In front of the lens, Aaron Eckhart is the picture of intensity. Behind it, though, he is the picture of happiness.
That man over there with the camera — yeah, the one hiding under the ball cap. He just took a picture of us. Really, he did. He kind of looks familiar. Where have I seen him before? In the elevator at work? At the neighbor’s barbecue? Wait — last week at the movies. Was he the usher? Sitting in the row in front of us? Oh … my … he was on the screen!
It’s at this point that actor Aaron Eckhart usually comes clean. He lowers his Leica M6 camera, introduces himself, and explains what he’s up to. No, he’s not researching the role of paparazzo. He’s just engaging in his favorite pastime — street photography, something he’s done all over the world for the past seven years. Usually, when he’s recognized, he ends up posing for a picture, in exchange for his subjects’ allowing him to keep shooting. He even offers to make prints for them. “I’ve gotten some pretty good pictures this way,” Eckhart says.
Eckhart has made some pretty good pictures by working the other side of the lens too. His breakthrough role as the misogynist pig Chad in the 1997 film In the Company of Men transformed the Cupertino, California, native overnight into one of the busiest working men in Hollywood. “I was persona non grata in New York — like every actor, not knowing where my next paycheck was coming from,” Eckhart recalls. “Then, the next day, I had actors I admired calling me on the phone. I was getting scripts; agents were coming after me. My life changed so dramatically in one day.”
Since then, Eckhart, whose 40th birthday is this month, has kept on rolling from one film project to another, starring alongside such leading ladies as Julia Roberts (Erin Brockovich), Gwyneth Paltrow (Possession), Helena Bonham Carter (Conversations with Other Women), and Catherine Zeta- Jones (No Reservations).
When you make that many movies, you get recognized. A lot. Most often, Eckhart is recognized for his gleefully subversive role as Nick Naylor, the spinmeister tobacco lobbyist in the 2005 indie hit Thank You for Smoking. And with that recognition comes a lot of “Can I get a picture with you?” in airports as well as plenty of requests from professional photographers to take his picture. Oddly, though, Eckhart wasn’t comfortable with it. “I don’t think I photograph that well,” he says.
But several years ago, after sitting for legendary photographer Herb Ritts, Eckhart turned his discomfort with cameras into a passionate hobby. “Herb got me going and looking at photography, buying cameras and all that stuff,” Eckhart says. “It took on a life of its own.”
Now Eckhart and his Leica are inseparable. He shoots only film, only black and white, and develops all of his own prints. “I see everything as a picture with a frame around it,” he says. “Sometimes I get discouraged or sad, because if I’m not holding my camera, I pass hundreds and hundreds of shots in a day and I haven’t taken a picture of them.”
You won’t be able to pass a theater this season without seeing Eckhart’s picture; he has three films coming out within the next five months. His talent for transforming his physical appearance will be on full display as he lights up screens first as a doughy middle-aged cuckold in the comedy Bill, which costars Jessica Alba and comes out in April, and then as a man who has an affair with an underage neighbor in Nothing Is Private, a controversial film from Alan Ball that’s due out later this year.
As for the third film, you may have heard of it. It’s a little movie called The Dark Knight, the new Batman flick, in which Eckhart plays the dual role of Harvey Dent/Two-Face. When the cast appeared at a comic-book convention in Chicago, Eckhart got his first taste of Batman mania. “I felt like we were the Beatles,” he says. “People had dressed up as Batman and the Joker and Harvey Two-Face. They just went crazy. Everything you said, they went crazy.” Such adulation may force Eckhart to employ more than just a ball cap as a disguise when he next hits the streets to shoot some photos. Here, he gives us a snapshot of his not-so-still life.
What was your level of interest in photography before you met Ritts?
I’ve always enjoyed nice photographs, but I didn’t know the language. I wasn’t thinking about composition and light. I wasn’t thinking about the street and the people within the context of juxtaposition. I wasn’t out there hungry for it. I wasn’t looking at photography like I am today in magazines and books. I have a huge photography-book collection. So I guess it’s like the red-car theory: You don’t think about red cars until someone tells you something about a red car. And then all you see is red cars.
Is it better to be behind the lens or in front of it?
I love them both. But there are different stress levels with being in front of the camera versus behind it. [Behind the lens,] you don’t have to go through makeup and all the stuff that you tolerate. You don’t have to wear costumes. Being behind the camera, you really feel like I imagine directors feel. They are total creators, setting up the totality of their experience.
As an actor, you are a part of the experience. You can only control you. That sometimes is frustrating, sometimes is liberating. There is less responsibility because you are only dealing with yourself. But when you’re behind the camera, even with still photography, you have to tell the story in one frame or two frames. That takes on its own obstacles.
How do you think your work as an actor influences the photos you take?
I have the privilege of being around so many great directors of photography and cinematographers. I am around creative minds all the time. I can learn about light while I’m between takes. I can talk to Chris Nolan [director of The Dark Knight] and Neil [LaBute, director of In the Company of Men] about why they compose the frame this way. You are always in the realm of setting up a frame. And so I think the two really complement each other.
What types of scenes tend to catch your eye?
It’s people. It’s behavior. As an actor, you’re a behaviorologist. You’re looking at psychology and how the body reacts. In my photography, what I love the most is the same thing. I love all the old photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Elliott Erwin. When the Leica camera came out, the whole thing was street photography, or these guys walking around the world, taking snaps. You can use short lenses with a small camera. It gives you anonymity.
That’s what I like to do. I like to take a slice of life — it’s the same thing in film and in acting — and just find the beauty in human behavior and capture that on film. I’m less inclined to get gaga over a landscape or a manipulated image or a color image. For me, it’s all about capturing life that’s unaware of the camera — in black and white.
Do you keep a camera in your glove compartment?
All the time. I have it with me right now. I always have my Leica with me.
So “drive-by shooting” has a new meaning for you.
Yeah. I’m not the paparazzi. For example, today I was driving from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles along the 101. There was a beautiful 1938 V-8 coupe this guy had restored. It was sitting at an upward angle, looking out toward the beach. There were railroad tracks just in front of it. He was sitting on the railroad tracks. I backed up my car off the freeway, got out, and whipped off a roll of film with that car. Then he came over, and we talked. I think they’re going to be some pretty good photos.
Do you usually go out shooting while on location?
Always. I love to walk. And I love to explore the city and to talk to people. What better way to do that than through photography? You can wander for hours, looking up and down. It makes you see things you never would.
What are some of your favorite location shoots?
I walked Sofia, Bulgaria [while on location for The Black Dahlia]. I walked every street. I can’t even think about how many rolls of film I took there. I went to places you wouldn’t go to normally. I would walk for hours and hours and find myself on the outskirts of the city. I would make friends, and they would take me a couple of hours outside of the city. I would film old peasants who were sheepherders, and gypsies.
You filmed Bill in St. Louis. Find any good shots there?
I was working every day on the movie, so I’d bring my camera with me. I got great shots of Busch Stadium with the flags and people. It was the Fourth of July, I think, when we were there. Or, no — it was the Fourth of July in the movie. I can’t remember now. My whole life is either a movie or reality. I don’t know which.
Tell us about some of your favorite photographs you’ve shot. Which ones have made it up on your wall?
It’s mostly faces, people doing things. I have a long way to go. I’m not totally satisfied with my photography yet. What I’ll do is print up some prints that I like, and then I’ll pin them to the walls of my house. Then I’ll live with them for a few months. Whenever I’m walking by one, I’ll sit there and look at it. What do I like about it? How can I do it differently? What would have been a better shot? Then I’ll take it down and put some others back up.
My photography is not high-production-value photography. I don’t have 50 lights and that sort of stuff. I basically work only with natural light out on the street, where I can control nothing but myself.
Do you have any plans to exhibit or publish your photos?
Yeah, I would like to do it. I know some people in the photography business. It’s not like I would want to go to the MoMA. I’d like to go to a mom-and-pop coffee shop and just kind of hang my work. I think, on a smaller scale, something like that would be exciting for me.
Do you have any desire to switch equipment and give directing a try?
Yes, I do. The problem is that I am too lazy [laughs]. No, I’m not too lazy. But right now, it seems like throwing a whale over your shoulder would be easier than directing. I think I’ll wait for the right story to present itself.
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