Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Coffeetable Watchmen Vol. 1 - Watchmen Portraits Is A Wonderful Study Of Grizzled Faces!

The Good: Some impressive photography, Decent index print pages
The Bad: Not complete, Somewhat simplistic
The Basics: Visually impressive, photographer Clay Enos captures almost all major and most every minor character in the cinematic Watchmen for a beautiful black and white portrait book in Watchmen Portraits.

As the hype and fever surrounding the film Watchmen (click here for my review) entered its second weekend last year, I continued to find myself well-baited by Watchmen in other medium. I've been letting myself enjoy the hype given that the film is now wrestling for one of the spots on my "Best Films Of All Time" list. As a result, I have been listening to music, hunting action figures and reading books all associated with the film incarnation of Watchmen. Indeed, I'll be one of the few to proudly address the concept that director Zack Snyder managed to eliminate all of the problems I had with the original graphic novel and by trimming out the fat, he made a perfect movie.

A few days ago, I went through one of the several coffeetable Watchmen books that have sprung up (and are no doubt on the clearance racks elsewhere!) when I took a look at Peter Aperlo's Watchmen: The Film Companion. Today, I return with an enthusiastic, if simplistic, review of Clay Enos' Watchmen coffeetable book Watchmen Portraits. This is a book of photographs and it is hardly the most highbrow book in the world, but in the world of coffee table photography books, this is the Watchmen geek's best possible friend. And as far as creating legitimate art, photographer Clay Enos manages to do just that.

Watchmen Portraits is a collection of over 175 black and white character portraits of individuals from the film Watchmen. Each portrait is a beautiful 9" X 12" black and white photograph and the presentation of the book - largely - is of actors from virtually every aspect of the film, in make-up and a general sense of being in character, standing before a white screen. Though the vast majority of the photographs are full page shots in stark contrast to the white background, a few have full body shots, most notably of Silk Spectre II, Sally Jupiter and the Comedian.

Enos is a gifted photographer and his sense of lighting captures the mood and underlying sense of character in all of his subjects. So, for example, his photograph of Big Figure - even out of the context of Watchmen captures an image of a little man with a dark sense of humor. Enos' photograph captures a maniacal sense of enthusiasm which is actually unsettling to sit and stare at in his picture of Big Figure. His covershot of Rorschach is another intriguing one, with the vigilante with his grappling gun. Despite the fact that it is against a whitescreen, Enos manages to imply a sense of movement, as if he captured the shot of Rorschach from a safe distance as the vigilante rushed through an alley. That sense of mystery and movement fits Rorschach's character much better than a traditional portrait might.

Enos captures that essential flavor of character in virtually every shot. So his portrait of Hollis Mason's Nite Owl looks somewhat bored. As a member of law enforcement, the idea of a publicity shot would bore Nite Owl. This portrait, like many of the photographs in Watchmen Portraits appears in the background of the film for the attentive viewer. So, too, does a seriously degraded copy of Enos' photograph of the young Moloch, who looks much more charismatic than his crime-fighting counterparts in his villain get-up.

There are tons of shots that would also mirror publicity shots in Watchmen Portraits. Nite Owl II stands with his hands on hips, looking dramatic and the archetype of a good superhero. Enos captures a pretty strong image that connotes authority and strength in the Nite Owl II portrait that both p.r., advertising and comic book fans will instantly recognize for its compositional strengths. Ozymandais similarly is presented with a sense of strength and resolve in his primary full-body shot.

Even the lesser characters receive ample coverage. Hooded Justice stands at a slight lurching angle, reinforcing the inherent menace in his giant form. Similarly, Dollar Bill and Captain Metropolis appear in Watchmen Portraits almost as much as they did in the actual film! The delight for many fans of Watchmen will do doubt be how some of the background characters are actually paid attention to in this giant book. So, for example, there is a portrait of David Bowie and Mick Jagger together in beautiful clarity allowing fans to smile and appreciate the level of attention that went into such things. Don't remember Bowie and Jagger in the film? Well, of course, it is not the actual Bowie or Mick Jagger, they are actors who are made to look like early '80's versions of Bowie and Jagger. They appear during the opening credit sequence, screen left when Ozymandais stands outside Studio 54. Blink and you miss them.

Much of Watchmen Portraits focuses on the "blink-and-you-miss-them" characters, which might be a little frustrating considering the number of portraits of people in '40s and '60s suits near the back of the book just taking up space (by most fans' reckonings). But Enos treats virtually all of his subjects with equal weight and he gives each a chance to stand on their own as powerful symbols of the time, be they politicians, entertainers, villains or masked heroes. It is a decent concept.

It is also a concept not lacking in the ability to express irony, which Enos does with a pretty delicious sense. On one page there is pin-up girl Sally Jupiter, posed in a glam shot, dressed in white (ironic considering how her character is not virginal at all), on the next page is a Vietnamese woman, pregnant by the Comedian, staring mutely at the reader. The attention to detail and sense that the actors were photographed in character comes through perfectly as the Vietnamese woman stares, dead-eyed, with soot on her face at the camera. The dichotomy of the pin-up and the impoverished woman on the pages creates a bold contrast.

Because Watchmen Portraits is all in black and white, it is a study of contrasts and the black and white photography does an awesome job of bringing out surface details in the character's faces. Stubble on Big Figure and the Comedian stands out and gives their faces character and depth that is impressive for the detail that Enos captures.

Perhaps there is no better example of Enos capturing detail than in the various portraits of the Comedian. The Comedian has the most complicated face over the course of Watchmen (at least, without CG-effects involved), if for no other reason than he and Sally Jupiter are the only characters shown in all three major time blocks of Watchmen. The Comedian has a face that goes from young to weathered, unblemished to scarred and ultimately to old and tired. Enos captures the different variations over several photographs, allowing the reader to revel in the detail that went into the make-up and visual effects that define each stage of the Comedian's life. It is amazing, actually, to see the transformation of one actor into so many forms through such simple means and Enos captures that wonderfully.

The book has a brief forward wherein Enos describes his level of involvement with the Watchmen cinematic project and recounts the challenges of taking the portraits and making up the book. Then follows the portraits and they are arranged without much of a sense of order, characters from different time periods mixing without real relation to one another. In this way, the photographs mostly have to fend for themselves and make their statements without any aid. As well, each photograph is the pure portrait. There is no text on any of the pictures. After the portraits comes an index of thumbnails clearly labeling each portrait in the order in which they appear in the book. This is a nice touch.

Don't like to read? Love photography and Watchmen, Watchmen Portraits is the right book for you. As far as the coffeetable Watchmen books go, this would seem to be the one the most artistic care went into and is also the one most likely to sell out before it goes on the clearance racks. To be fair, it is also the best book (outside the original graphic novel) for fans of Watchmen and represents the best way (I've yet found) to spend your dollars on Watchmen swag.

For other Watchmen products, please check out my reviews of:
Watchmen By Alan Moore
Dr. Manhattan limited edition action figure
Kubrick's Watchment set B


For other book reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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