“Great Art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist.” - Edward Hopper
Studying artists and their art is fascinating and Edward Hopper’s art is a must study for aspiring photographers, cinematographers and story tellers. The study of his use of light and shadow, how he strikes that delicate balance making less become more. The way he paints the bodies of his characters emphasizing body language - another important element in storytelling. The space that surrounds his characters- the setting and how he uses it to elicit minute emotion triggers. All these combine to make him a formidable storyteller through his paintings.
Edward Hopper’s paintings are all on the verge of telling a story. A frame from a movie he alone must have had the script to. They say the greatest movies never got made. His paintings are scenes from each one of those un-made movies. If we spliced a frame from a finished movie reel and looked at it through a magnifying glass would it tell a story like Hopper told us?
Let’s look at some of his famous paintings.
Gazing at Nighthawks- There’s a couple at a café. A lone man sitting across them. Warm light falling from a source above them inside the café, the glass separating them from the street. The moonlight washes the street blue. A pattern on the closed shop window and the windows above across the street.
If the camera trucked into this scene right now as the couple talked what would it reveal? The lone man – is he eavesdropping? What are the man and woman talking about? If the camera crossed the glass and pushed in even closer?
This painting is a master shot in filmic terms.
A Director and Cinematographer would easily come up with more than three ways to cover this scene.
Edward Hopper must have also loved light as much as Cinematographers. Who’s in light and who’s in shadow, where he puts the source and how the source lights the painting. The light is often angular creating dramatic shadows on the walls, the body language of his characters reeking some emotion- loneliness, solitude, peace, dichotomy, mystery. Always speaking to us. Telling us something. Like whispering a secret.
Room in Brooklyn, 1932
Hotel by a Railroad, 1952
Office at Night, 1940
In his explanation of ‘Office at Night’ he details his preoccupation with light.
“There are three sources of light- indirect lighting from above, the desk light and the light coming through the window. The light coming from outside and falling on the wall in the back made a difficult problem, as it is almost painting white on white, it also made a strong accent of the edge of the filing cabinet which was difficult to subordinate to the figure of the girl.”
This sounds exactly like a problem cinematographers have; a flag and a scrim would have fixed the problem precisely shading off the excess light on the white wall and taking the dominating edge off the scene. We are always trying to diffuse light on the walls, flag it, scrim it. Here’s a painter talking about the same problem. What we counter with an array of stands, diffusion frames, nets and black flags he countered with his brush.
Edward Hopper has been an inspiration to many film directors over the years. The most prominent use of his paintings as an inspiration are in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Terence Malick and Nestor Almendros’ Days of Heaven. Sam Mendes was haunted by his paintings and used Hopper’s famous painting ‘New York Movie’ as the guiding image while creating the look for his film ‘Road to Perdition’.
Night Windows, 1928
A half hidden body. This painting instinctively makes you a voyeur. Looking into someone’s life. The idea that is crystallized in Rear Window by Hitchcock.
Rear Window, 1954 – Alfred Hitchcock
Room in New York, 1932
The angle of the bodies of the couple seems to say so much. The woman could easily look up from the keys and say something devastating to the man. The door between them seems to seal all the drama in.
Rear Window, 1954 – Alfred Hitchcock
House by the Railroad, 1925
Days of Heaven, 1978 – Terence Malick
New York Movie, 1939
Road to Perdition, 2002 – Sam Mendes
Hopper himself was a great lover of cinema. He once reportedly told a friend “When I don’t feel in the mood for painting I go to the movies for a week or more, I go on a regular movie binge!” Then it’s easy to explain why his paintings look like frozen frames from a movie. The symbiotic inspiration exchange between Hopper and film makers over the years is not a surprise then. He was telling a story in his paintings and we are trying to tell a story in each of our frames.
Night on the El Train, 1918
It’s also the perspective of his frames. Creating three dimensionality and depth with a pencil in hand. This painting ‘Night on the El Train’ one of my favorites is like a photograph. I can imagine fixing my tripod at the very same spot and shooting this scene. The glass behind them, would I add a warm glow? The couple lit maybe by moving lights? A soft white light from the top? Or blue? How would this scene look in colour? Or will it lose its beauty? Think about it, here is a black and white sketch that is stretching my imagination. Each cinematographer who sees this may pause and think about how to light it too.
To spend some time studying Hopper is like spending time inside the mind of a cinematographer unraveling his instinct for lighting. Hopper may have been a great cinematographer if he had tried it, who knows. But for now, we are lucky to have his paintings to pull up at will and study, to understand the strokes of a master and let his art inspire us to become better storytellers with light.
Shirley – Visions of Reality by Gustav Deutsch is a stunning use of Hopper’s techniques to tell a story using thirteen of his paintings. The director merges painting and reality creating a fascinating synthesis. To study Hopper’s paintings as still frames is one thing and then to see it come to life on screen in this film makes you acutely aware that Hopper’s craft, his love for light, his depiction of real-life characters are all hidden lessons for filmmakers.