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NY Times A&L Piece on Middle of Nowhere Cinematographer Bradford Young

He’s Just a ‘Custodian of the Moment’ Bradford Young, Cinematographer for ‘Middle of Nowhere’ By AMANDA PETRUSICH The New York Times Published: May 16, 2012 THERE’S a scene early on in “Middle of Nowhere,” one of this year’s Sundance prize-winning films, when a young married couple bicker briefly in the visiting area of a prison: the room is pallid, even clammy, but the actors’ faces are vibrant and vulnerable, held full-frame. It’s a triumphant, even signature moment for the film’s cinematographer, Bradford Young. “I’m big on faces,” Mr. Young said, his own collapsing into a sweet, easy grin. “I like to fill the frame with heads. I use faces as landscapes, as architecture. That always feels like the right place to start.” Mr. Young, 34, a New Yorker, is one of a cadre of emerging black filmmakers — including the “Middle of Nowhere” director, Ava DuVernay, and the filmmakers Dee Rees and Tina Mabry — making visually compelling cinema addressing the outliers at the edges of black culture in America. Working mostly outside the auspices of Hollywood, they’re finding new ways to circumvent traditional channels (like using Ms. DuVernay’s distribution company, Affrm <http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/08/movies/08urban.html> , or African American Film Festival Releasing Movement, which will release “Middle of Nowhere” later this year in concert with Participant Media). “The word that comes to mind when thinking of Bradford’s visual style is ‘lush,’ ” Ms. DuVernay said in an e-mail. “It is full. When I watch people of color in most films, the image is so often flat or partial. Nothing about what Bradford does is partial. Every frame is full-bodied and potent and robust. It’s so exciting because it’s so rare.” As a storyteller, Mr. Young is preternaturally drawn to marginalization; in nearly all the movies he shoots, including “Restless City <http://www.affrm.com/restless-city/> ,” now getting a national rollout, an outsider contends with an unkind or indifferent world. That fundamental battle — to be acknowledged, to be loved — animates his work as well as his life. Mr. Young’s grandparents were a formative influence; he left Louisville, Ky., at 15 to live with his father in Chicago (“I was a kid from a small town in the mid-South who knew there was better, you know?”), but not before internalizing his grandparents’ high standards. “There was an intense push for prestige, for intention, in everything we did,” he recalled over coffee in the East Village. “My grandparents were people of their time. They were fighting their own war in a country they wanted to be a part of and weren’t allowed to be a part of. Growing up, I didn’t have the privilege of forgetting that.” The product of four generations of Kentucky funeral directors (his family’s funeral home opened in 1907, and is one of the oldest continually operating black-owned funeral parlors in the country), Mr. Young eschewed the family business to study film at Howard University, where he worked with the director Daniel Williams <http://www.bgsu.edu/help/cas/help28890.html> . Mr. Young referred to Mr. Williams’s short “A Thousand Days a Year” (2000), about the desire for spirituality in the midst of chaos, as a masterpiece. “He’s so prolific and is a true independent filmmaker,” Mr. Young said. “I consider him to be the architect of my photographic sensibilities.” Mr. Young’s creative choices are mindful without feeling deliberate. Each shot serves the narrative in a specific way: a bit of visual information might be purposefully withheld, a camera angle might suggest a slight shift in power. His distinctive approach, which won him the excellence in cinematography award at Sundance in 2011 (for Ms. Rees’s “Pariah,” <http://movies.nytimes.com/gst/movies/titlelist.html?v_idlist=160245;405769;452810;464224&amp;inline=nyt_ttl>  a coming-of-age story about a black lesbian in Brooklyn), is the product of learned restraint. He favors raw light and has a penchant for shooting into it, but said he ultimately focuses on getting out of the way. “That’s how you get something way more authentic, way more cerebral, way more visceral,” he said. “Just be a custodian of the moment. Step back. Watch.” In “Restless City,” <http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/464292/Restless-City-Movie-/overview>  also distributed by Affrm, Djibril (Sy Alassane), a 21-year-old Senegalese immigrant living in Harlem, grapples with self-identification and the odd, devastating loneliness of his new life in New York. For the film, which was directed by the Nigerian-born photographer Andrew Dosunmu, Mr. Young often positioned his camera behind grimy, scratched windows, providing a point of tension between the meticulously costumed characters and the imperfect world they inhabit. “The spaces of the African immigrant world in New York, they exist through all these layers of plastic and plexiglass; you can walk up and down 115th Street and there are so many establishments where you have to go through curtains, you have to go through all these things to get in,” he explained. “I know that world by peeking through the window: an African-American peeking through the window at Africans of another sort of diaspora.” Nevertheless, the tension he establishes can feel universal. “I’m drawn to these films because those are worlds that I know a lot about,” he said. “I feel comfortable in those spaces because I consider myself a marginalized person. I feel like it’s my duty to be a part of those stories. It doesn’t have to be about something abject, it can be about something enlightened, but I want my work to be focused on that bit of metadata — that life is beautiful, but it’s a struggle.” Mr. Young has gathered considerable accolades from the indie community (as well as beyond it), but he continues to tussle personally with the insularity of the scene. “How independent are we?” he asked. “It’s not just about being free from Hollywood, but are you freeing your mind? Are you freeing your story?” He is still working on realizing that freedom. Although he’s completed eight features and he’s reading new scripts and working on his first solo art installation, which he said will combine sculptural and motion picture elements, he’s hesitant to define his aesthetic. “I feel like I’m still in a great discovery process, trying to figure out what it is, ultimately, that I want to say with the camera,” he said. “I’m exploring. I’m looking forward to the day where I can communicate: ‘This is what the intention was. This is what I do.’ It’s been a really fulfilling couple years, but it’s only been a couple years.” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/movies/bradford-young-cinematographer-for-middle-of-nowhere.html?_r=1