John Ford & Sun Yat-SenThursday, November 09, 2006
Sometime in 1992 I was taking panoramic photographs of all of Vancouver's botanical gardens. Right after a storm I decided to go to the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. I was using an unreliable swivel lens panoramic, a Widelux, with Kodak b+w infrared film. This made the combination even more unreliable. But I did get a few good photographs of which this one I titled for a gallery show, If John Ford Had Made The Movie, Sun Yat-Sen Would Have Been John Wayne. Nobody that read the title understood it.
Tuesday night I looked forward the airing of Peter Bogdanovich's documentary Directed By John Ford on the Turner Classic Movies TV channel. I was not disappointed. I specially appreciated Steven Spielberg's account on how he met John Ford when Spielberg was a 15 year-old boy. Told by Ford to look at a series of Western paintings on the wall and tell him what he saw, the young Spielberg saw only narrative — an Indian on a horse, etc. Ford told him to look at the composition, look at the horizon line — it was low in one picture, high in another picture.
"When you can decide that putting the horizon at the top of the frame or the bottom of the frame is better than putting it in the middle of the frame, you may, someday, make a good picture maker. Now get outta here."
Bogdanovich then cut to a series of Ford landscapes that show that the horizon line is never in the center of the frame. The man practiced what he preached.
For years I have been explaining to my photography students the "day for night" technique used by John Ford in which you would see bilowy white clouds in evening skies. The trick with b+w movies was to underexpose while using a deep red filter. It was the deep red filter that gave me that "John Ford" sky over Sun Yat-Sen.