Do I live on the same planet? The thought often runs through my mind when I’m confronted with the latest work of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, whose otherworldly collaborations with directors like Terrence Malick and Alfonso Cuarón have yielded six Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography—including his most recent, for Gravity. Having conquered IMAX, he’s on to Instagram. In a recent interview in the New York Times Sunday Review, fellow cinematographer (and Oscar nominee, for Nebraska) Phedon Papamichael mentioned in passing Lubezki’s Instagram feed, which turns out to be one of the most intimately curated and visually arresting galleries currently in circulation on the social network—a collection of unidentified images by the greatest cinematographer in the game hiding in plain sight.
The feed is not exactly anonymous—the images are filed under “chivexp,” a variation of Lubezki’s nickname, “Chivo”—though his authorship is markedly downplayed and captions are scant. The comments Lubezki received for his earliest entries, which date back to January 2012, are generally from admiring friends and family. As his viewership grew—he currently has a relatively modest 4,900 followers—and hundreds more images were loaded, a few of which offered keyholes into his high-profile work for Hollywood, there became a sense that a case was being solved, crystalized by a user comment that accompanies an image of a stand-in wearing a spacesuit on the set of Gravity: “bro I dunno but I think this might be Lubezki’s ig.”
When I learned of Lubezki’s account, I confess, my first impulse was to scavenge the gallery for outtakes from his stellar filmography. While there is a tantalizingly small batch of images to satisfy Malick lovers—a location-scout snap of the cramped attic that gave a giant a neck cramp in The Tree of Life, or a between-takes portrait of the painted warrior who visits Pocahontas’ deathbed in The New World—there is far more to behold in the unscripted, minor-key moments Lubezki has collected at the edges of the Earth. Burnt forests and melting ice caps. Sunrays bursting through the bullet hole in a traffic sign. A museumgoer with explosive eyebrows standing beside a stone-faced statue. A church altar stacked with human skulls. A light bulb making fingers amphibious.
What makes the gallery worthy of inspection is that it reconsiders an artist so universally praised for his mastery of movement, best exemplified by the seamless, bravado Steadicam work in Cuarón’s Children of Men. These stills, many of which capture passersby in a fleeting light source—a single sunbeam, an ideal bounce light from beach sand—are a testament to Lubezki’s innate visual instincts. I’m haunted by the stares he steals. He seems willing to approach any stranger or sea urchin and elevate their most noble qualities in a single frame. (His sporadic responses to queries from his followers reveal a generosity of spirit, as well: He shoots with a Ricoh GR Digital IV, Nikon D800, and iPhone5, for those keeping score.)
Along with scenes from Palau, Kenya, and Lubezki’s native Mexico, the gallery features several portraits of everyday New Yorkers. This brought to mind the recent documentary In No Great Hurry, which focuses on the life of Saul Leiter, a master of Manhattan street photography who died at 89 in November. The film captures Leiter puttering around Abe Lebewohl Park with his Lumix camera, lining up images of city life, a ritual he’d practiced since the ’50s. I remember my heart sinking at the state of his surroundings in the East Village of today. All I could focus on were the disposable coffee cups, iPod earbud cords, and loud Urban Outfitters window displays that were cluttering his view. But Leiter, like Lubezki, had a talent for extracting ancient echoes from contemporary life, as well as a gift for capturing simple pleasures. When he snapped a picture of young girls on a park bench eating fro-yo, their plastic spoons and cellphones vanished from the frame. We see only their crossed legs against cobblestones. “My photographs are meant to tickle your left ear,” Leiter says. “Very gently.”
After watching the Leiter documentary, I looked again at Lubezki’s Instagram account. He’d recently uploaded what appeared to be dispatches from a shoot in India. In one arresting image, a woman in traditional garb stares at the lens through intense eyeliner, her face resting on a bejeweled hand. She could be unstuck from any moment in time, a resident of any century. In her other hand is a Tropicana juice box.