Still Life: A Still Photographer Talks About His Years On-Set

May 4, 2021
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Wynn passed on Sunday, May 2, 2021, at the age of 97.

As seen in the Winter 2019 edition of Camera Angles.

Wynn Hammer was not yet 30 when he joined the International Cinematographers Guild in 1953. He was a titles photographer, but needed to be a member of IATSE Local 659 to work the job. 66 years later, Hammer is one of the oldest living members of his union.

Hammer was born in New York City in 1924, and grew up in the Bronx. After graduating high school in 1942, he moved with his parents across the country to settle in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Hammer enrolled at Art Center to study in the school’s recently-created photography department.

“In about 1935 or ‘36, they started a photography division,” said Hammer. “There were only about 12 of us in my class.”

Hammer spent a brief stint as a photographer in the US Army during World War II. He then returned to civilian life and pursued a career in fashion photography, but after three years in New York City, Hammer came back to Los Angeles “with my tail between my legs,” he said.

At a friend’s urging, Hammer took a job as a titles and credits photographer at the National Screen Service in 1952. “To get the job, you needed to be in the union,” Hammer added, so his friend introduced him.

“I was on for about a year on a permit before they initiated me,” into IATSE Local 659, Hammer said. “We shot what was called a DP—a Direct Positive,” and would add ads into the intermission section of a film’s reel. “We shot backwards film,” he explained, then punched notches in the film strip—two for ‘start’, three for ‘end’—to mark where music was to be inserted. “And there’s a guy [who], before he developed the film, he ran it down in the dark and put music on it where the soundtrack is.”

By 1970, most title photography work had been outsourced to Japan, and Hammer needed work. He called up his union representative at Local 659, “and I said, ‘Look, I’m a photographer. What can I do?’ He said, ‘we’ll make you a still photographer.’” Hammer became a still photographer on both television and film sets for the next 20 years. His work has been used in promotional materials, in editorials and as posters for the various projects he photographed.

“I’m just shooting whatever I felt I wanted to shoot,” Hammer recalled. “They didn’t tell you what to shoot because they didn’t know themselves.”

Hammer would frequently get an unwelcome reception from directors who considered still photographers on sets to be unnecessary and distracting. On the set of Bound For Glory, Hammer learned that director Hal Ashby wanted him replaced. “I went and knocked on his trailer door,” Hammer recalled. “I walked in there, I had it out with him, and he left me on.”

One of his favorite photos was shot on the set of the CBS series Medical Center. It was a shot of a nude man and woman, seen from the back, running down a hospital corridor. Series lead Chad Everett did “a lot of fooling around,” Hammer claims. “He had these streakers come in, and I come on set around nine o’clock, and I hear everybody screaming, and I saw them running.” Hammer loaded his camera as quickly as he could, hoping the streakers would run by a second time. Sure enough, they did.

Whether working with Robert De Niro on The Deer Hunter or Faye Dunaway on Beverly Hills Madam, Hammer said he would never pose the actors. “The only time I do anything like that is if I catch something that’s different,” he said.

Hammer retired from professional photography in 1990 and was honored with the Society of Camera Operators’ (SOC) Still Photographer Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999. He keeps the award in his study along with binders full of notes, samples of his work and film negatives.

In the years since retirement, Hammer has kept a low profile. “I had a 20-foot sailboat I sailed most weekends,” he said, “but I gave up on the boat in ‘07 or ‘08.” He also met weekly with a group to make balsa wood model airplanes and race them indoors, estimating that he’s built over 100 rubber band-powered light airplanes in 20 years.

Now, at 95, Hammer looks back on his life with few regrets. Well, maybe one.

“One of my disappointments was the rejection I received from Edward Steichen,” he said of the “Family of Man” photo-essay project Steichen assembled in 1955. Hammer submitted two photos to the collection from his service during World War II, but they never made the cut.

Watch Local 600’s Heritage Series interview with Wynn here.

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