By SAMANTHA PARKER, August 2020
Daniel Sackheim is an accomplished director and producer best known for narratives that transport legions of watchers into other worlds. True Detective, Game of Thrones, and Ozark are on the shortlist of the acclaimed, game-changing television series he has directed and which define the streaming era. But as a photographer, Sackheim takes a step back, adopting the seemingly unnoticed perspective of the street to render worlds similar to our own but full of mystery.
Sackheim’s photography is an obvious departure from the collaborative nature of making a hit show. His photography is a singular vision of a world in flux, a world supposedly more interconnected than ever before but also increasingly isolated. In this way, Sackheim deconstructs the skills of a director and repurposes them into more personal forms, using light and shadow, bringing out the influence of a genre of saturated extremes. A fan of film noir, Sackheim pays homage while also offering a modern edge to the classic underpinnings of the genre.
Sackheim began to experiment with photography during the Writers Guild of America strike in 2007, when he found himself with ample downtime. Inspired by such photographers as Constantine Manos, Fan Ho, and pioneer of the “decisive moment” Henri Cartier-Bresson. Sackheim built his body of work in the tradition of candid photography, capturing the beauty of the everyday. He extracts compositions the way one might cut out a diorama, offering both a comprehensive view of the whole and also a voyeuristic close-up of a subject’s life in that single moment in time.
To capture the intrigue and anxiety of modern times, Sackheim’s work moves mainly through the monolithic environments of cities. His hometown of Los Angeles is often the setting of his photography where the city is stark against the figures he contrasts, alone, in transition, and frozen in mid-movement. It is not uncommon to see cities like New York make an appearance, though oftentimes the cities themselves are anonymous and take on a foreboding, cold character.
“I want to explore the alienation you can sometimes feel living in a city like Los Angeles,” says Sackheim. “This is a really big metropolis with a lot of people, and yet it can feel incredibly lonely. I speak about this omnipresent solitude existing in a metropolis like New York or LA.” Sackheim taps into a kind of collective subconscious, derived from the deceivingly mundane and exploits the ambiguity inherent in all still photography.
Sackheim’s sometimes ominous point of view of the expanse of metropolitan structures is highlighted by the tonal range created from soft darks and intense light that make surfaces smooth and surreal. As in film noir, the settings in his photography are sometimes crushing and vast and seem to hold the human figures navigating them with indifference.
While most of his work is in black and white, the times color makes an appearance offer poignant examples of Sackheim’s narrative sensibilities as well as an atmosphere saturated with mystery. When looking at a photograph like Car Wash in the series The Color of Night, one gets the sense that Sackheim’s subjects are deeply insular and unaware of his lens. The scene is set for a woman in heels washing a car with either brazen or uncontrollable abandon. In either case, one is left with the impression of a narrative context that is just beyond reach. “I was just hanging out waiting for something interesting to happen,” says Sackheim. “I saw this girl and guy pull up in this classic car and they were having a fight. He stormed off and she was left to wash the car. I don't think she had ever washed a car in her life. I think if I had caught the guy before he left, it would have made for a more complete story.” But the image’s incompleteness and the perspective of a distant observer are exactly what make such an image from Sackheim so full of promise.
The simplicity of fine art photography is often a point of entry for a viewer: a single frame holds an endless story of possibility, of what happened before and after. Sackheim’s aesthetic, his palette of light, shadow, and the uncanny places his photographs are set in recreate our modern cityscapes and our emotional responses to them. In many of his photographs, concrete—something we encounter every day and often don’t think about—takes on an otherworldly, sometimes hostile quality. Sackheim’s instinct to utilize available light offers hints of context as to what might be happening in the corners and hidden angles of such landscapes. The time of day can vary in his photographs, with the length of shadows, the brightness of light, and the haze of the atmosphere sometimes altering the mood of the subject altogether.
In his photograph The Jaws of Life, part of the series The Unknown, he starkly divides the composition between shadow and light as a lone figure floats in-between with a bird in-flight above, creating an environment with a touch of the surreal. In downtown areas usually filled with the hustle and bustle of everyday life, Sackheim slows down time to a halt in order to emphasize the lonely, mysterious world of a passerby, leaving us wondering who they are, what they are doing, where exactly we are, and what will happen next.
The most interesting impression Sackheim’s photography leaves us with is that much like we cannot penetrate the concrete exteriors of our cities, we likewise cannot penetrate the interior lives of others. Instead, we are left on edge. Photography might offer what Sackheim calls a “keyhole,” but looking through it, one discovers the enormity (and the pleasure) of what is left unknown. WM
For more, please visit his website: https://www.danielsackheim.com
And follow him on Instagram: @daniel.sackheim
Samantha Parker is a freelance writer living in Pasadena, CA.view all articles from this author