The other night I was watching a Turner Classic Movies tribute to the photographer and filmmaker Morris Engel. They showed his New York Trilogy: Little Fugitive, Lovers and Lollipops and Weddings and Babies. The opening sequence of Weddings and Babies influenced a generation of filmmakers. It’s utter magic. Engel and his wife, Ruth Orkin, specialized in capturing real life in both their documentary photographs and the three fictional films they made together.
Engel’s films are both an art and a technology story. He wanted to get close to people, he wanted to shoot from inside the crowd on location. So he built a custom 35mm movie camera that would allow him to do just that– capture real people in real time while moving among them. The technical advances, if you can call them advances, inspired both D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers to create custom 16mm cameras for their film documentaries. John Cassavetes, Truffaut and the French New Wave owe their existence to the techniques and the economics of production pioneered by Engel.
Engel’s less expensive filmmaking technology retained all the beauty and richness of black and white photography. His ability to frame a shot, tell a story, capture the real essence of a person, edit a sequence could partake of all the richness of the medium. Today’s digital technology has reduced costs even more, where is the richness of the medium retained? Where is our Morris Engel?