Roger Deakins on finding respite in still images

Known for his work on films such as Skyfall and Fargo, the acclaimed cinematographer is releasing his first monograph comprising decades’ worth of still photographs. He talks to us about the relationship between both disciplines

“I love making images – that’s why I’m a cinematographer – but I’m not always working on a movie,” says cinematographer Roger Deakins. “So to wander around with a stills camera, one, it keeps me involved in making images, but it’s also a way of relaxing and an excuse just to go for a walk, to explore somewhere else.”

Deakins’ distinctive and meticulous eye has led to heralded collaborations with such directors as the Coen Brothers and Denis Villeneuve, leaving a visible imprint on films ranging from 1917 to Nineteen-Eighty Four. To experience the magnitude of Skyfall, the hopeless isolation of Fargo, or the thumping dread of No Country for Old Men is to have engaged with his vision.

However, his first monograph, Byways, looks not to his revered cinematography career, but his decades-long habit of taking still photographs. Among them are breathtaking landscapes and moments of stillness, interspersed with photographs imbued with wit thanks to the playful possibilities of scale, framing and timing. It’s the kind of dry humour that sits passersby in conversation with monuments and miscellaneous objects in the street, or captures a canine rendition of Cartier-Bresson’s seminal image Behind The Gare Saint-Lazare.

Deakins’ creative practice can be traced back to his home county of Devon (where he’s currently based, following time in LA), but not because it was something he grew up around. I mean, I came from a background that had no connection with film, photography, or the arts in any way, and it seemed that my life would go into that direction that had nothing to do with the arts,” he tells CR. “It was probably a moment of rebellion when I told my dad I wanted to go to art college. Because I did paint – I love painting. One thing led to another, and it just showed me a way that I could use whatever talent I had to make images and make a life out of it.”

Top: Germany, 2007. Above: Teignmouth, 2000. All images © Roger A Deakins

If it hadn’t been a career in cinematography? “My father was a builder. I think he probably expected me to follow him,” he says. “I think he was disappointed [I didn’t follow suit]. It wasn’t until years, years, years later, when,” he pauses, “I’m not exaggerating, he came to LA – the only time he came to LA, when I had already started living there – and he came to a film premiere. He turned to me afterwards, he said, ‘Now I understand. Now I understand what you do and why you do it’.”