Influenced by French New Wave films of the ’60s, John Bailey wanted to become a writer and theorist about changes emerging in American cinema, so he entered a nearby graduate film school in 1965. But a 16mm Bell & Howell with a 100-foot roll of B&W film changed all that
“Through the accident of someone putting a camera in my hand and saying, ‘Go out and shoot something,’ I realized that I had to learn the language of imagery. If I were to write in any meaningful way about film, I had to learn the camera, and I have spent my life doing that.”
As a distinguished cinematographer, Bailey has created engaging imagery across four decades and all genres, from drama with “The Big Chill” to comedy with “He’s Just Not That Into You.” A key theme is humanism. “I try to find projects that straddle the edge between entertainment and humanistic enlightenment about why we are here and what our responsibilities in the larger human community are.” Not coincidentally, he says his philosophy comes in part from his Jesuit undergraduate education.
Bailey has worked on some 60 films, and a specialized Panavision lens is nicknamed for him. He has seen incredible changes in filmmaking technology, but he’s hooked now on a gadget available to the masses. “With my iPhone4, I find myself taking photographs and making a visual notebook of things that catch my eye. Instead of just walking though the world and having things pass before me, I find myself getting arrested a lot more easily now because I have the camera. A lot of the time, it’s about light.”
For Bailey, light is more than an effect; it’s a storytelling element. “For a cinematographer, it’s all about the light. Take something that is very ordinary looking and banal, and if it has just a moment of light happen on it, the light creates an almost transcendent presence. For fictional films, in so far as we are able to control the light, we have tremendous freedom to create the drama through the light.”
American Cinematographer magazine’s website features a weekly blog by Bailey in which he indulges his early passion for writing. “If you are going to be a filmmaker, you have to know about all the arts — architecture, sculpture, painting, design and music — so I’m trying to make my blog an embodiment of that idea. … The arts are a tremendous window for us into what it all means.”