Russ Lamoureux: A Look at the Oscars

Russ Lamoureux is an Emmy-winning director and IPA/Lucie Award-winning photographer interested in the power of images to tell stories. He credits the storytelling prowess of a wide range of artists — John Updike, Stephen Shore, Robert Altman, to name a few — as influential in his own work. Lamoureux has helmed commercials for some of the world’s most respected agencies, is a frequent contributor to the cycling and culture magazine peloton and the UK magazine Spashion. Lamoureux is represented by Partizan, CAA and The Gotham Group.

Q: How would you describe your photography?

A: Images that can be read, like a paragraph from a longer story.

Q:  When you say, “images that can be read, like a paragraph from a longer story,” this seems to imply you think each individual image has to stand on its own, but that it achieves even greater meaning in the context of a larger thematic structure. Is that correct, and can you tell us more about your feelings on this subject?

A: I love a series of images that tell a story. Part of what I do when I edit is to pull out any images that don’t at least suggest something broader. What is he looking at just beyond the edge of the frame? Where is she going in such a hurry? It’s that quality of suggestion, of things going on outside the individual image, that makes them compelling to me. So to your point, yes, I want them to stand alone, but also to hint at something more.

Q: What is your profession by trade? Are you a full-time photographer or a serious enthusiast?

A: I’m a director by trade — commercials; shorts; working on my first feature. When it comes to photography, I consider myself an enthusiast.

Q: How did you become interested in photography? Did you have any formal education in photography?

A: As a director I often study photography for inspiration. Originally I was looking at the more obvious — color, framing — but over time I became drawn to the storytelling and esoteric details captured by guys like Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Mitch Epstein. I realized I didn’t need a film crew to tell a story; I could just go out with my camera and find a story.

I have no formal education in photography. Commercial and fine art photographer Shawn Michienzi (2012 Lucie winner, Print Campaign) has been my mentor for the past 10 years. In addition, directing commercials has given me the opportunity to work with, and learn from, a number of the industry’s most talented cinematographers and gaffers.

Q: How do you think your experience as a director working constantly with cinematographers has shaped your vision and methodology as a still photographer and as a photojournalist?

A: One habit I’ve definitely picked up is seeing the shot in my head before committing it to film or memory card. I rarely raise the camera to my eye unless I’m pretty confident in what I’m seeing. But I’ve also learned a lot about light from working with cinematographers and gaffers. That might be the bigger influence, actually. Even when we’re lighting a set, we’re guided by the ambient light and what it does naturally. It’s just hugely important to the success of a shot. My experience as a director has taught me how to find the best light for the shot I’m trying to get.

Q: What cameras and lenses do you use? What particular characteristics of this equipment do you find particularly conducive to your kind of photojournalism? Do you believe there is something distinctive in the way Leica lenses render subjects?

A: I have a Leica M9 with 35 mm Summilux, 50 mm Summilux and 50 mm Noctilux lenses.

The compact size of the M9 allows me to be a bit more inconspicuous when I shoot, which came in handy at the awards, where I found myself in some pretty tight spaces. When it comes to fast lenses, the obvious benefit is the ability to shoot in very low light. But I like how the shallow depth of field transforms cluttered backgrounds into esthetically pleasing, painterly shapes. The Noctilux is especially good for that.

I definitely think there is a Leica look, more with the Summilux lenses than the Noctilux. The Summilux have such a crispness at the focal point. The Noctilux is softer, both in focus and contrast, which might make it an odd choice for black-and-white. But I find that in heavily contrasted lighting situations it renders images more like what I see with my own eye.

Q: Your Oscars portfolio provides a kind of in front of the scenes/behind the scenes view of the Oscars that captures the viewpoint of the participants. If there is any message here it’s that behind the glitz and glamour, it’s a slog — lots of hard work, tension, anxiety; all that good stuff we associate with work. Do you think that’s a fair impression, and what do you feel is the essence of the story these images communicate to the viewer?

A: I wanted to capture the pomp and sense of occasion that once attended the Oscars, especially the ones from the 1970s, but that wasn’t the story that presented itself. I saw instead a lot of hard work, exhaustion, and eventually outright frustration and tension: the run-up to a lackluster show. It was 180 degrees from the story I thought I was going to shoot, but it was more rewarding too, more honest and human. So yeah, I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

Q: All your Oscars images are presented in black-and-white. What do you find especially compelling about the black-and-white medium for your style of photojournalism? Do you ever shoot in color, and have you considered acquiring a Leica Monochrom?

A: Black-and-white gives images this sort of instant nostalgia, which I love, and which leads back to the story I hoped to shoot — matinee idols, old world glamour, etc. Also, the entire awards show was art-directed to be black-and-white. So color was never really on my mind. Unfortunately, the Monochrom hadn’t been released at the time of the shoot or I would have tried to get my hands on one! This work aside, I mostly shoot in color.

Q: Do you think it is important or helpful for the viewer to know the identity of famous subjects? Does this information add depth and context to the images or is it largely irrelevant?

A: I think knowing who the subjects are important, yeah. It adds depth to the story and a crucial context. If you saw candid images of a famous figure like the president, say, sneaking a smoke, without knowing who he was, you’d be missing out on a lot. Same here. In the movies these actors are larger than life; they’re stars. They’re on magazine covers and billboards. But who knows what they’re really like. Here we get to pull back the curtain a bit and have a peek at the regular person, the one who’s struggling, who’s worried or annoyed or anxious. The one who’s trying to get through a job that isn’t going so well.

Q: Many of the images in this portfolio exhibit shallow depth of field, indicating they were shot at wide apertures. Do you often shoot wide open or at wide apertures, and can you say something about how you use this technique creatively? For example, the image with the presenters center stage are both out of focus while the giant Oscar statue between them and the arched scaffolding behind them are sharply rendered, emphasizing the venue rather than the participants.

A: In that particular image, forced perspective makes the Oscar statue appear life-size, like some stoic third character on stage with the presenters. I used the camera’s shallow depth of field to draw the viewer’s eye to what I was seeing: Oscar himself, the embodiment of decades of tradition, watching over — possibly judging? — the seemingly happy hosts. I don’t want to say it has a sinister aspect exactly, but when you view it alongside the other images, it does contribute to a feeling of unease, of things not going quite right.

Q: This image of Anne Hathaway sitting on a round table with out-of-focus Oscar nomination posters visible in the background is almost a metaphor for the haphazard nature of the whole process. Looking upward with a furrowed brow seated on the roulette wheel of chance she is agonizing over whether she is among those chosen. Am I reading too much into this, and what was going through your mind when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This is Anne Hathaway trying to steal some rest. When I snapped this shot, she’d been seated for maybe 30 seconds. There’s a hand reaching in from the upper-left corner of the frame belonging to an assistant director, beckoning her back to work. My guess is that the furrowed brow has more to do with tired feet than anything else. That said, I think there are unanswered questions in this image that caused your mind to look for answers. You wrote your own story, in such detail. That’s what makes photography so engaging.

Q:  Two images comprise kind of an ironic diptych. In the first, it’s show time, and there we are on the monitor, beaming with engaging smiles; in the second, it’s the real us (“When is this going to be over?”), expressing the anxiety of waiting on cue for that moment when we’re supposed to turn on the charm. These images seem to reveal the artifice of performance. Do you agree, and why did you decide to present both these views consecutively?

A: I agree completely. The first shot, of happy hosts on the monitor, is what I expected to see. The second shot, of the despondent hosts, is what I kept discovering. As much as I wanted to capture grandeur and elegance and ceremony, the humanity of the night’s presenters was the theme that kept asserting itself, and it ended up being much more compelling besides.

Q: There is a wonderful behind the-scenes-picture of Anne Hathaway lifting her long gown, evidently to facilitate her entrance on stage. It reveals her beauty and vulnerability with empathy and compassion. How did you come to take this engaging picture? Did Ms. Hathaway ever see it, and if so what was her reaction?

A: I took this shot during the final dress rehearsal, as Anne was being hurried through back hallways and stairwells to her dressing room for a quick wardrobe change. I camped out in the stairwell for several minutes waiting … and waiting. I had my camera partially raised and at the ready, checking and rechecking that I had focus where I thought she would be. The second I saw her through the entourage of handlers and security I squeezed the shutter. This one image was the result. The beauty and vulnerability is all Anne. The rest was luck.

Q:  How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three to five years and do you plan to explore any other genres such as portraiture, nature, urban street photography, etc.?

A: I’d love to explore the kind of staged reality that you see in the work of Jeff Wall and Lise Sarfati. But who knows why we’re drawn to certain stories, or what I’ll come across next that gets me excited to pick up my camera and shoot.

Thank you for your time, Russ!

- Leica Internet Team

See more of Russ’ work on his website.