Chances are good you don’t recognize Roger Deakins’s name. Chances are even better you do recognize his work.
Deakins (pronounced “deacons”) has had 15 Oscar nominations for best cinematography. He’s won twice: for “Blade Runner 2049″ (2017) and “1917” (2019). The former is one of three movies that Deakins, 72, has made with director Denis Villeneuve. The latter is one of five with director Sam Mendes. A sixth, “Empire of Light,” has been announced.
The primary Deakins directorial relationship is with the Coen brothers. He’s shot no fewer than 15 of their films, starting with “Barton Fink” (1991). The most recent was “Hail, Caesar!” (2016). The period look of Hollywood in those two movies. The wintry Upper Midwest of “Fargo” (1996). The Depression-era South of “O Brother Where Art Thou” (2000). The bleached and barren Texas of “No Country for Old Men” (2007). Visually, each of those films is very different — and very memorable. Deakins shot them all.
Other notable directors he’s worked with include David Mamet (”Homicide,” 1991), John Sayles (”Passion Fish,” 1992) and Martin Scorsese (”Kundun,” 1997). Other notable films he’s shot include “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), “A Beautiful Mind” (2000), and even a Bond movie (”Skyfall,” 2012, with Mendes). Oh, and in the ‘80s, Deakins shot music videos for Marvin Gaye (”Sexual Healing,” 1982), Herbie Hancock (”Rockit,” 1984), and Eric Clapton (”Forever Man,” 1985). It’s been a remarkable career — and there’s a new addition to it.
Before he became a cinematographer, Deakins was a photographer. “I am not a still photographer,” he declares in “Byways,” his first photography collection, “and I won’t pretend to be one at this stage in my career.” Damiani is publishing the book next month. As if to underscore the division between cinematographer and photographer, the book is credited to Roger A. Deakins. Sticklers might argue the credit should be to Sir Roger A. Deakins, since he received a knighthood on Queen Elizabeth’s honors list last December.
The book’s title is as nicely self-deprecatory as that remark. Another instance of Deakins’s modesty is his caption for an uncharacteristically spectacular photo, of a New Mexico lightning strike: “I pressed the shutter and closed my eyes.” His photography, Deakins writes, is mainly “an excuse to spend many hours just walking, my camera over my shoulder and with no particular purpose but to observe.” We should all be so purposeless.
The photographs in “Byways” are in black and white. The one black-and-white feature Deakins has shot is the Coens’s homage to film noir, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001). The way a leaping dog, black, stands out against a background sky, gray, is but one instance of Deakins’s instinct for contrast, something black and white liberates and color tends to obscure.
Deakins took that photograph in Teignmouth, a small seaside town in Devon, in the southwest of England. He’s a native of the region, and images of it recur throughout “Byways.” Fascination and affection is a very appealing combination, especially when joined to a distinctly English sense of understatement, visual and otherwise.
That’s true even when a photograph has a striking, even flashy subject, like one of a rainbow and thunderclouds above a cemetery. Deakins took it in New Mexico, when he was shooting “Sicario” (2015). The image is grounded, literally, in the hump of brown earth that fills the lower two-fifths of the frame.
That photograph is a good example of something evident throughout “Byways”: Deakins’s strong preference for horizontal compositions over vertical. It also shows how good he is at getting space within the frame and a feeling of depth. More specifically, he has a real knack for situating people or other objects (like the crosses in that image) within space. It’s meant as a compliment to both Deakins the photographer and Deakins the cinematographer to say that so many of these images could be mistaken for film stills.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.