Internationally renowned for his pioneering camerawork for such directors as Wim Wenders, Lars von Trier, Jim Jarmusch and Steve McQueen, cinematographer Robby Müller (Curaçao, 1940) has been the most celebrated Dutch ‘Director of Photography’ for many years. He has made a significant contribution to the success of a whole generation of independent film auteurs who emerged from the 1970s onwards. EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam recently opened their exhibition "Robby Müller - Master of Light: Cinematographer of Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier and Steve McQueen", and invited GUP and Dutch photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen (1963) to visit together in honour of Müller. Van Lohuizen has covered conflicts in almost every continent, and is best known for his long-term projects on the seven rivers of the world, the rising of sea levels, the diamond industry and migration in the Americas. After visiting the exhibition, we sat down and talked about the differences between him and Müller, moving pictures versus still photography and the power of knowledge in photojournalism.
As a photojournalist, you work very differently than Robby Müller – you tell stories that are going on in the world, but his are written and scripted.
Yes, in that sense he plays a different ballgame than I do. But I think that the movies that he’s worked on don’t feel very scripted, in the strictest sense of the word: there’s room for improvisations and deviations from scripts, and mistakes are welcome. His shooting style is documentary and photographic. From what I understood of the interviews in the exhibition, he barely ever used a tripod and broke a lot of rules when making his movies. His shots also aren’t always ‘perfect’, and I think that his films feel more realistic because of that. On the other hand, I can’t imagine working from a script! I’ve made two short documentaries myself, and I found it quite difficult to work in a team, and to find my own flow. When you’re a photographer you have to do everything yourself: you’re the writer, director and editor of the whole thing. But Müller didn’t have that problem I think; he chose the directors he worked with and focused on what he can do to elevate the movie to a higher level.
Did you know about Robby Müller before visiting the exhibition?
The funny thing is that I’ve always been really inspired by the movies of Jim Jarmusch, but I was never aware of who the cameraman was. I liked Jarmusch’s movies because of their rawness, they were in black and white – and I work mostly in black and white myself. In his movies, he also works with existing light… or, I guess better said, it’s Robby that works with existing light. I hardly ever work in studios or with strobes, and depend on the light available on-location. I guess that not a lot of people pay attention to the Director of Photography – it’s always about the director. So yeah, I knew a lot of his movies, but not that Müller was behind them.
when you film, you think in sequences, whilst in photography you’re looking for that ONE moment.
Why do you have such a strong preference for black and white imagery in your own work?
In the past I barely ever did colour, now I do it more often because I’ve learnt that you can’t do everything in black and white. Just like not everything is suited to be shot in colour, not everything is suited to be shot in black and white. I think it’s important that, as a photographer, you learn to make the distinction of when something can be told better in colour or in black and white. I have a preference for black and white because I think colour distracts from the contents of the image. I think that black and white is also more graphic, and can be more dramatic. I’m much more interested in light and facial expressions than what colours are in the image.
How do you make that distinction?
Before I go to location I decide whether I’m going to work in black and white or in colour. I mostly work on stories, so once I’ve done my research I usually know what I want to portray and how I want to do it. Working in colour and working in black and white are two completely different ways of approaching photography, just like photographing something and filming something are very different.
What do you think is the biggest difference between photography and film?
Right now, I’m working a lot with video, and when you film, you think in sequences. A sequence can last a few seconds to ten minutes, whilst in photography you’re looking for that ONE moment. In photography that’s most often referred to as the ‘decisive moment’ in which composition, light and content all come together to create one intriguing image. Even now with high resolution filming, the stills that you get out of videos aren’t as good as when you just photograph the moment. Another important distinction between photography and film is that with a lot of news or documentary films, the content is more important than ‘good’ camera work. I feel that a good photograph for a newspaper serves a greater purpose than a two-minute item for a daily news show.
We talked about the photography / filmography of Robby Müller being based on respect for available light. What's your relationship with light?
Light is the core principle of photography: photography means writing with light, we all know that it is essential. Although sometimes the content can be more important than lighting. In my project ‘Diamond Matters, the Trail of the Diamond’, I had photographed mostly in mines in Africa. I was completely dependent on the permission that I would, or would not, get. The amount of time I could spend there was determined for me, so going there at 6 o’clock in the morning or in the late afternoon ‘because the light is beautiful then’ was never really an option. I found myself usually shooting at 12 o’clock in the afternoon, in the blazing heat in Congo – obviously, the worst time ever. But you have to deal with it, there’s no excuses. You, as creator, never have the excuse that something is ‘less’ because it was raining or it was the wrong time – it’s just not true. You make sure that you come back with something that, in any case, is the best possible picture that you could have taken. I’d rather have a meaningful photograph made with not so good light, than a picture that says absolutely nothing and has beautiful lighting.
What’s your process when you photograph?
I initiate quite a lot on my own; if I have a good idea and can find a good angle to work at it, I usually just go for it. My projects start with the fact that knowledge is power. The moment that you know your topic through and through, have done your research and can say out loud why it’s important and how your approach is different from others, you can win a lot of people over. I guess that’s why I don’t work very well on commission, because I really have to feel something for my subject matter. I look for stories that are, not directly related to the news, but have something to do with it. I also photograph things that I think haven’t been in the news, but that I think people should know about and do something about. Recently I’ve been focusing on climate change because I think more people should be doing something about it.
A lot of Müller’s movies tend to have a journey and travel in them, and he uses these as a metaphor for an existential search for oneself. You’ve travelled around the world, as a photojournalist. How do you see your own travels?
When I first started out, I loved traveling. I was always fascinated by the world and had the need to broaden my horizons. But right now, you’re not doing me a favour by putting me on a plane or a bus – it’s just part of the job description for me. My first major trip was to China, I had studied the history of China for school and was curious of the culture. I didn’t go there to photograph per sé, but I brought my camera with me and I discovered what is possible with photography. I saw what I can do with a camera, what stories I can tell and how photography is a powerful weapon.
"Robby Müller - Master of Light: Cinematographer of Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Lars von Trier and Steve McQueen", is on view at EYE Filmmuseum until September 4, 2016. In the exhibition, large video projections highlight the visual ingenuity and emotional complexity of Müller’s images. Also included are interviews with Wim Wenders, Lars von Trier, Jim Jarmusch and Steve McQueen, who discuss their collaboration with Müller and select and talk about a number of typical Müller scenes.