Michael Apted’s documentary “Bending the Light” isn’t merely a love letter to the camera, or even more specifically, the camera lens. It’s also not a history lesson, or some sort of linear explanation of the world of photography. What it is, or more appropriately, what it does, is bring together the people behind the camera and the people who are really behind the camera—the people who design and make the lenses that photographers and cinematographers rely on in an ever-evolving technological landscape and a society that has become increasingly conscious of the images to which it is exposed.
Seemingly, there is a simplicity in all of this, of making lenses and then seeing the end product—the photograph or the movie or TV show. But Apted, whose credits include “Masters of Sex,” the “Up” series, and “The World Is Not Enough,” shows that while there may be a little truth to that, it all depends upon the relation to where you are in this chain.
For the viewer or the consumer, it’s simple enough to look at a photograph and not think about the hard work that went into getting the shot. And conversely, it’s even easy for some photographers to not think about the dedication and the craftsmanship that goes into making the lenses that go on their cameras. As photographer Laura El-Tantawy says, “It’s like the farmer and the apple. You don’t think about the farmer when you’re eating the apple.”
“Bending the Light” begins with Mitsuharu Umei, who makes lenses for Canon. He speaks of the craft as some sort of lonely pursuit, which it largely is, this quest for perfection. Umei is a dreamer, and his job seems at odds with his personality. He laughs easily, and has a self-deprecating sense of humor, but the pride is quite evident in his answers (spoken through an interpreter) because he knows where his lenses end up. One of the effective devices that Apted uses throughout the film begins with Umei. Apted asks him (and the other lens makers and designers) how photography has impacted their lives, whether they are photographers, and whether they have important photographs in their own lives.
The film falls into a pattern, spotlighting people who design and make lenses, alternated with some well-known (and not so well-known) photographers and cinematographers, including El-Tantawy, who mostly photographs the people of Egypt as they struggle with both their personal and national identities in the wake of recent upheaval; Richard Barnes, whose recent work includes using Civil War era technology to photograph re-enactors against modern backdrops; sports photographer Simon Bruty; veteran cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Help”); and photographer Greg Gorman, who has taken many well-known portraits of actors and athletes.
Most of the photographers have an appreciation for their lenses and their equipment, but it is Barnes who seems to make the connection best. Bruty focuses mostly on what the technological changes have meant to his business; Goldblatt speaks eloquently of lighting subjects and how he is a big proponent of shooting movies in digital; and Gorman’s gregarious personality is perfect for speaking about the relationship of the camera and the subject, and how best to bring personality to the forefront.
The most interesting segments, however, are with the craftspeople like Umei. They are all Japanese, and you have to stop yourself and think where the fields of photography and cinematography would be without their dedication and the technological breakthroughs that companies like Canon have been responsible for. Ultra-light zoom lenses, auto-focus, and the advancements in digital imagery have revolutionized the industry, for both the professional and the consumer.
Apted and cinematographer Maryse Alberti capture the spirit and the beauty of the journey of lens and camera, craftsman and photographer through interviews and lingering shots, with an eye towards not only the image—but what it takes to get the image.
“Bending the Light” ends up telling the story by telling many stories. Apted sometimes questions his subjects, and sometimes they narrate their own journeys. It’s a very effective way to discuss imagery because it seems that the film isn’t really discussing it at all. But by the end, you feel enlightened, but not by way of rote facts or memorization, but by the human element. One of the most touching moments of the film occurs when Setsuko Sotome, who makes lenses for movie cameras, gets to see one in action—for the first time–during her own interview.
“Bending the Light” isn’t a conventional documentary, but that should be expected from a storyteller like Apted. It has an easy pace, and while it bounces around the world speaking with different practitioners of the lens, everything seems connected. It just goes to show you how vital the camera is to our lives.