Behind Carol: the photographers who influenced Todd Haynes’ award-winning film

“It seamlessly evokes the period by paying homage to the great photography of the time.”

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Variously dubbed “woozy” “stunning” and “gorgeous”, Todd Haynes’ Carol has earned widespread critical praise for its visual splendour. The film’s cinematographer, Ed Lachman, was awarded the Golden Frog, the top award at Poland’s Camerimage Film Festival, which is devoted to the art of cinematography. The jury declared it a film of “aristocratic grace and elegance,” noting its “delicate and precise exploration of emotion through color and light”. They added, “It seamlessly evokes the period by paying homage to the great photography of the time.”

Speaking at a 35mm screening of Carol at the Picturehouse Central on Tuesday, Haynes emphasised the importance of contemporary photography in deciding upon the visual landscape of Carol, explaining that he complied an “image book” of visual references that was shown to almost every person working on the film along the way: producers, set and costume designers, make-up artists, and actors.

The book collected a selection of 1950s photojournalism that revealed a “distressed, dirty, sagging city” that jarred with their own romanticised notions of New York at the time. Aptly for a film that prioritises female perspectives, many of these photographers were women: Ruth Orkin, Helen Levitt, Esther Bubley and Vivian Maier were all major influences for the team behind Carol. Haynes added that this was where the film developed its “soiled colour palette”.

Ruth Orkin's photograph of Geraldine Dent at the vegetable market and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

Esther Bubley’s “Girl sitting alone in the Sea Grill” (credit: Wikimedia Commons) and Cate Blanchett in Carol.

One key photographer, though, was Saul Leiter. As Haynes said to the Guardian, “He’s known for shooting through windows, for using reflection. His work is impressionistic: these exquisite frames, and then that blown colour palette, muted overall with flashes of colour. I’m so proud that people look at this and think: wow, that’s the film. It means that we got it.” His influence is so great that the Southbank have put together a selection of Carol stills next to Leiter photographs in their South Wing: Through a Lens: Saul Leiter and Carol.

Teju Cole wrote in 2013 that “the overriding emotion” in Leiter’s work is “a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life.” Despite its setting, Carol possesses a slowness that mirrors the contradiction in Leiter’s photography: Therese and Carol’s relationship is gentle, silent and moves at a glacial pace.

Haynes also emphasised that Leiter’s focus on frames, mirrors, and glass was equally influential for the film, which often lingers on characters gazing at each other through car windows and camera lenses. In the documentary film about his life and work, In No Great Hurry (2012), Leiter says, “There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. We like to pretend that what is public is what the real world is all about.” For a significant portion of the film, Carol is a magnetic but inscrutable character: like Therese, we’re enthralled by, but remain distant from her. Haynes plays with this by including several shots where Carol is partially concealed or abstracted by rainy windows or snowfall. As the film, and its central relationship, progresses, we join Carol on the other side of the glass. Haynes told the Telegraph that when the film opens, “Therese is starting [...] but is not yet ready to put human subjects in her frames. And in many ways you feel like that’s also a process of putting herself in her frame, and seeing herself in the world. Which seeing Carol helps her to do. Carol becomes the first human subject in her lens.”

Saul Leiter (credit: gooseotter on Flickr) and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol.

As Haynes concludes in another interview, “We yearn for the desire to triumph, and it almost never does in the greatest love stories, because we’re left yearning for it more in the end and we wish the world were different as a result. I do love that. You see these people functioning, where their gestures and their words have a limited range of possibility, and so it forces us to read between what they’re saying and what’s possible, to look at what’s between the glass separating them, the glances separating them, or even linking them at times.”

Listen to Anna talking about the visual influences behind Carol on the New Statesman's pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.