Foster is describing the foul-weather circumstances under which she was photographed for “Great Women in Film ” (Billboard Books), a new book authored by Helena Lumme and her husband, photographer Mika Manninen. “The wind was so strong it was hard to stand. It was hard to even stay very stable,” adds Foster, who is wandering through the accompanying exhibit at the Motion Picture Academy, which runs through April 21. So why did she choose to be photographed as a lone wanderer trekking across a vast snowdrift?
“It’s kind of the image of what I’ve been through working in films,” she explains. “I don’t think people really realize what hard work it is, that it has a very blue-collar, very physical aspect to it. And that it has been a hard trek. When I was growing up, there were no women in film.”
After the success of their last exhibition, which featured portraits of 50 screenwriters, Lumme and Manninen decided to focus on another commonly overlooked group in the film industry: women. But rather than do a series of straightforward portraits, they decided to try something new — to shoot portraits of the women in settings that reflect something about who they are.
Lumme and Manninen scaled desert dunes with Ruth Cotter, hoisted Jane Anderson on a pulley above a sound stage and dangled Christy Sumner in front of a wall of flames. Their portraits transform an assistant director into a Wild West sheriff, a set decorator into a country shepherdess, and a makeup artist into a saucy sword-wielding senorita. “I think that’s what my friends and clients call our dry Scandinavian humor,” Manninen explains.
But the project was far from a simple exercise in silliness. Says Lumme: “Surroundings have meaning. I was always pushing for wider shots to capture an environment. Women often have so many things — family, work. Their attention tends to be broader, more whole. Men are more likely to focus on just one thing.”
“No comment on that,” Manninen interjects, revealing the tension between them that energizes their work. “But I do think your surroundings change you immediately. If you’re Catholic and you walk into a church, you immediately begin to move differently. If you walk into a hospital, a different part of yourself is going to surface.”
Moving to Los Angeles from Finland six years ago, Lumme and Manninen made a decision to change their own surroundings drastically. “We came with six suitcases, six grand in our pockets, a son who was 12 and a dog. We didn’t know anybody,” says Lumme. “We were looking to reach a bigger audience. There are only 5 million people in all of Finland, and there is only so much you can do.”
Since then, the couple has collaborated on and off while raising their son and working on their own — Manninen as a photographer and cinematographer, Lumme as an author and filmmaker. But perhaps it was this initial outsider status that drew them to their current subject; aside from celebrating women and their contributions to film, the book also manages to open up a world known only to its inhabitants.
“We were full of questions,” Lumme explained. “We wanted to know how they found their career paths, what were the road blocks, and what advice they had to share with the 18-year-old who wants to be a filmmaker.”
As their friend the writer-director Kasi Lemmons observes, “Helena and Mika are drawn to the underdog — first screenwriters, now women in film. But they are more than just drawn to them. Their work celebrates them.”