Saturday, June 20, 2009

THX-1138, high key, and Harry Callahan


THX-1138, San Francisco BART, April 2007.

This high key picture of a passing train reminded me of THX-1138. Audiophiles will recognize THX (Tomilinson Holman's eXperiment) from the roaring locomotive credits found in some DVDs, the trademark of Lucasfilm's high fidelity quality assurance technology used for movie soundtracks. But for cinephiles, THX can only mean one thing: the 1971 film THX-1138, George Lucas' Orwellian nightmare of totalitarianism set in the 25th century.

THX-1138 is George Lucas' first feature film, which he made after apprenticing with Francis Ford Coppola, six years before the rampaging phenomenon called Star Wars. It was shot in color, but many of the scenes have the feel of black & white in high key. Characters, male and female, wear white, their heads are shaven clean, and they are shot against empty white spaces whose stark incandescence blinds the eyes; they appear imprisoned in eternity.

The high key images of THX-1138 recall the 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer's masterpiece of minimalism. The movie has been spectacularly restored on DVD by Criterion and features an alternate score, "Voices of Light," which was inspired by the film. The movie is a must see for the performance of Maria Falconetti, who plays Joan of Arc, and its unforgettable high key images.

High key photographs, like the portrait I shot on the right, are remarkable for their exaggerated brightness and shadowless contrasts, achieved through exposure, lighting or post-processing. The white-on-white quality of high key images gives them the delicacy of brush paintings; at their most pronounced, the brightness consumes the forms, leaving nothing but line.

Some of my favorite high key images were made by Chicago photographer Harry Callahan, whose nudes and portraits of his wife, Eleanor, are oftentimes so washed out by light that they become abstractions of the female form. Callahan's pictures have been described as "quiet," like the laconic photographer himself, the kind you would look at while listening to Mompou or Satie. It's the high key; white is the color of tranquility.

High key images from THX-1138
video

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