DIANE KEATON: A Photographer's Role

By Robert Long

The actress Diane Keaton may be best known for giving life to such film creations as the airheaded poetess Luna Schlosser (in Woody Allen's "Sleeper") and J.C. Wiatt (in "Baby Boom"), not to mention Annie Hall, a role that brought her an Academy Award.

But she'd rather talk about photography, one of her other passions, than about movies. Ask her about a film, and she'll say a few polite words.

"Acting," she explained on a recent afternoon, relaxing after signing copies of her new book, "Clown Paintings," at East End Books in East Hampton, "is just something I do. I've done it all my life. And I really don't have much to say about it."

Mention the great photographer Harry Callahan, however, and her eyes light up.

"Callahan is neglected, I think," she said. "I remember when I lived in New York, he'd have a show now and then. He was still alive, but he never drew the kind of attention that people like Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander did. And they're all roughly the same generation; I guess Callahan is a little older. I remember the stillness in some of his photographs; it was just incredible. And the way he photographed his wife, Eleanor - those pictures are very beautiful."

Ms. Keaton has been to the South Fork before. It was in the Amagansett house of this newspaper's editor, in fact, that she and Mr. Allen shot the memorable lobster sequence in "Annie Hall," in 1977.

Recently she returned here to work on a new film by Nancy Meyers, who directed her in "Father of the Bride." The movie, which is still untitled, co-stars Keanu Reeves, Frances McDormand, Amanda Peet, and Jack Nicholson. Passers-by on Newtown Lane hardly knew where to look first when the crew was working there a few weeks ago.

Not only has Ms. Keaton earned the respect of critics, audiences, and her colleagues as a serious actor but she is a legitimate movie star. She has also directed three movies, several films for television, and even a pair of videos for the singer Belinda Carlisle. She is an executive producer of "Elephant," the new film by Gus Van Sant that was inspired by the Columbine shootings and which caused a sensation at the Cannes film festival last month.

She has been successful for almost three decades, with memorable work in movies as melancholy as "Marvin's Room," as complex as Warren Beatty's "Reds," and as light as "Baby Boom." She appeared in all of the "Godfather" films, which in itself bestows cinematic immortality.

In short, she has taken on all kinds of roles, and managed to make each character sympathetic, including the pretentious, silly, or downright evil ones. Could it be that we sense some essential goodness in an actor that allows us to empathize with even their darkest creation?

"That," Ms. Keaton said thoughtfully, "is a very nice thing to say to an actor. But I don't think it's necessarily true. Some people have interesting qualities that come through when you see them on the screen. But it doesn't necessarily mean that they are very nice people."

Ms. Keaton grew up in Los Angeles, and began acting as a teenager. She still lives on the West Coast, and has a soft spot for Western landscape photography. "It is what I'm really interested in these days," she said.

Although she likes classic Western landscape, which is what probably springs to mind for most New Yorkers, she is particularly drawn to contemporary artists such as Robert Adams and Joe Deal, who are favorites.

Their photos "are about what man has done to the West - strip malls, things like that. They are very beautiful, poetic photos."

Ms. Keaton is something of a conservationist "and an urban archaeologist," she said. Her first book, "Reservations," was a collection of her photographs of hotel lobbies and interiors; many of the hotels have vanished since the book was published in the late 1970s.

"I went to places like the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, which is about to be demolished, by the way. It's where Bobby Kennedy was shot. I'm a member of the L.A. Conservancy, and we're going to try to save it. But it's a sad fact of life that places like the Cocoanut Grove and the Ambassador get torn down."

She explained how "Reservations" came about.

"Rolling Stone had asked me to take photographs for them, and I thought, 'Wait a minute, what I'm really interested in is these lobbies, and these strange ballrooms in these old hotels.' So I began shooting them." The images are elegant, disarmingly simple, with a haunting stillness.

"These places were deserted, and I could just sneak in anytime and nobody cared. It was so easy and I could do it myself. It was an adventure for me."

As she became more involved in the work, her scope broadened.

"The project also turned into an interesting exploration because I went to Florida, too, long before it became trendy, and photographed those old hotels."

Her new book, reproductions of her astonishing collection of clown paintings, is the result of another adventure.

"I was at a swap meet with my sister. I'd always hated clown paintings, of course. I don't even like clowns. But my sister pointed out one painting that I found fascinating. So I bought it. And I began collecting them."

She has somehow managed to find singular works - needles in a haystack - in a rather limited genre.

"I like the fact that they're primitive. These are all unknown artists, obviously, 'found' artists. The imaginative aspect of how somebody can know nothing about painting and then sit down and do something like this, well. . . . It's not really outsider art. They're great portraits. Some of them are painterly and beautiful."

Ms. Keaton takes the pictures seriously, but if you lack a sense of humor, you miss much of what makes them wonderful.

"Look at this ridiculous thing!" she said, pointing at what is best described as an academic portrait of an unhappy high school principal. Beneath the carefully detailed, gloomy face, however was an enormous, neon-green bow tie, and an outsized top hat rested on his head. "How about that tie?" Ms. Keaton said.

"This artist painted a lot," she added. "His nephew got in touch with me. He was a very serious artist," she said, smiling. "In the context of this kind of work, he is very accomplished. It's almost a clown, but not really. I mean, he took ordinary people and did this to them," she said, laughing.

Ms. Keaton is not a casual acquisitor. She reacted to a naive inquiry as to whether she had to go out of her way to work on her clown collection by looking astonished.

"Well, of course. But I love the hunt, the adventure. I'd go to swap meets but I'd also search out paintings. I enjoy the process of finding. You feel like a pioneer. Sometimes you finally find something, but it doesn't live up to your expectations. So you just keep looking."

The urban archaeologist in Ms. Keaton resulted in her book "Local News." After "Reservations" was published, her avocation was no longer a secret. "The head of the photography department of the Los Angeles Library asked me if I wanted to go through their archives - all of the photos published in the Herald Examiner, and there are maybe two million of them."

She took him up on the offer. After looking at an enormous number of prints ("not all two million, though"), "I finally settled on the ones I liked best and that work together the best. The book is sort of like the West Coast version of Weegee, though not as good as Weegee. Still, there are some great photos."

Yet another book, "Still Life," originated in photo archives - this time, Ms. Keaton scoured the morgues of Hollywood studios. "I selected the pictures from files where they were essentially rotting. They're probably all destroyed by now," she said.

It was Ms. Keaton's mother who opened the world of photography to her.

"When she was about 40, she became interested and got a darkroom for herself. And when she became interested, I picked up a Nikkormat and began taking pictures. I took a class in photography. And I learned how to print in black and white."

Ms. Keaton's mother "was always a tremendous influence on me. It was always Mom. She was sort of a secret artist. But she never had the opportunity to take it further."

Even before she picked up a camera, "I always looked at photos. Now, I'm trying to amass a library of photography books." Ms. Keaton said the next thing she would do that day would be to buy a new collection of Harry Callahan photos. She also thought of revisiting an exhibit of Hans Namuth photos of the Mam Indians of Guatemala she had seen the day before at Guild Hall. "I never knew that he'd done anything like that. It was really so beautiful," she said.

"I'm very moved by it, taken with it, and inspired by it," she said of photography. "Yesterday I bought a great rare book. It's an Avedon book that he did in conjunction with James Baldwin called 'Nothing Personal.' There are portraits, and a combination of other things in it. Baldwin's essay is a glorious piece of writing. I'm excited about that."

Home | Index | News | Arts | Food | Outdoors | Columns | Editorials | Letters | Real Estate | Events/Movies | Classifieds | Archives