Through the Window: Meet ‘Big Eyes’ Photographer Leah Gallo

Leah Gallo is a talented stills photographer and photojournalist, with a career spanning many notable feature films. She has fostered a close working relationship with director Tim Burton, shooting stills and authoring photo books for many of his feature films. Her creative and expositive eye for photography compliments the wild, fantastic worlds of the films she works on, often giving new perspectives on the characters and sets. We thank Leah took the time to answer some questions about her experiences and process leading up to her Q&A at the 2024 SWAN Day, on March 30 in New York City.

How did you come to work as a still photographer? Did you always have an interest in working in film, or did it seem to find you?

The film industry definitely found me rather than the other way around. Never in my life before the year I fell down the rabbit hole did I dream of being a still photographer or know that such a career existed. I thought I’d be scraping by doing photojournalism and supplementing with wedding photography. I’ve described it before like being sucked into a whirlwind. I was completing a masters in photojournalism when I met my future husband, Derek Frey. He’d been working with Tim Burton for a long time, and introduced us. I started traveling with them and taking photos for Tim, and the next thing I knew, I was offered a one-week job shooting photographs of the orchestral scoring of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

The producer of that film, Richard Zanuck (who later came to feel like a grandfather) really liked my work and was a supporter of mine. After the scoring, Sweeney Todd had an unusual two week opening at the beginning of the film, because the photographer hired for the remainder of the project couldn’t shoot the first two weeks. I knew a lot of the people on the film at that point, including Tim, Richard, and Patrick, and everyone liked the work I had done on the scoring, so they offered me the job. Then they kept me on for the whole film to act as a second shooter and to create a book as a gift for the entire crew, which was quite lovely and special. And that’s what started my entire still photography career trajectory.

The job of a still photographer seems to be one of the more obscure, specialized roles on a film set. Can you give us insight into what it entails?

Most people outside of the industry have no idea what I do when I tell them I’m a still photographer. It’s one of the lesser known positions. The main function of my role is to take photos that represent the film (as closely to the camera angle as possible) that can be used in marketing. A good chunk of the photos you see online or in magazines and newspapers promoting movies were taken by a still photographer. Another important job of mine is to document the filmmaking process – show the behind the scenes. This is personally my favorite part of the job, it dovetails nicely with photojournalism. Filmmaking is such a strange and unique process, and I try to show that in my images. These photos can be used in magazines or as promotion, but on some of the bigger films they can also appear in “Making of” books or even in the extras features after a film is released, sometimes incorporated into the EPK (electronic press kit) footage.

What do you find is the most important skill in being a good still photographer?

Being a good still photographer is about so many different elements all coming together. You’re a department of one so you’re responsible for everything. Your own equipment, your own files, your own editing, and figuring out what the heck is going on at any moment, which can be really tricky if you’re not on set. It’s not good to be on set all the time, because you’re going to be in someone’s way no matter where you are. A set is so many moving parts all working together, constant, organized chaos, and part of the job is knowing when to be out of the way. It requires a lot of people skills because people will make room for you if they like and respect you, but can absolutely make the job harder for you if they don’t. It’s not a role vital to making the film, instead you’re documenting and helping to sell it. Afterwards though, what I do is important to publicity and the studio, and it’s a testament to the film and the filmmaking process. I find it important to always keep in mind that duality: to take my job seriously on set but to also understand the ultimate goals of everyone else working on the film. There’s so much equipment and so many people to shoot around, that every time I manage to get a decent photo, it feels like a miracle. Every. Single. Time. I’m always really happy if I get a great shot despite the obstacles.

Your work in still photography goes beyond simple BTS pictures, often giving the characters life and history beyond the frame of the film. What insight do you find photography can give into the world of a film?

I’ve been very lucky to have the opportunity to do a series of portraits on several of the films where I was able to show a little bit of the characters that you don’t see on screen. But it’s more about revealing what’s already there. Photography is a window, and what it reveals, at least in film portraiture, is a collaboration between actor, photographer and all the people who help with the lighting, sets, etc. It’s collaborative, which is one of the things I love about film in general.

Although most of the accolades on films go to the director or producers, it’s a true team effort, and the best directors don’t micromanage but instead utilize the amazing array of talent out there.

You have worked closely with Tim Burton since 2006, can you give us more insight into what that relationship is like? Is there a favorite world of his that you got to witness come to life?

I have a soft spot for Sweeney Todd, which was my first film. Some of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken were from that project. It was such a rich playing field for photography. I also have fond memories of Big Eyes, because it was such a small project relative to his other ones, and it really felt like a labor of love. I haven’t worked with Tim since the pandemic, now that we live in Vancouver full time, but I certainly enjoyed all of the opportunities I had while I was working for him, and have many fond memories, especially of the people I worked with on a lot of those films (Tim tends to hire the same teams). I really hope our paths will cross again someday!

Click on image to enlarge

You are the author of multiple books that provide insight into the productions you have been a part of, including Big Eyes: The Film, The Art. How do you approach these types of projects?

My stint in photojournalism definitely informed the way I edited and wrote the books (and the way I shoot in general). I would look at each project and think, what would I want to know or see as a reader, what journey can I take them on with both photos and words, and use that as my starting point.

Big Eyes stands out in Tim Burton’s filmography as seemingly grounded in the real world and real history, and less in the extraordinary that he is so well known for. Do you feel like this led to a different creative approach?

Tim was a bit burnt out by big blockbusters, and Big Eyes was a return to the basics of filmmaking for him, stripping everything back. It was definitely a different feel than say Alice in Wonderland. Big Eyes was all real sets or locations. Working on locations is always different than a set, because you can’t just remove a wall to shoot something, you have to work within the confines of the real world. That can be a challenge, but it also leads to some creative thinking. As a still photographer, it’s nice to be photographing in a place that’s 100% real because there’s always something to look at, there’s no worries about trying to cut out the green or blue screen.

Do you have any exciting projects coming up that you can tell us about?

I’m currently the still photographer on Tron: Ares (doing night shoots at the moment so if I look tired and rumpled for the Q & A, that’s why).

I recently edited the book Those Boys on the Hill, a memoir by a friend of mine, Elliott Glover. He’s a Black man who was born in North Philly. He and his two brothers ended up in foster care as kids and eventually moved to a group home in rural Pennsylvania in a town that was predominantly white. It’s his experiences growing up in foster care and in that small town (in the same area I grew up in). It’s a fascinating, compelling read, a story of survival and perseverance. I highly, highly recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about the lived experiences of kids in foster care, as well as what it’s like to grow up Black in a predominantly white area. And my recommendation isn’t because I edited the book, it’s because I believe in it so passionately!

© Hannah Mayo (3/30/24) – Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Check out Leah’s wonderful website!

Buy Big Eyes: The Film, The Art.

Find Those Boys on the Hill.

Visit Leah’s IMDb page.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Middle Image: Leah Gallo’s discerning BIG EYE as captured by Margaret Keane herself in 2013!

All photos © Leah Gallo and used with her permission. All Rights Reserved!

Tags: Amy Adams, Big Eyes (2014), Leah Gallo, Margaret Keane, women photographers

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Hannah Mayo is a Brooklyn based writer, filmmaker, and cinematographer. Raised in Houston, Texas, she grew up with a father who loves photography and made sure to put a camera in her hand before age 10. Inspired by the power of the moving image, her work focuses on telling stories that explore community and the nuances of human connection. She is influenced by a wide range of media, from punk music to old western films to stained glass art, and is constantly picking up a new skill or hobby to keep her hands busy and inspire new works. For more work by Hannah please go to: https://thehotpinkpen.com/author/hannah/
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