The private Polaroids of a celebrated cinematographer

The Polaroid photos were taken during a rare break from work. On weekends, when he wasn’t fully immersed in his day job, Robbie Mueller would pull out an SX-70, 600, Spectra, or whatever Polaroid camera he was using at the time and start capturing the everyday details he saw around him.

Usually, it would be an interior shot of his hotel room: he’d notice light seeping through a pair of green shutters, or his own reflection magnified to infinity in the bathroom mirror, and snap the picture. Or it could be a street scene: a deserted parking lot in Memphis or the neon-lit exterior of a Santa Fe bar. Removing the photo from the camera, Mueller would write the date and location on the back and tuck it under a T-shirt for safekeeping. Later, he stored the Polaroids – about 2,000 of them, taken over 30 years – in a wooden box in his Amsterdam home.

The day job, for Müller, was as director of photography on some of the most strikingly composed films of the late 20th century. His closest working relationship was with Wim Wenders; he shot 12 of the German director’s features including Alice in the Cities, The American Friend and Paris, Texas. He also worked with Jim Jarmusch on Down By Law, Mystery Train and Dead Man, and Lars von Trier on Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark.

On these films, as well as others by William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich, Sally Potter and Michael Winterbottom, the Dutchman built his reputation as a fearless experimenter who preferred to shoot spontaneously, riffing on whatever caught his eye in the moment rather than constructing shots in advance. He used natural light, eschewing cumbersome lighting rigs where possible, and the resulting images – of lurid LA drinking dens in Barfly, or of Johnny Depp paddling down a monochrome river in Dead Man – seem to glow from within.

After Müller died in Amsterdam last July aged 78, following several years of illness, Jim Jarmusch told the New York Times: “He was inspired by painters who used light the way Caravaggio and Vermeer did. I used to tease him that he should have been born in the same century as Vermeer.”

Müller had a knack for finding beauty in the most unpromising places. To understand how he achieved this over more than 70 feature films, it’s worth taking a closer look at his off-duty camerawork. “He was always taking photographs,” says his wife, Andrea Müller-Schirmer, a Dutch art magazine photo editor who has curated an exhibition of Müller’s Polaroids which opens to coincide with the annual photography festival at Arles next month. “He never left the house without a camera, he always had at least three or four in one bag.”

Polaroid cameras appealed to him because “they had this instant result,” says Müller-Schirmer. He would take a photograph, study the printed image a moment later, “and then take another one to improve what he saw.”Sometimes he took multiple Polaroids of the same situation; in one wonderful sequence, shot at the Mayflower hotel in Manhattan in 1986, sheer curtains billow in a breeze. At first the light from outside dominates, but over the course of six photographs the windows darken and the light from a bedside lamp takes over. It’s easy to imagine Müller filing this lesson away for a future piece of understated, but masterful, cinematography.

From the sense of loneliness that haunts the Polaroids, and his keen eye for the tawdrier side of American life, it’s no surprise that Müller was an admirer of the painter Edward Hopper. But according to Müller-Schirmer, who met her future husband on the set of Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World in 1990, the scarcity of people in his frames also reflected his character. “I think he was too shy to approach people and ask them [if he could take their photograph],” she says.

The Polaroids have the feel of an intimate sketchbook, a way of working things out in private, and according to Müller-Schirmer they weren’t intended for public consumption. But a decade ago, the artist and film-maker Steve McQueen, who hired Müller to shoot his 2002 video installation, Carib’s Leap, and remained friends with the couple in Amsterdam, took one look at the collection and said, “Oh, these are so beautiful, you really have to do something with them.”

In 2016, as part of a celebration of Müller’s work at EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, a small selection of the Polaroids went on display, accompanied by two small photo books entitled Interior and Exterior. The forthcoming exhibition at Arles will feature a larger selection of the Polaroids, including first sight of Müller’s nature photography – among them the glorious images of trees that had caught McQueen’s eye.

Preparing for both exhibitions, Müller-Schirmer went through the many thousands of images her husband captured before he was incapacitated by vascular dementia, which robbed him of his speech. They reminded her how thoroughly his job saturated his waking hours – “For Robby there was no division between life and work,” she says – and they also helped her to see the world around her with fresh eyes.

Selecting just 100 or so Polaroids to go on show at Arles was no mean feat. “When I start to look back through them,” says Müller-Schirmer, “I always see new ones and think, Oh this is also very beautiful…” She pauses to take a breath. “Some of these images are also really magical.”

Robby Müller: Like Sunlight Coming Through the Clouds is presented by Polaroid at the Place de la République 12, Arles, France, 1-28 July



穆勒的日常工作是担任20世纪末一些最引人注目的电影的摄影指导。他与维姆-文德斯(Wim Wenders)的工作关系最为密切;他为这位德国导演拍摄了12部影片,包括《城市之恋》(Alice in the Cities)、《美国朋友》(The American Friend)和《德州巴黎》(Paris, Texas)。他还与吉姆-贾木许(Jim Jarmusch)合作拍摄了《Down By Law》、《Mystery Train》和《Dead Man》,与拉斯-冯-特里尔合作拍摄了《Breaking the Waves》和《Dancer in the Dark》。

在这些影片以及威廉-弗里德金、彼得-博格达诺维奇、萨利-波特和迈克尔-温特伯顿的其他影片中,这位荷兰人建立了他作为一个无畏的实验者的声誉,他喜欢自发地进行拍摄,对当时吸引他的东西进行改编,而不是事先构建镜头。他使用自然光,尽可能避免使用繁琐的照明设备,由此产生的图像–在《Barfly》中的洛杉矶酒馆,或在《Dead Man》中的约翰尼-德普划过一条单色的河流–似乎从内部发出光芒。


穆勒善于在最没有希望的地方发现美。为了了解他是如何在70多部故事片中实现这一目标的,值得仔细研究一下他下班后的摄影工作。他的妻子Andrea Müller-Schirmer说:”他总是在拍照,”她是荷兰艺术杂志的图片编辑,策划了一个Müller的宝丽来照片展览,该展览将在下个月的阿尔勒年度摄影节期间开幕。”他从来没有离开过家,没有相机,他总是在一个包里至少有三或四个。

宝丽来相机吸引了他,因为 “它们有这种即时效果”,穆勒-席尔姆说。有时他对同一场景拍摄多张宝丽来照片;在1986年曼哈顿五月花酒店拍摄的一个精彩镜头中,微风吹来,薄薄的窗帘飘动。起初,外面的光线占主导地位,但在六张照片的过程中,窗户变暗,床头灯的光线占据了主导。很容易想象Müller将这一经验归档,以备将来拍摄出低调而高超的电影作品。


这些宝丽来照片有一种亲密的素描本的感觉,是一种私下里解决问题的方式,据Müller-Schirmer说,它们并不打算用于公共消费。但十年前,艺术家和电影制作人史蒂夫-麦奎因(Steve McQueen)雇用穆勒拍摄了他2002年的视频装置作品《加勒比的飞跃》(Carib’s Leap),并与这对夫妇在阿姆斯特丹保持着友谊,他看了一眼这些作品,说:”哦,这些东西太漂亮了,你真的要用它们做一些事情。



仅仅选择100多张宝丽来照片在阿尔勒展出并不是一件容易的事。”当我开始回顾这些照片时,”Müller-Schirmer说,”我总是看到新的照片,然后想,哦,这也很美……” 她停顿了一下,吸了一口气。”其中一些图像也真的很有魔力。”

《罗比-穆勒 像阳光穿过云层一样》由宝丽来公司在法国阿尔勒共和国广场12号展出,7月1日至28日。





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