For David Lee, work has long been a family affair. As a unit still photographer, the native New Yorker and younger brother of Spike Lee has captured the making of nearly every Lee joint, from the Oscar-winning director’s NYU shorts to Do the Right Thing to BlacKkKlansman—plus dozens of other American classics, like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Bourne Ultimatum and more. Not to mention his own artistic portfolio.
No film set is ever the same, but David’s mission is to document everything that happens, to tell the story as he sees it. “As a still photographer, you are putting your own stamp on the work,” David says. “It’s not at all the case that you’re just lifting a frame from the movie—that may be a popular misconception. Anybody who does it well is adding their own artistic eye, their own unique interpretation, to a larger vision.”
Below, David shares 12 photographs from his work on movie sets (and off) and what went into making each one. His stories show us just one more way in which movies are nothing short of magic. And while the images span decades, genres and formats, there is a common thread here. “Some are incredibly vibrant, like the red wall, and some are shot in my favorite format, which is black-and-white square. But I hope the through line is an attempt at storytelling,” he says. “That each image you could almost riff on. What you bring to it or how you respond to it is part of the pleasure of viewing them.”
MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA
A lot of photography has to do with being a good editor. If you’ve got 10 variations of the same shot, they’re 10 subtly different moments. You try to choose a picture that tells the story the best. I recently went back to every shot that I did from this session, and the dynamics of the characters here seemed to make the best frame. The part I love the most is the four women hovering over this child. The young woman with her hands on his chest … it’s almost biblical. This is one of the photos that I’m most proud of. I don’t recall if Rembrandt’s classic painting “The Anatomy Lesson” was in my mind while I was shooting, but looking back, I see that right away.
A lot of the time, the lighting can be just on the edge of the frame. There’ll be a diffuser or a stand or a microphone—those are the other villains. It’s all diplomacy on set because you can’t get the shot by making enemies. For this shot, during the filming of the scene, I was able to wiggle my way next to the film camera. I have to give a shout-out to every cinematographer and every camera operator I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never had a problem—and I’ve been very, very close. In my worst days, I bumped a steady cam operator, which is not a good thing to do, but it’s a dance. You try to be as seamless, as graceful, as invisible as you can be, but, it’s a physics thing: Two people can’t be in the same space. I understand that they absolutely pull rank on me and I accept that.
The wedding scene was such a quiet moment that I don’t think I got anything really good—or maybe I didn’t shoot anything at all—when they were actually filming. If there’s a really important moment, and I can’t get it during the filming, I have to be in the good graces of the 1st AD, who runs the set (and also, of course, the actors). It just turns out that the director’s my brother on this one. If you notice, the image is a square. I actually shot this, not with my Nikon, but with one of my Rolleiflexes, these old, waist-level, twin-lens reflex cameras. They’re like the old Brownies that everybody’s grandparents had. In all my artwork, I shoot with those cameras, square format. The negative is bigger, maybe 2.5 times than a 35mm, so you get much more detail and the colors are more lush. There’s much more information in the shot.
Denzel and Angela are top of the class. Even in this re-created moment for me, you can just look in her eyes—she’s completely still in character. And the composition, tight to the body and face … It just captured, for me, that really quiet moment. This shot was lit by Ernest Dickerson, the cinematographer. Everything glowing white against the rich brown skins. It just made sense to have the gaze take the whole picture. They were saying vows during the scene that we shot, but the vows could just as well be silent. Everything that they need to say, they’re saying with their eyes and with their body language and with her hand on top of his.
MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM
Again, there were a lot of pictures to choose from, a lot of variations. Here, Chadwick happens to be framed between the two women on the left; a millisecond later, one of those hands is going to be covering his face. If it’s a big scene, and the action is going all the way across the screen, there’s a lot of activity you’re trying to capture. There are so many things that can go wrong.
In the press kit, they chose a different image. The New York Times ran it. It’s a tighter shot of Ma Rainey, so the band is almost unseen. But for me, I wanted the whole spectacle. The two women in front, it’s almost like their arms are like seagull wings. The way they’re framing her, your eye almost goes in a full circle around Ma Rainey. This one just told a larger story. Your eye can dance all over the image and it comes right back to her, because she’s lit by the spotlight.
A lot of the time when I shoot, I see a frame within a frame. The inner frame here is the arc of the fabric over the stage. She’s presenting herself to the world in this photograph, in this tableau. This whole moment is about her claiming her spot, and asserting her power and her influence and her artistry. When I look at this, I see the role of the artist and the artist’s self-expression. It’s maybe the opposite of vulnerability, it’s confidence. It’s that assertiveness. Plenty of artists don’t give you everything, but there are others who are forces of nature. She’s being a force of nature here. You see both her character, and you see Viola. It’s a double whammy. You’re seeing the reality of the actor, just putting everything into it.
HE GOT GAME
This was shot just for the art department. There’s a prop in the movie with a picture of Ray Allen’s character, a high school baller named Jesus Shuttlesworth, on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He’s a high school sensation, so the text under the shot reads “Jesus saves.” And Spike’s idea was to shoot him like that.
I came up with the location and the lighting, and there are so many fun elements, like how he’s looking up into this celestial light, gazing up at his Father, with a capital F. And his heels on the step above, so it looks almost like he’s floating. What looks like a crypt or a coffin behind him was actually the door to a monument in Fort Greene Park. They went with a different version for the mock cover of Sports Illustrated—Ray Allen looking right at the camera, straight into the lens. It was from the same photo shoot, but I prefer the theatricality of this.
What’s been interesting with Spike’s movies is, many times, he lets me do photo shoots. Spike just thinks very broadly. He thinks full picture. He thinks of every possible way to promote a movie. The most fun that I have is actually not being the set still photographer, but when I can be a studio photographer, when I can control the scene myself. This is when I get the opportunity to have a little bit more creative say in where actors stand and what they do.
This was a really strong scene in the movie, where Savion Glover and Tommy Davidson are blacking up their faces for the first time. It’s humiliating, and they both have crises of conscience. They’re really debasing themselves. I think the whole idea here was similar to how the famous performer Bert Williams, who was called Nobody during the minstrel days, or any Black performer, struggled with that really fine line between performing for your audience and doing something that goes against your nature or your dignity in order to survive.
Spike caught that big struggle. I think both characters understood that in order to do this, they were giving up a part of their own dignity, their own self-worth. The most solemn and soul-crushing moment for them is when they’re making the blackface, using cork and some kind of oil, when they’re mixing the makeup that they’re going to apply to their faces. Then it’s done, and now they’re a caricature. Tommy is completely playing to that image that the white people see you as.
I hope these images function the same way that my art functions. It should be engaging, challenge you a little bit, and allow you to see beauty in the most disturbing scenes. To whatever degree my work is decent, I would hope that it’s somewhere along that spectrum of response. You don’t have to know the whole story. You bring your own story. You see something and you respond to it—that’s universal.
This is terrifying. This was a moment where I asked for the shot again because obviously he’s looking right into my camera. This was a direct confrontation, and I wanted to get that moment.
This shot should piss the hell out of everybody. You can almost see the disgust or the disdain on his face, and the arrogance in the character. For him to be challenging you in his power, in his element, on his home court … I wanted the photo to be terrifying, to frigging grate on you, and just rub you the wrong way.
You could write a book about how the movie works. It’s so fascinating to me because half the time, the Klan is completely comical. They’re buffoons. They’re buffoons in the same way that the people who ransacked the Capitol on January 6 were buffoons. They have on identifying jackets, they’re live-streaming, and they think it’s a game. They think they’re entitled to completely trample over other people’s rights.
The movie was crazy because half of it is funny. I mean, Charlie Chaplin did it playing Hitler in The Great Dictator. To have such horror treated as a satire is a weapon. It’s a way of showing how ridiculous these people are. In this shot, this is the unfunny moment. This is the real horror of who these people are, and the damage they can do. The movie stops you in your tracks. It really knocks you to your knees and, after the joke, this is the reality.
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
I only did a couple of days on this film; I was covering for photographer François Duhamel. This shot was such a challenge because it shouldn’t work—it’s filled with nothingness. But then I look at it again and I think, “Well, the crack in the wall is something that’s subtle, but critical.” In all that dead space, there’s still that little something happening in that crack. We’re all perfectionists in our way, but this was a picture that grew on me.
It works because of the tension and because of the body language. Even if you don’t know the movie, you’re responding to the vulnerability of the little boy and the father figure. So this one, really, is like a wide-open shot to interpret, or to try to struggle with, emotionally and compositionally. Maybe people respond because of all the tension, because you’re trying to resolve it. At least I’m trying to resolve it.
SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT
Spike used my photographs for a couple of montage scenes in She’s Gotta Have It; those kind of stitched the story together. We didn’t film in the winter, so he just had me go out and shoot winter scenes and then made them a photo montage. He also did that when one of the characters is on the subway. The opening credits are also all the images from my art portfolio.
This one was not shot for any movie. This was my portrait of my dad, who was a jazz musician, and Spike put it in the film. I took it in 1982, as an art major in college. I was 20, 21 years old. I loved portraiture. I loved Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Mary Ellen Mark …
We lived in a brownstone in Fort Greene, and this was in the living room on the parlor floor. It was the biggest room in the house. My dad’s in his 90s and he still lives in that house. I wanted to tell a story in stark terms. There’s no furniture; just a bass and some huge, movie palace hanging lamp. So it’s a photograph reduced to a few bits of information. Again, it’s all about composition. My dad is so far away, but it’s still a portrait. Such simple things, like his bow just barely touching the bass, guide your eye throughout the frame.
I still love it. But, for me, it’s also about my relationship to that house. We were in a big house with no furniture. People thought we were rich! It’s like the illusion of being middle class. We had this shell; we had a brownstone, but there wasn’t much in it, and what was in it got sold. There’s something very stark about that image that people won’t really get. But to me, I understand what it felt like to be in that house with my dad.
DO THE RIGHT THING
Simply put, I couldn’t get that picture. I couldn’t be where the camera was. It’s handheld, and there was no way for me to get an equivalent shot of Radio Raheem, played by Bill Nunn. So it was just a matter of problem-solving. You say, “How can I tell the story here? What can I do to show the process of filmmaking? Alright, let me get a production shot.”
This is the great scene where Bill gives the love-hate monologue: “If I love you, I love you. If I hate you, I hate you.” I mean, talk about straight-on confrontation; you can’t get more in-your-face than that, with that close-up to the camera.
Radio Raheem is an incredibly complex character in that he has his own way of going through the world, and literally causing a wake. He walks right through the middle of the street and everybody parts. Here, Bill is talking to Spike’s character, Mookie, so Spike is both directing and acting. And that’s Ernest Dickerson, the cinematographer, in the shot.
This, to me, is more of an historical document because it’s such a frigging iconic movie. The movie itself is like a revolution, it just really blew people out of their seats. This shot steps back a little bit and shows: This was my angle of this incredible moment in the movie. You’re standing in the photographer’s shoes.
I always tell the story that, for two years after this movie, white people would come up to me, upset, and try and have me explain why Mookie threw the garbage can through the window. People were so far out of their comfort zone with this movie. It was a confrontation.
Spike knew he was telling an explosive story. We were filming the pizza parlor being burned down, a riot, a Black man being killed by the police … It was prophetic. It wasn’t prophetic because it hadn’t happened before; it’s not like Black people were never killed by the police before Do the Right Thing came out. It’s both telling the past and forecasting the future.
This is a funny one because we were shooting at a spa down in Lower Manhattan, and I was in the pool when I took this picture. I had a bathing suit on under my clothes, and there were a couple of grips in there too, the AC, the focus puller, and the operator. It was a pool party. To get this shot, I had to be almost underneath the camera legs.
It was a fun challenge for me, to one, not get myself electrocuted, and two, try to get the action shot. Shooting action is a whole other matter. You have to try to freeze action. Movie cameras don’t have to worry about freezing action. The whole movie, Keanu is kicking somebody or people are crashing through windows … This was a little bit easier to take because it’s a still moment. He’s not actually running, he’s crouching for another kill.
It was also a subterranean, low-light situation. In low light, you sacrifice depth of field and a good exposure. For this one, I might’ve been able to lower the shutter speed back down to maybe 1/60 of a second because he was pausing. At least the intensity of the moment was captured.
DO THE RIGHT THING
I took this shot when Do the Right Thing went to the Cannes Film Festival. Universal let me and my brother and sister come along. So Spike, Cinqué, Joie and I were all there. And I was hired to photograph Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee for a magazine.
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee were actors and activists for civil rights, in the same class as Harry Belafonte. They chose projects that were relevant, that tried to advance a just cause. And they were absolutely frontline heroes in the Civil Rights Movement. Ossie famously performed the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. At the end of Malcolm X, Ossie re-recites his incredibly powerful words, calling Malcolm X “our shining prince.”
Spike cast them in several of his movies. In Jungle Fever, they play a husband and wife. In Do the Right Thing they play almost adversaries. He’s been courting her for years and years, and she’s not having it. But for this shot, they’re really royalty. They’re not putting on airs, they’re not overplaying to the camera. The expressions are true. I love the little flower coming into the frame, and how the undulation is echoed in her head wrap.
This picture was my tribute to their relationship, my honoring them as elder statesmen of the Black community. They should absolutely hold places of honor, not just among Black people, but among all people. They’re up there with all the other heroes that stood for righteous causes.
I love working with filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, who has an absolutely unique vision and sensibility in his filmmaking. You know a Jim Jarmusch movie right away. I couldn’t get this shot during the take because they must’ve had the camera on a crane looking down. So it was relatively easy for them to get that angle, but for me—it is not an easy position for a Rolleiflex to take that picture. I am basically straddling Bill Murray and Sharon Stone. It would be impossible to take that picture with a 35mm camera because you couldn’t be at the eyepiece; you’d have to shoot it blind. But the Rolleiflex is a ground-glass camera, so you can use a mirror that’s in it. You can hold it directly over your head, look up at the ground lens, and shoot.
For this moment, it was just me and the two actors. Everybody else stood down for three minutes for me to get on top of the bed. The idea of going to work on a film and being given some artistic license to have a moment where I, for that brief moment I have with the actors, take central stage and have the actors in my lens … I got to capture that moment as only I saw it, not as the camera saw it. They weren’t shooting two and a quarter. They weren’t shooting black-and-white. This was my way of recording a scene from the movie.
Photos are a part of the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library's Collections.
By Nadine Zylberberg