Hitchcock’s California is a photographic tribute to Alfred Hitchcock by Aimee Sinclair and myself, along with an essay by Hitchcock film historian Dan Auiler. The book features a portfolio of eighty panoramic photographs — shot on the Hasselblad XPan system — that revisit locations from the Golden State the legendary director used in filming many classic movies, from Rebecca, Suspicion, Spellbound, and Notorious, to Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and Family Plot. It is currently available on preorder from Middlebrow Books for US$27.95 / CA$35.95 and will be available from July 1st 2020.

The photography portion of the book commenced in August 2014 and wrapped up in August 2018 (three earlier photographs were taken in October 2009, from a sojourn to the Mission San Juan Bautista, which was featured in Vertigo). Still, I realized that we had better be able to deliver photographs that would be able to stand up to the original movies. Movies, by the way, that were some of the most beautiful and technically challenging ever photographed. So, immediately, I understood what a daunting undertaking we had ahead of us.

The book’s other main photographic feature is a series of photographs by Aimee — mostly shot on the Hasselblad 500C, equipped with the Zeiss Planar 80mm/f2.8 lens — titled “Souvenirs Of a Killing,” which recreates pivotal scenes from seventeen Hitchcock movies. Together, the two series of photographs work in tandem to place the reader squarely in “the Hitchcock universe,” as author Dan Auiler described it.

When we began work on Hitchcock’s California, it began as many photographers’ future projects began, as a tourist’s casual visit to a revered site. During a photojournalism assignment I had in the fall of 2009 I was covering the water shortage that struck California’s San Joaquin Valley. While interviewing a farmer outside Firebaugh, in his office I saw a framed bridal portrait of his daughter standing in front of the church at the Mission San Juan Bautista. I instantly recognized it, and asked him how far away it was. He said 75 miles.

When I wrapped up the week’s photography and interviews, I drove up early one evening, approaching the mission from the south on U.S. 101. I was shocked to see the eucalyptus canopy over the roadway—in the fifty-two intervening years since Alfred Hitchcock filmed Vertigo, it was uncanny how it looked nearly identical. I photographed the mission, and posted photos on my blog.

I wasn’t intending to create a photography book (I was just wrapping up the editing on my first book, Looking Down, a monograph shot in Boston on Tri-X film with my Nikon FM3A camera. I had also just completed photography on my pictorial book, Garish: Roadside Color Polaroids, which was shot on a Polaroid Colorpack III Land camera.

Nearly five years later, on a dreary evening in late summer of 2014, I drove out to Bodega Bay. I wanted to see the town where The Birds was filmed, particularly The Tides Restaurant and Wharf.

After dinner, I went out on the terrace. Even though the weather was overcast, I was suddenly overcome by the salty smell of the bay, the lonely cry of a seagull, and the folded hills in the distance. A motor boat cut across the bay, and I set the shutter speed at 1/30th of a second on my camera to capture it slightly blurred, so the viewer could sense the motion of the boat and its wake. The moment I tripped the shutter, it dawned on me that I just had to photograph the locations Hitchcock used in his American motion pictures.

Photographer Aimee Sinclair came aboard this project in early 2015. I attempted to photograph seagulls in Bodega Bay in October 2014, using the water and the hills as a panoramic backdrop, but the birds weren’t cooperating; they kept swooping too high above or too low beneath the viewfinder ground glass. Within twenty minutes, fog began rolling in. Living in Minnesota, I couldn’t wait around Bodega Bay indefinitely. So, I photographed the background as an establishing shot, while I still had blue sky and sunlight.

Later, I phoned Aimee, who was living in Ormond Beach, Florida, and asked her to produce photographs of the seagulls along the Atlantic coast, and she was able to capture them swooping in and out of the frame beautifully. “My daughter, husband, and I went to the beach armed with a loaf of bread,” said Aimee. “Jacqui held the breadcrumbs up, and the seagulls just snatched them from her hands, as I snapped one photo after another.”

Photographer Steve White then used his Photoshop skills to create a composite photograph that paid homage to James S. Pollak’s title sequence for The Birds.

A couple of years later, in 2017, as the book’s layout was taking shape, I realized that its visual presentation was sort of static — there was a portfolio of nearly eighty location shots so far, but little else — so I met with Aimee once again in Long Island, New York, and we fleshed out the concept for “Souvenirs Of a Killing.” These photographs punctuate the text between its chapters and on the endpapers, giving the book a fascinating new dimension. Now, it really gelled, and as Martin Balsam said in Psycho, if it doesn’t gel, it’s not aspic.

To capture the feel of Hitchcock’s black-and-white and Technicolor motion pictures, the decision to use film was largely a foregone conclusion. Yet, unlike my previous two books, Hitchcock’s California was a much more complex undertaking: Each film from the past has its own particular visual feel to it. For example, for Hitchcock’s earlier motion pictures filmed in the U.S., I used ILFORD Delta 100 Professional developed in Kodak HC-110 1:31 for finer grain and wider tonal range, befitting the more artistic photography cinematographers George Barnes (Rebecca, 1940) and Joseph Valentine (Shadow of a Doubt, 1943) employed.

On the other hand, I used Kodak Tri-X 400 and ILFORD SFX 200 (the latter, pushed two stops), both developed in Agfa Rodinal 1:25, for the shots I took of locations Director of Photography John Russell used in Psycho (1960); the delicate tones used in films like Rebecca and Suspicion (1941) aren’t nearly as evident in Psycho. Hitchcock made Psycho as a challenge, to prove he could produce a movie that could hold its own in movie houses that was filmed using a stripped-down television filming crew. I also used Tri-X recreating scenes from Notorious (1946, DP: Ted Tetzlaff), which used a more contrasty tonal range than Hitchcock’s earlier outings.

During the course of the photography for Hitchcock’s California, Aimee and I frequently discussed the strengths and weaknesses of many black-and-white and color emulsions. For most of the prints in this volume, we tailored the films to the particular features of the scenes we were trying to convey, whether particular colors, times of day, sky and clouds, and night and indoor photography. The following film emulsions were used in the creation of this challenging volume:

Black and white: Agfapan APX 25, Agfapan APX 100, ILFORD Delta 100 Professional, ILFORD Delta 3200 Professional, ILFORD FP4 PLUS, ILFORD SFX 200, Kodak Tri-X 400 and Kodak Verichrome Pan 125.

Color: Agfa Optima II 100, Agfa Ultra 50, Agfa Ultra 100, CineStill Daylight 50, CineStill Tungsten 800, Fuji Superia 200, Kodak Ektar 100, Kodak Gold 200, Kodak Vericolor III 160.

In keeping with the 5 Frames series here on EMULSIVE, Aimee and I put together “5 Frames From Hitchcock’s California.” But, instead of an article about five exposures from a single roll of film, our essay describes our experiences with five photographic situations we encountered in the making of the book, and the how we approached them.

Artistically, my favorite photograph from the book is the panoramic exposure of San Francisco from my perch on Twin Peaks. It was of crucial importance to get this shot as close to the movie as possible: It marks the transition in Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart will have to put the pieces of his life together. I needed to simultaneously capture the mist coming off the bay, the subtle tones of the hills outlying the bay, and the brilliant whites and rich colors of San Francisco’s buildings.

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I had run out of film and, on my drive back to San Francisco from Bodega Bay, I called Aimee in a panic. I explained what I needed the film to do for this particular shot, and asked her to find me a camera shop in the city while I drove. She laughed and told me I didn’t need a camera shop, just a drugstore or supermarket. She explained why Fuji’s Superia 200 consumer film was perfect for just that sort of lighting situation. And, once I got the negatives back from the lab, she was absolutely right: thanks to Aimee, I nailed that shot!

Fuji’s Superia 200 consumer-branded film, is the end result of decades of research the Japanese company has made in constantly improving its film emulsions. Their consumer film of today, for instance, is technically superior to its own professional film from the 1990s. Superia has a very wide exposure latitude. Because it uses multiple layers in its emulsion, it can accurately render about five stops of lighting without any noticeable drop off of accuracy in the film’s tonal range. Fuji’s professional film Pro 400H, would have been preferable, but the feel of the color would have been slightly off. For some reason, that Fuji drugstore film captured the feel of the colors exactly as the Technicolor IB print of Vertigo did 62 years ago.

On the scene we did from Marnie — in which Tippi Hedren spills a drop of red ink onto her blouse from her fountain pen — we used CineStill 800T film, which had just then come out in medium format 120,” said Aimee Sinclair. “CineStill tungsten-balanced film renders colors so beautifully, using the hot lamps my sister Courtney and I set up to capture this shot. One of the difficulties making this shot is that the Hasselblad 500 has a waist level viewfinder, so it was really tricky, having to point the camera completely down. So, I ended up having Courtney (who was my model for the shot) lie on the floor, because the ceiling in her office where we photographed was too low to shoot this from above, with her sitting at her desk.”

“Courtney helped a lot: she looked at stills from the Hitchcock movie, and would then set herself up for how her hand should be. She’s very meticulous, and that comes from being a wedding photographer, herself. She knew what she needed to do, so I could try to figure out the technical aspect of setting the camera high up on the tripod. I had the camera directly over her, looking down, and then I had to look at the picture through the viewfinder, upside down, from the other side of the room, because I couldn’t really look down into the waist-level viewfinder. Once we figured up the set-up, and getting her arm in just the right position, I very carefully put one drop of ink on her sleeve, from the inkwell. Then, we took the shot—it came out perfectly!”

In May 2016, I found my way to this sleepy post road on the northern edge of Los Angeles County, near Gorman. These folded hills were my favorite location, a lonely spot where Janet Leigh parks her automobile to get a catnap in Psycho.

It just felt the truest, and the most purely untouched, of all the places I shot. It hadn’t “aged,” been “updated” much, or become a tourist spot. It was nearly the same as Hitchcock’s crew had found it, so when I photographed it, I didn’t feel I had to change anything about the composition or framing. It was what the Ansel Adams f/64 crowd would call a “Zen moment.”

A light breeze passed over the road, gently disturbing the brush along the roadside. I eerily felt a sense of déjà vu. “You’ve been there before.” Which is funny, because I didn’t get the same feeling at the Big Basin and Muir Woods redwoods parks at all. They were so completely overrun by tourists, it took me a while to get into any sort of groove photographing them.

“I had photographed many of the pictures indoors, and gotten great results with the CineStill 800 tungsten-balanced film and various black-and-white films for this project,” said Aimee. “There were some difficult times composing scene recreations for this book, when I was setting up hot lights to get the feel they were shot on a soundstage. The ones that we did at the house were pretty standard to set up because we had a wall that we used in the kitchen, against an 18% gray backdrop. It was pretty much the same routine each time we set up. It was just getting them ready, getting the lights positioned, and then doing a video conference with Robert to make sure we were getting what we were aiming for.”

“Then came a new challenge when Robert asked me to recreate the scene in Suspicion (1941), in which Cary Grant carries a glass of milk up the staircase to his wife, Joan Fontaine, who believes he’s trying to murder her. In the movie the scene was shot in almost total darkness, except for light streaming through a window, creating a silhouette from its panes. The window panes in our photograph are an insert shot, which was a painting Robert’s children made, and Robert photographed and matted into the picture in Photoshop.”

“The technical difficulties with this photograph were twofold: First, the light source. We found an immersible tea light to submerge in the glass of milk my brother, Thomas, posed with. Getting the exact level of light from the glass was tricky, so I watered down the milk by adding a couple ounces of water so it would have just the right glow.”

“Photographing the scene was completely different to the others, because there had to be enough light where I could get a decent shot with the film, but not too much light because, of course, it was supposed to be a darkened scene. I used ILFORD Delta 3200, which is the most amazing film for shooting in low light. It produces a grain that’s smooth like Kodak T-MAX 400. The Delta 3200 has great resolution for such a fast film.”

“After I developed the roll, I was stunned that it looked so close to the movie. It really came out beautifully.”

Sometimes, the stars just align, and you get the perfect shot. I learned a long time ago about how you can get the deepest blues at dusk by shooting outdoors on tungsten-balanced film from photographer Pete Turner’s legendary 1967 photograph, “Road Song.”

I chose CineStill 800T film to capture this scene from Vertigo, which takes place right at twilight. I put the Xpan on my tripod to capture this shot as a 30-second time exposure. CineStill is a really versatile film: It not only rendered the twilight and shadows gorgeously, but it rendered a couple window shots “just so” — it really can handle dual lighting situations on the same piece of film adeptly.

Further, it lent an additional glow to the exposure, because, in order to develop the film in C-41 chemistry, CineStill has removed its remjet layer. As a result, it has this beautiful halation around the street lamps and automobile brake lights I wouldn’t have been able to get with standard C-41 or E-6 tungsten-balanced films.

Hitchcock’s California: Vista Visions From the Camera Eye by Robert Jones, Dan Auiler, and Aimee Sinclair is currently available on preorder from Middlebrow Books for US$27.95 / CA$35.95 and will be available for general sale from July 1st 2020.

It features an introduction by Bruce Dern, plus an afterword by Dorothy Herrmann. The book is available as a hardcover (with dust jacket) and features 144 pages with 99 original photographs. Printed in a wide format, the book is 15×8.5×0.5” (HxWxD). Middlebrow Books, L.L.C., ISBN 978-0-9837376-3-6.

Thanks for reading,

~ Robert

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  1. I am a fan of older movies and I always wonder what locations used in the films would look like today. The seagulls certainly create a similar feeling as some of the shots in the film. Vertigo is on my shortlist for all-time favorite. Pretty brave to take on Hitchcock as the fans of his films will certainly be the toughest critics. Do you have any shots where a person in the photo appears to be Hitch? Do you have any other film directors that you would consider taking this same approach with? Good luck and good light.