Letter From Moscow
I write this sitting in a hotel bar just off Red Square in Moscow. I feel embarrassed that it has taken me all of 52 years to visit this most intoxicating and mesmerising of capital cities. One’s heart thumps to the beat of history and no more so perhaps than when it is -20 degrees and snowing outside. I glance across to a restaurant called Zhivago and imagery of Omar Sharif and a chilly Julie Christie settles at the forefront of my mind.
I am here to agree terms to a museum show in May at MAMM – one of the most prestigious photographic museums in the world. However, I am visually preoccupied with Red Square and finding it totally spellbinding.
Prior to Moscow, I was working in another place that seems to be at its best in winter – Montana. Ostensibly Moscow and Montana would appear to have little in common – one is a densely populated city of 12 million people and the other is a sparsely populated State of just 1 million people. Moscow has a society of great ritz and glamour on one side coupled with a sinister fringe. In Montana, most people just look like they need a good shave and a wash. However, both destinations offer hugely exciting possibilities for cameramen.
I have been going back to the mountains of Montana every January and February for several years now. It is a spectacular State all year round but in the winter months, the snow and the ice add another layer of narrative that makes all the difference. I like to have a lot going on in my images and the cold adds visual weight to a shot. There is something visceral about the duet of ghost towns and winter weather and in the very same way that Moscow is now at its majestic best, so too are the abandoned mining villages of Montana. I am always drawn to the cold.
I do recognise that June and July can be stunning in this part of the world. Indeed, as a keen film buff, I knew of the power of the summer colours from movies such as The Horse Whisperer, A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall and The Bridges of Madison County. Filmmakers struggle not to find an emotional connection with the State.
But in the summer, huge numbers of tourists land in Bozeman for fishing vacations, dude ranch holidays or road trips. This makes film work harder and exclusive access to the locations in this report is unlikely from March onwards.
For all the majesty of Montana’s sweeping big sky landscapes, it is the people that make Montana special as much as it is the scenery. In the hills there is a sense that time stands still – in attitudes, buildings and most of all in the characters that live up there. Filming with local people requires far greater emotional investment than taking a picture of a mountain range and there is a requirement to invest time. Over the years, I have now done that and it is showing in my work.
Montana is the place I go before all others to tell stories and recreate the old Wild West. The ghost towns high in the mountains are well preserved and virtually deserted in the winter and in the main, their authenticity is uncompromised by unnecessary signs of modernity. It is no shock that rural Montana became a default location for Westerns from the 1940s onwards. John Steinbeck – the Pulitzer and Nobel award winning giant of American 20th century literature – once wrote:
“I am in love with Montana. For other States I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyse love when you’re in it.”
In my own journey, the State has had a big impact. The image “The Wolf of Main Street” shot three years ago in the Pioneer Bar in Virginia City, Montana has effectively sold out and collectors are always making enquiries. It manifestly strikes a chord with so many people and it’s fair to say the image’s huge popularity has emboldened my interest in staged imagery. Sotheby’s in New York will be auctioning the last available copy of this print in April and we will be watching the bidding with interest.
I go to work in Montana as a photographer, not as a wildlife photographer, and there is never any suggestion that I am there to capture reality. I go to challenge my creative skills. Staged shots are a real test of a photographer’s broader ability – people management and set management are more important than camera management. Indeed, the taking of the image can often be the one rather perfunctory part of the day.
Since there is normally a year between my visits, enough time has elapsed for a few preconceived ideas to have developed in my wandering mind. My familiarity with the villages in the mountains helps. I know the fixers, the mountain men, the animal handlers, the government officials and more importantly they know me. I also know the roads and their vulnerability to heavy snow, and then the specific locations and the places to stay warm. Most critically of all, I know where the sun rises and sets and its trajectory during a winter’s day. Light is very important in this job and the light stays low throughout January.
Good relationships have evolved where all who collaborate in my Montana ghost town projects win. I hopefully get some decent new original content and in return all parties are looked after well. Every year more of the locals want to play a role – the sense of partnership is now well established and enjoyed. We have made many friends in the surreal and timeless villages of Ennis and Virginia City and individually and collectively they have all played a role in making the trips worthwhile.
Taking a preconception linearly through to conception and doing it with creative courage is a challenge. There is a pressure to get it right as the content is assured and it follows that the cognitive process is therefore much more intense than a day working in the wilds of Africa. In wildlife photography there is a pressure to perform at the moment the wild encounter comes along, but in staged work, the pressure is all day long.
Nowhere is this more important than in achieving composition balance – that is the heart of everything I think about on set in Montana. As the legendary Scottish photographer, and now friend, Albert Watson once advised me “Impose yourself on the situation and don’t let the situation impose itself on you”. In all the images in this monthly, the dynamic that mattered the most was the composition – I wanted as little negative space as possible and no tension points.
In the series from this year, two people deserve specific mention. I asked Tommy Rosenthal (Rozy), the long term, but now retired, manager of the Pioneer Bar in Virginia City to be in charge of the logistics of what was set to be an intense 72 hours. When he brought in mountain men from two villages that enjoyed a feudal rivalry, he was prepared for trouble and when indeed a fight broke out, it was Rozy that poured water on the fire.
Montana would not be Montana if long bearded men weren’t fighting over something. Rozy, once convicted of Montana’s largest ever drugs bust, has served his time and is now a good mate. Be in no doubt, working with mountain men in Montana requires a high tolerance for liquor consumption and the constant whiff of marijuana. I think by the time we shot “The Usual Suspects”, most of the cast was high. But to impose formal rules on guns, drinks or a little weed would risk losing the crowd. It seemed to make sense to go with the flow.
The model in all of these shoots is a young star from Texas called Roxanna Redfoot. With a name as evocative as this, she was never meant to be working at a Taco Bell concession in downtown Dallas. As soon as I found her, I knew that she would be perfect for the trip. I needed a strong face, a little attitude and a theatrical character. She had it all and I sense Hitchcock would have cast her on many an occasion. In the bar scene – The Usual Suspects – she absolutely nailed it. She will be a star – in fact she already is.