to put the money towards something personal that I want to do - towards work that isn’t necessarily going to pay me back immediately but that I can see down the line might have a return.

    Can you tell us about any projects you are working on at the moment?

    It’s tied to my film work but the one that’s really intrigued me is a series I’m doing on movie extras - some of the pictures are up on my website. Usually these people don’t have any speaking part or any credit on the film, they’re anonymous. And the same people tend to reappear. Some are students and it’s a one-off, but there are others who will tell you their whole story stretching back to their first episode of EastEnders.

    Finally, do you have any tips for emerging photographers?

    I wouldn’t say don’t do it because I love it. It is very difficult, it’s overcrowded and almost everything that you hear about it is true. It’s tiresome to repeat those stories. But even within that, it’s still a fantastic job. Don’t let anybody dissuade you from doing it, because it’s better than working in a shop.

    Find out more about Keith Bernstein

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    Image: Keith Bernstein photographed by Brian Benson © Brian Benson, 2017.

    Posted on 28/04/2017 by Jessica Bancroft