New York Times LENS May 25, 2017
Real Life Film Noir in San Francisco by Jonathan Blaustein
When Pamela Gentile was studying filmmaking, she enjoyed shooting stills on her friends’ movie projects. But she discovered that photography was her true calling after she saw “Citizen Kane” and realized Orson Welles was only 23 when he made perhaps the greatest movie in American cinema history.
“I can’t do that,” she said. “I’m not there. Film school had somewhat of an opposite effect on me.”
Fortunately, her two loves dovetailed in 1986, when she became the staff photographer for the San Francisco International Film Festival. The event became her muse, and the personal work she made over the years, “The Persistent Image: Photographs by Pamela Gentile,” is currently on display at the Leica Gallery in San Francisco, and at the San Francisco International Airport, too.
Her black and white photographs channel the mysterious San Francisco noir of Dashiell Hammett, whose nameless characters emerge from shadows, or are hidden by a silhouette’s inky black. Although her pictures feature interiors, save the images of theater marquees, she feels they capture the essence of San Francisco.
“San Francisco is a state of mind, for me, and it’s in those shadows,” she said. “It’s in the silhouette. I don’t photograph fog, but it’s in the light on the screen. The contrast of black and white.”
The pictures recall the 1930s and 1940s, the heyday of the studio system, when Hollywood was in its glory and California represented the best of the American Dream. Back then, everyone went to the movies, and the experience was critical in connecting the country.
“I do think it’s a place like a church,” she said. “It’s a place where you are together with a lot of people, yet you are individual. You’re having that larger-than-life experience, or you’re tapping into that communal experience at the same time.”
These days, movie theaters compete with all sorts of comparably-priced entertainment, like video games, virtual reality and Netflix. Many people are content to binge-watch at home on their big (or very big) screens. In comparison, her images have a touch of nostalgia, or what she calls a “longing,” as Hollywood movies are like Coca-Cola in the 21st Century: another symbol of America now seen as one choice among many, rather than being unchallenged for primacy.
While her pictures show people at leisure, Ms. Gentile is always working. She relishes catching the Q&A sessions at the end of each film, so she can hear from the auteurs and actors, but she’s shooting photos while the audience gets to relax. (She watches the films at home when the festival is over.)
Despite her stated reverence for movie-going, she doesn’t get to the theater much in her spare time. Even Ms. Gentile has been binge-watching streaming services, just like the rest of us.
“I don’t go the theater that frequently,” she confirmed, ”but I am still a visual junkie. I think many people have gone through the binge-watching series phenomenon. I’ve done a lot of that recently.”
Fortunately, she said, film festivals, which include social events and educational programs, continue to delight crowds, and keep the experience alive for aging cinephiles and new generations alike.
“I think it makes me feel sad that on one hand, that impulse to go to the theater and have that communal experience in the dark is not as strong as it once was,” she mused. “And at the same time, it makes me really happy that there is still something like the film festival. The festivals do keep the flame alive in that way.”