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Note: The sequence of images in this feature was updated Jan. 8, 2013. 

American Special forces, guns trained and at the ready, stand outside a fortified compound on foreign soil. Cast in midnight shadow, the well-armed and night-vision-equipped troops communicate with hand motions and brief radio exchanges.

What follows is a stunningly efficient raid — carefully choreographed — with the requisite shouted commands, sporadic gunfire, and the low-hummed whirr of helicopter blades. Through it all, photographer Jonathan Olley was there.

But these bullets and bombs were mere props. The soldiers: actors instead. The drama: cinematic climate written and directed by the movie industry’s best. But in the world of Hollywood, Jonathan Olley’s photographs are almost too real.

Many Americans have likely seen Olley’s work, even if they don’t know the photographer by name. With his images plastered on the sides of bus stop vestibules or subway station walls, on billboards, print advertisements and even the cover of Newsweek, Jonathon Olley is the stills photographer for this year’s Oscar-hopeful Zero Dark Thirty.

The film, from Academy Award-winning director Kathryn Bigelow, traces the hunt for Osama bin Laden through the career of one female American intelligence officer, played by Jessica Chastain. While the film has received criticism —from politicians and the military, not to mention historians who challenge the film portrayal of events— the virulence of the critiques may fairly reflect how realistic the movie is presented.

“What we were attempting is almost a journalistic approach to film,” Bigelow told the The New Yorker in an interview about the movie last December. Who better to photograph a movie about a war, than a photojournalist who had seen one up close.

As a 27-year-old photographer, Jonathan Olley traveled to Sarajavo, a city under siege as Yugoslavia slowly broke apart. Packed and ready to leave on February 5, 1994, Olley was footsteps from the city’s main market when a violent explosion rocked his career forever.

Jonathan Olley

Jonathan Olley

Markale market masacre during the Siege of Sarajevo, which killed 68 and wounded 200. 1994.

The mortar, responsible for the deaths of 68 people and the wounding of 200, left a near-dazed Olley reeling amidst the chaos of the scene.

“I made some photographs of the place in a haphazard and panicky way” he remembers. “At that point, I got grabbed by some men and had a gun put in my mouth.”

Jonathan Olley

Jonathan Olley

British Army's 19th Field Ambulance high on the mountain plain of Bosnia-Herzegovina protect a wounded soldier from the downwash of a Royal Navy Sea King. Sipovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Former Yugoslavia. 1996.

For Olley, those moments served as “catalyst” in his professional career, illustrating how photographers could become part of the stories they covered, and could even create conflict while trying only to bear witness.

“That day made me think about what my position in all of this was,” he said. “In the end, the risks” — by this he means for himself and the people he photographed— “were not worth the news agenda of the day.”

More than a decade after that fateful event, Olley was introduced to Hollywood director Paul Greengrass, who hired him as photographer for the film Green Zone, a movie about the fruitless search for nuclear weapons in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Jonathan Olley

Jonathan Olley

Iraqi tank destroyed by depleted-Uranium tipped weapon. Al-Amarah, Maysan, Iraq. 2004.

Today, with three films under his belt, Olley says his commercial photography work on Green Zone, The Hurt Locker and now Zero Dark Thirty, requires the same skill and attention to detail as covering any war.

“You don’t really get a lot of access and you have to find your position in the maelstrom of activity.” Olley told TIME in an interview from his home in London. “Like conflict photography, shooting film stills is about being in a place where no one really wants you to be and making it work.”

Because still photographers are “non-essential” for the production process, he said — the photographs are used primarily to promote the movie when complete — the stills photographer is often the first victim of ornery directors, aggressive producers, or mercurial actors. If filming is going poorly, or the timing just isn’t right, photographers can be asked — politely or otherwise — to leave.

Jonathan Olley

Jonathan Olley

Zimbabwean de-miners in full protective clothing in Al-Zubai-Dat, Iran on the Iraqi border.

“Some actors are a little bit like racehorses: great to watch, but tough to deal with,” he jokes. In spite of the tensions, though, Olley is quick to add that many of Hollywood’s best actors — from Matt Damon to Jennifer Chastain — understand the importance of a film’s still photography and that working with these professionals at their best is “a privilege.”

Yet, as journalistic as his commercial images might look, and as close to reality as some Hollywood films have become, Olley views his film work as a means to other personal and professional ends.

“To me it’s like any other job,” said Olley, whose latest project, large format photography looking at the legacy of empire in Ireland, has received interest from the Tate Modern museum in London.

Despite the challenges of photographing the silver screen, Olley’s film experiences have been his most professionally forgiving, he said.

With scenes getting multiple takes — professional “second chances”— he has more opportunities to capture the valuable, powerful moments. However, for Olley — so nearly killed while covering conflict — there is comfort in the security of a Hollywood set.

Jonathan Olley

Jonathan Olley

Victim of shell splinters from a Serbian mortar-round. Jewish Community Centre, Central Sarajevo. 1994.

“At least in this business, you don’t die when you get it wrong,” he said.

Jonathan Olley is a photographer based in London.

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Stanley Kubrick’s professional career began April 12, 1945, as the high school junior — with a prolific track record of absences — wandered the streets of the Bronx and snapped a picture of a crestfallen newsstand dealer surrounded by headlines announcing the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As childhood friend Alexander Singer tells the story, Kubrick immediately ran to his home darkroom, which his father had built to encourage the scholastic underachiever’s budding interest in photography, printed the picture and made a sale that same afternoon to Look Magazine. The following year, when no colleges would accept Kubrick because of his poor academic record, Look hired him as a full-time staff photographer.

Singer and Kubrick had forged a bond over shared scholastic apathy and mutual respect of each other’s extracurricular achievements — Singer as editor of the school literary arts magazine, and Kubrick as the kid with a camera around his neck: “almost a caricature of what you’d imagine a teenage cameraman would look like,” as Singer describes. When plans to photograph a feature-length cinematic adaptation of Homer’s Iliad written and directed by Singer proved too ambitious, Kubrick struck upon the idea to instead translate one of his own photographic essays to the big screen.

That essay was Prizefighter, published by Look in January 1949, and described by Kubrick biographer Vincent LoBrutto as the moment he came of age as a photojournalist. The seven-page story depicted scenes from the life of Bronx-born middleweight boxer Walter Cartier as he trained and prepared to enter the ring against moments from his romantic and domestic lives. Often working under stark, overhead light with infrared film (also favored by his idol, Weegee), Kubrick captured high-contrast images that emphasized Walter’s physique and cast brooding, incisive shadows on his face.

Prizefighter would go on to define Kubrick in other ways, though. It might have been his dawning moment as a photojournalist, but the essay would also serve as the basis of the first film Kubrick would direct, called Day at the Fight, released two years later.

The 20-year old Kubrick made the decision to shoot his first film on 35mm rather than the lighter, more economical 16mm format favored by amateurs—a bold decision by someone who later described the entirety of his motion picture camera training as a hands-on demonstration at an equipment house. Kubrick and Singer used Bell & Howell’s Eyemo, a lightweight camera introduced 1926 for use in newsreels and military applications and advertised, perhaps over-optimistically, “as convenient to carry as the average size ‘still’ camera.” Kubrick photographed most of the project solo, and Singer joined on a second ringside camera to capture the live fight scene. A third camera operator also filmed from high in the auditorium.

Comparing the Prizefighter contact sheets side-by-side with Day of the Fight, one gets the sense that much of the creative legwork had been worked out during the photo essay, which, despite its ostensible documentary subject matter, was chiefly constructed through deliberately-staged scenes. But Day of the Fight is a distinctly cinematic work; particularly remarkable is Kubrick’s ability to control time and add an element of suspense in portraying Walter’s anticipation of the fight, a trait missing in Prizefighter. The first-time director was also aided by the fact that the physical spectacle of boxing lends itself to cinema. After all, the first feature-length film ever released was a 1897 St. Patrick’s Day fight between James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons. Many of the same setups from the contact sheets and short film are repeated in Kubrick’s subsequent work, particularly his second feature, Killer’s Kiss, a seedy yarn about a down-on-his-luck fighter.

Although Kubrick is regarded as the most critically and commercially successful photographer turned full-time feature filmmaker, this mainstream acclaim might also be the reason his name rarely enters the discussion of the legendary New York-based photographers and their progressive contributions to avant garde and non-narrative filmmaking. This tradition includes Paul Strand (Manhatta, 1921), Rudy Burckhardt (The Pursuit of Happiness, 1940) Helen Levitt (In the Street, 1949), Ruth Orkin & Morris Engel (The Little Fugitive, 1953), William Klein (Broadway by Light, 1958) and Robert Frank (Pull My Daisy, 1959), among whose varying innovations include discrete handheld photography, examples of “life caught unawares,” and blurring lines between documentary and staged situations. Kubrick’s perceived youth and inexperience may be another factor in this oversight: though several writers have supported their praise of The Little Fugitive by recalling that the ten-years-senior Engel claimed a 25-year-old Kubrick attempted to rent his uniquely-constructed equipment for his own first feature (Fear and Desire), Kubrick’s production predates The Little Fugitive by several months. Furthermore, much of Kubrick’s early work has not been widely available to the public — per Kubrick’s wishes, Fear and Desire only recently resurfaced after decades of suppression.

One could hardly argue Day of the Fight is a major work in the context of documentary film or Kubrick’s entire oeuvre, but it remains a fascinating key to understanding the development of Kubrick as an artist and entrepreneur—an under-appreciated example of the maverick cinematic approaches developed by street photographers. Undoubtedly, Day of the Fight is one of the most assured and mature endeavors undertaken by someone approaching a film camera for the first time.

Jon Dieringer is an independent curator and the editor and publisher of Screen Slate, a daily online resource for listings and commentary of New York City repertory film and independent media.

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In July of this year, in an admirable attempt to secure him as a guest on his Nerdist Podcast, Chris Hardwick sent a beautiful 1934 Smith Corona to noted typewriter collector Tom Hanks and popped the question. Within days, Hanks responded with the charming letter seen below, typed on the Corona.

Unsurprisingly, the anecdote-filled podcast that resulted is wonderful. It can be heard here.

Transcript follows.

(Source: Chris Hardwick; Image: Tom Hanks, via.)

Transcript

13 July 2012

PLAYTONE

Dear Chris, Ashley, and all the diabolical genuies at Nerdist Industries.

Just who do you think you are to try to briibe me into an apperance on your 'thing' with this gift of the most fantastic Cornona Silent typewriter made in 1934?

You are out of your minds if you think... that I... wow, this thing has great action... and this deep crimson color... Wait! I'm not so shallow as to... and it types nearly silently...

Oh, OKAY!

I will have my people contact yours and work out some kind of interview process...

Damn you all to hell,

(Signed, 'Tom Hanks')

RSS Feed proudly sponsored by TinyLetter, a simple newsletter service for people with something to say.

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College feat. Electric Youth - A Real Hero (Drive original soundtrack) 

This movie improved my life.

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On January 7th of 1964, having held his tongue for two months despite a steady stream of criticism, author Ken Kesey wrote the following letter to The New York Times in defence of the Broadway adaptation of his novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; a stage show which had attracted a fair amount of bad press, chiefly due to its supposedly unrealistic storyline, characters, and setting. Clearly Kesey — a man who found inspiration for the asylum-based novel whilst working in a veteran's hospital for a year — had heard enough.

A brilliant read.

Transcript follows. Image courtesy of Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research.


Image: Wisconsin Center for Film & Theater Research
Transcript
KIRK DOUGLAS
ONE FLEW OVER THE
CUCKOO'S NEST

January 7, 1964

From: Ken Kesey, [Redacted]

Drama Mailbag:

The answering of one's critics has always struck me as doing about as much good as fighting crabgrass with manure. Critics generally thrive on the knowledge that their barbs are being felt; best to keep silent and starve them of such attention, let them shrivel and dry, spines turned in. So I have tried to keep this silence during the attacks on the Wasserman play of my novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest...figuring that the people who saw the play as being about a mental hospital, because it is set in a mental ward, are the sort that would fault Moby Dick for being an "exaggerated" story about a boat, also figuring that such simplemindedness is relatively harmless. And even keeping silent when the play was condemned because the subject of mental health as a whole was treated disrespectfully, or irresponsibly, or--god forbid!--humorously.

But when the defenders of "Cuckoo's Nest" begin to show signs of suffering some of the same misconceptions as the critics, I feel I must speak out.

Mr. Friedman's letter last Sunday was as good an argument as I've read for judging a work on it's own terms. Still, by comparing the reality of the setting of "Cuckoo's Nest" with "1984" or "The Trial," he does injustice to a number of people connected with the research that went into that setting. First, the director, Alex Segel, who created an atmosphere so faithful to the wacky-weird world of a nuthouse ward (faithful to the real wards, not the public conception of what a hospital should be like) that a friend of mine, (a Speech Therapist in a V.A. Hospital who took time off to fly back to the opening), remarked after the final curtain, "I feel as though I just put in a hard day at the office."

Second, the actors. Who capture that nuthouse feeling so completely with their characterizations that I found myself wondering where some of them had been sprung from. Just, for a small example, their movement: inmates have a way of walking that is both piticully random and terribly purposeful, and peculiar to no other place I know of save the mental ward. The cast has this peculiar movement. Watch Ruckly when he shuffles onto stage; he's been shuffling that same path in those same slippers for centuries. Or watch Billy Bibbit's neck contortions, or the caged-squirell frolicking of Marini's madness. And Kirk Douglas..after watching his performance, in which the usual Douglas' gestures and gyrations were secondary, to subtler actions (the way he will playfully punch another character's arm as he passes, a gesture barely noticible, familiar, reinforcing..) I asked if he had visited any hospital in preparing for the part. "Spent a lot of time in Camarillo," he told me. "Got to know a lot of the guys. I still correspond with one. "Quite a place. And different, you know? then you think it'll be..."

And last, the notion that this setting is only a fictional and fantastic one does an injustice to thousands of patients in hundreds of wards almost identical to that ward on the stage of the Cort. While Cuckoo's Nest is, as Mr. Friedman rightly points out, about more than just a mental hospital, it is also an attack on tyranny of the sort that is perhaps more predominant in mental hospitals then any place else in our land. It is by no accident that the acute ward was picked for the setting; after working for close to a year as an aide in two hospitals in California I could imagine no better backdrop for my parable. I only needed describe what I had seen and heard, what I had felt after endless swing shift hours talking with the broken and defeated men of our society, and what I concluded to be the stress thar broke them. McMurphy is, of course, fictional--a dream, a wild hope fabricated out of need in defeat--but the men he comes to save, and the menace he battles, these are real, live human being. While this world may be fantastic, it is not mere fantasy. Neither is it an exaggeration; when I hear of someone accusing the book, or the play, of "exaggerating the bad" I think of my last days at the hospital: the first draft of the book almost finished, I had handed in my letter of resignation (a day before, incidently, I received a letter from the superior nurse advising me I was being discharged for "a lack of interest in the hospital...") and I had only one bit of research left: I wished to try shock treatment to get some idea why the patients thought it so bad. And I did. And I found out. And to those who think it is fictionally exaggerated I only say try it first and see.

Because it can never be as bad in fiction as it is in real life.

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Confessions (告白) by Tetsuya Nakashima was the Japanese movie selected as the entry for the Best Foreign Language Film of this year. The movie is based on a novel by Kanae Minato, which was one the most sold books in Japan in 2008.

I hadn’t seen the movie until my brother recommended it to me the other day. Confessions is a psychological thriller; a high school teacher turns into a cruel killer that wants to take revenge for the death of her daughter. The movie shows us many of the current social problems of the Japan of today, as for example ijime (bullying), the Japanese education system and AIDS. Even tough it is very different, some aspects of the movie reminded me of Battle Royale by Takeshi Kitano.

Very well recommended!

Confessions

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On April 8th of 1954, less than two years before his untimely death at the age of 24, promising young actor James Dean left New York and headed for Los Angeles in order to prepare for his first starring role in a Hollywood movie, as Cal Trask in East of Eden. The change of scene was unwelcome and, just a few weeks after arriving and clearly homesick, Dean wrote the following anguished letter to on-off girlfriend Barbara Glenn.

East of Eden was released in March of 1955, six months before Dean's tragic car crash; his leading performance as Cal Trask resulted in a posthumous Oscar nomination - the first of its kind - at the 1956 Academy Awards.

Transcript follows. Huge thanks to Abigail for supplying the scan.

Recommended reading: James Dean: At Speed.

Transcript
4.26.54

FAMOUS ARTISTS CORPORATION

Dearest Barbara

I don't like it here. I don't like people here. I like it home (N.Y.) and I like you and I want to see you. Must I always be miserable? I try so hard to make people reject me. Why? I don't want to write this letter. It would be better to remain silent. "Wow! Am I fucked up"

Got here on a Thurs. went to the desert on Sat., weeks latter to San Francisco. I DONT KNOW WHERE I AM. Rented a car for 2 weeks it cost me $138.00. I WANT TO DIE. I have told [Redacted] and 5 others like her to kiss my ass and what stench, spineless, stupid prostitutes they were. I HAVENT BEEN TO BED WITH NO BODY. And won't untill after the picture and I am home safe in N.Y.C. (snuggly little town that it is) sounds unbelievable but it's the truth I swear. So hold everything, stop breathing, stop the town all of N.Y.C. untill (should have trumpets here) James Dean returns.

Wow! Am I fucked up. I got no motorcycle I got no girl. HONEY, shit writting in capitals doesn't seem to help either. Haven't found a place to live yet, still living with my father--HONEY. Kazan sent me out here to get a tan. Haven't seen the sun yet. (fog & smog) Wanted me healthy looking. I look like a prune. Don't run away from home at too early an age or you'll half to take vitamins the rest of your life. Wish you cooked. I'll be home soon. Write me please. I'm sad most of the time. Awful lonely too isn't it. (I hope youre dying) BECAUSE I AM.

Love.

Jim {Brando Clift} Dean

My address is (fathers that is) is
1667 So. Bundy Drive
L.A. 25, Calif.

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