By Kim Komenich
Staff Photographer/Photo Coach
The San Francisco Chronicle

The main reason I decided to go to the Ventura Platypus Workshop- after years of waffling- was a film I saw last year on the Sundance Channel. Peter Wintonick's "Cinema Verite: Defining the Moment" traces the evolution of the verite' movement through interviews with the filmmakers, many of whom translated the meaning of Cartier-Bresson's "Decisive Moment" into 16mm/sound storytelling.

In fact, the film opens with NFB Canada verite' filmmaker Wolf Koenig discussing how Cartier-Bresson's 1952 "Decisive Moment" energized a generation of filmmakers. There is even a two-minute interview with Cartier-Bresson himself.

Some of the film's most important comments come from director Karel Reisz, whose directing credits range from "Mama Don't Allow" (1955), to "The French Lieutenant's Woman" (1982). His definitions of the difference between commercial work and cinema verite' have served to help me appreciate the difference between the commercially-driven print/TV photojournalism we do and the creator-funded cinema verite/documentary stills work many of us want to do.

Reisz said "(verite') was absolutely the opposite of the scripted, the conceived, the planned, the argument-led documentary...It was wanting what you've got, rather than going out to get what you need...It's about finding things that interest you, and making the movie out of the things that happen."

He adds, laughing, "It's when you finish the film that the trouble begins, because nobody wants to see it." Now there's a parallel- cinema verite' films nobody watches, and the $40-60 photo books we see published about important issues that nobody buys. It doesn't matter- we do it because we must do it.

This points to the depth and richness a photographer/filmmaker can build into a career. To paraphrase Elliott Erwitt (another filmmaker!): "You take assignments to afford to be able to do your personal work. And your personal work gets you more assignments." Erwitt's documentary "Beauty Knows No Pain" (1971) was partly financed by CBS and segments of it were used on "60 Minutes." Erwitt's early film projects include "Prague Spring" (1969), a seven-minute film featuring the photographs of Josef Koudelka.

Magnum photographers have often worked on movies to fund their personal projects. Eli Reed did the stills work for "A Beautiful Mind" in part, he says, to finance trips to the Sudan to photograph the book component for the upcoming "Lost Boys of Sudan" documentary (

A Rich History

Why is it that from the very invention of moviemaking, European films have traditionally had a verite' feel? And why is it that American films have traditionally been made in studios? A simple answer might be that the same American who had been able to deliver electricity to the masses (Thomas Edison) also held patents on the first 300-pound electric movie camera.

Erik Barnouw's book "Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film" (Oxford,1992) puts the parallel universes of France's Lumiere brothers and America's Thomas Edison into perspective in the first few pages and then goes on to explore the rich worldwide documentary and cinema verite' tradition. The book is a great introduction to documentary film history and it's an excellent reference.

Wintonick's film (which has an elaborate supporting website at and Barnouw's book helped me put things in perspective and get excited about TV storytelling. They are compelling evidence that the photographer/filmmaker is in charge of his own destiny, and that major sacrifices are more often than not required to put uncompromising personal work before the public.

At times we seem to be approaching this as though we're inventing a genre' when in fact we need to look back 80 years and see the rich documentary-verite' tradition as the valuable foundation it is.

Real Work

Our photojournalism can be as one-dimensional as we want it to be. We can shoot an assignment for our paper or magazine or shoot a piece for "Nightline" and be done with it, or we can look at every job we pitch (or decide to take) as another paragraph in a book that may take us 10 or 20 years (or a lifetime) to write.

I think that our generation runs the risk of being remembered as passion-hoppers, jumping from one evolving technology to the next. In the course of the past 20 years, professional survival has dictated that we reinvent ourselves regularly. Now, at the turn of the century, there are fewer quantum leaps- the technological advances are incremental. We can be less preoccupied with technique and we can turn our attention back to our stories.

I'd rather my gravestone read: "Told a few stories that made the World a better place", than "Mastered the Nikon D-1, the Canon GL-1, Photoshop 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, and Final Cut Pro 1,2, and 3."

This quote from sustainable farming advocate Wendell Berry appeared on the wall one day at last year's Missouri Photo Workshop. I think of it whenever the storytelling gets difficult and I begin to retreat into process.

"It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings."

We are lucky to be at the prime of our careers at a time when professional-quality camera and sound equipment and non-linear editing software are within financial reach. I can't help but think of the similarities between our good fortune and that of the generation that first used the Leica. The possibilities are endless.

Here is a partial list of sites I think will be of interest to still photographers who want to find out more about Cinema Verite' and Documentary Film.


Frederick Wiseman: "Titticutt Follies", "High School", "Zoo", others

Albert and David Maysles: "Salesman", "Grey Gardens", "Gimme Shelter"

Errol Morris: "Gates of Heaven", "Vernon, Florida", "A Brief History of Time"
"Thin Blue Line", "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control", "Mr. Death"

William Klein: "Broadway by Light", "Muhammad Ali: The Greatest",
"Eldridge Cleaver, Black Panther".

Ann and Jeanette Petrie: "Mother Teresa"

Peter Wintonick: "Poetry in Motion", "Manufacturing Consent"

Ross McElwee: "Sherman's March", "Charlene", "Backyards" "Six O'Clock News"

Mickey Lemle: "Ram Dass: Fierce Grace", "Compassion in Exile: The 14th Dalai Lama"

Danny Lyon: "Born to Film", "Willie"

Bruce Weber: "Broken Noses", "Chop Suey"

Mary Ellen Mark: "Streetwise"

Bruce Davidson:"Isaac Bashevis Singer's Nightmare and Mrs. Pupko's Beard"

"Stranger with a Camera" (NFB filmmaker murdered while shooting documentary)

Ruth Orkin/Morris Engel: "The Little Fugitive" (feature)

John Grierson "Night Mail" (coined the term "documentary film")

Robert Flaherty: "Nanook of the North", "Moana", "Man of Aran"

Paul Strand: "Native Land", "Mannahatta", "The Plow the Broke the Plains"

Pare Lorentz: "The Plow the Broke the Plains", "The River"

Henri Cartier-Bresson: "Le Retour" (1944) "Impressions of California" (CBS, 1969), "Southern Exposure" (CBS, 1969) (Still looking for the best HC-B film site)

Robert Frank: "Pull My Daisy", "Me and My Brother", "Conversations in Vermont"
(Still looking for the best Frank site)

Eli Reed: "Poorest in the Land of Plenty" (Dir. Scott Fraser,1989, NBC/National Council of Churches)
About Filmmakers/Photographers

"?: Henri Cartier-Bresson", Sarah Moon, 1994

"Fire in the East" (about Robert Frank) MoFA Houston, 1986

"Photography Made Difficult" (Docudrama about W. Eugene Smith) American Masters, 1989

"A Brief History of Erroll Morris", IFC, 1999.

"Light Keeps Me Company" (Sven Nyquist) 2000

I'd appreciate your help in expanding this list to include a more diverse and international selection of films and filmmakers. Send links to me at

Kim Komenich has worked as a staff photographer for the San Francisco Examiner from 1982-1998. From Sept., 1998 to June, 2000 he served as a visiting instructor in the photojournalism department of the Missouri School of Journalism while working on his graduate degree. He returned to the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle in the June, 2000 after the merger with the Examiner. He was a teaching fellow at the U.C. Berkeley graduate School of journalism in Fall, 2001. He is currently the Chronicle’s photo coach.

He received the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Philippine revolution. He has also received the World Press Photo award for picture stories and the Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

His photography has appeared in LIFE, Time, People, Fortune, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report and news magazines around the world. He was among photographers invited to photograph the "A Day in the Life of California", "Christmas in America", "Power to Heal", "One Earth", and "The Mission" books. His work is included in "15 Seconds: The 1989 San Francisco Earthquake". He has covered stories in Vietnam, the former Soviet Union, El Salvador, and Guyana. He has worked extensively in the Philippines.

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