Movie set photos are the first of what we see of upcoming films. Before the trailers, the soundtrack singles, and promotional material, the images give the audience a visual of what is to come. Spike Lee‘s new book, SPIKE, features film still photos, behind-the-scenes, and on-the-set pictures of all of the Award-winning director’s life’s work. Most of the photographs were provided by Lee’s brother, veteran lensman, David Lee. David has provided photography for most of Spike’s films from She’s Gotta Have It to BlacKkKlansman. Taji Mag was able to discuss the creative’s experience and contribution to the new book.
Falling In Love With the Art
David explained his first exposure to photography was when he was twelve or so. His mom had bought a brownstone and one of the tenants was a photographer. Lee said, “He (the photographer) taught me how to process black and white film. I had a 35mm camera with the screws falling out at the time. It was not that great of a camera.” When asked when he fell in love with photography, he said, “The moment photography really clicked was when I was at my maternal grandmother’s house in Atlanta. My grandfather had a Kodak Brownie camera and, to operate it, I had to look down. It gave me an idea of composition and, as I walked around with it, I saw perspectives changing and never forgot that experience. I understood that I could express what I saw from that moment on, and the camera would be my paintbrush. There is no getting tired of photography for me. My muse is in my photography.”
David did photography throughout high school. In college, he aspired to be a renaissance artist much like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and other artists he was exploring at the time. His inspiration for the written arts came from his mother, an English and African-American History Teacher. His father, a musician, inspired him to explore music, but that all came to a halt around age twenty. He’d finally realized his creative potential and even wrote screenplays himself, but had difficulty writing essays. So he followed his true passion, photography.
“Photography will be the artistic expression that will be with me my whole life.” – David Lee
How to Capture the Moment
Lee explained how he captured the moment by saying, “At first you just try to capture and cover everything. With digital, I shoot too much and bury myself in editing. I pride myself in picking the right photo out of hundreds to capture the moment. It’s a great position to have. After all, you are pretty much limited because sometimes your only shot is next to a camera.” Lee further explained, “You have to find the right space, the right lens, and get the shot that is usable. Most importantly, you have to capture the moment. It’s the visual component of visual storytelling.”
David walked me through what it’s like to discover those good photos after shooting, stating, “Sometimes your good shots are intentional and other times you don’t realize what you have shot until later.” He recalled a moment when he caught a fantastic and unplanned shot, explaining, “…I just did photography for Denzel Washington’s new film Journal for Jordan. We had this one-shot with Michael B. Jordan; he was shirtless, as usual, and with a baby on a couch. Two film cameras are running on each side, so I had to squeeze in between them to find my shot. As Michael raised the baby, the baby reached down, grabbed the dog tags around his neck, and looked at it. All I could think was, “Yes! Yes! This is a great shot!” This was an unscripted moment, and I knew right away that was the shot.”
David explained that he was proud of himself. The next break the crew had for filming, he downloaded the shot and showed the photo to Denzel on a computer. He recalled Denzel being so excited that he ran into another room to grab the co-star of the film, Chanté Adams, to see it. Once Chante saw the photo, she burst into tears. David continued to explain that Denzel called up Dana Canedy, whom the film was based on, and sent the image to her. “She too burst into tears. Everyone who saw that shot became emotional because it was as if it had channeled something”, he described.
I asked David if he ever had a conversation with Denzel about his creative evolution over the years from Mo’ Better Blues to now Journal for Jordan. He replied, laughing, “You don’t have a conversation with Denzel; you listen. You do whatever he tells you to do.”
David went on to talk about his history with Denzel. He humorously said, “While shooting Malcolm X, he was throwing me off the set so many times. I was messing up; he should’ve thrown me off the set. During the scene in Malcolm X where Malcolm is copying the dictionary in prison, I am under the table and below the camera, trying to get into a good position. Denzel was like, ‘Get out!’. He explained, “I didn’t take it personally because I [knew] I was distracting him.
When asked what films David loved shooting with his brother Spike, he said, “My favorites are Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing, The BlacKkKlansman, and Da 5 Bloods but I mostly like documentaries… When the Leveey’s Broke and If God Is Willing and da Creek Don’t Rise.” He said Spike would send him off to take pictures for the films during the interviews and press. This threw me back into my documentary photography days”, David said excitedly.
“It was hard for people to watch the opening death scenes of Clockers, but I had fun shooting!” David explained the research process and the method he used to recreate the photos he referenced, stating, “For research, Spike and I went to the Bronx homicide headquarters. We were able to look at pictures and look at old notes from investigations. I used that time to recreate the crime scenes and used my reference Weegee, a classic crime photographer in the 1940’s and 50’s. [With] projects like these, I like to showcase my creativity.”
I asked David how he became a part of this project to which he replied, “The editor, Steve Crist, got in touch with me through Spike. I started a months-long deep dive into my catalog.” David continued, “Three months into my search, I would remember having even more photos to go through. I would call Steve and tell him I had pictures of Lawrence Fishburne when he did the White Lines music video in NYU Film School. It allowed me the opportunity to go through my many years of work and find old photos. This book really covers the span of Spike’s career.”
- FYI: David Lee has provided photography for films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, John Wick, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Broken Flowers. He is also providing photography for the Denzel Washington-helmed film, Journal For Jordan.
SPIKE is genuinely a celebration of Spike Lee’s life and serves as a documentary in book form. I spent a couple of hours revisiting the time in my life when each film was released. It was so cool to see pictures of the handwritten script pages and how many actors/actresses were featured in Spike Lee films before becoming household names, i.e., Samuel L. Jackson, Giancarlo Esposito, Alfre Woodard. I was surprised to find out through the book former President Barack Obama took his wife, former First Lady, on a date to see Do the Right Thing before they were married. Whether you are a creative, movie lover, or Spike Lee fan, you will appreciate the nostalgic journey that David Lee’s photos provide.
SPIKE will be released on Nov.17th and can be purchased at https://spikelee.chroniclebooks.com/