In a career spanning 30 years, On-Set Photographer Alison Cohen Rosa has collaborated with some of the finest artists of our generation; the Coen Brothers, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicole Holofcener, Lynne Ramsay, Roger Deakins, and Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, to name a few.
In addition to her film work, Alison is a commercial and editorial photographer, working for such powerhouse clients as Apple, Conde Nast, and Rolling Stone.
I first met Alison on the set of Sharper, where I was the Director’s Assistant and she was shooting stills. We found a friendship immediately. We were two broads, generations apart, schlepping around Manhattan and making each other laugh.
On a hot Tuesday night, this past June, we sat down over pizza and wine to discuss her life and career as a photographer. After we’d sufficiently gossiped, commiserated, and housed our free Ladies’ Night prosecco, we got down to it.
Sommer: So, here we are. Getting drunk and eating pizza.
Alison: Yup. By the way, I’m really bad at remembering dates, I just have to tell you.
That’s alright, I can Google stuff. We’ll start at the beginning. How did you get your start with a camera?
My mom. She took a lot of pictures and was fascinated with photography. She shot on a Canon AE-1. She turned my brother's bedroom closet into a darkroom, which was insane because we lived in a one-bathroom apartment.
Then in college, I took photography classes. I went to Sonoma State, San Francisco State, and then I went to Art Center College of Design for photography.
What did you initially want to go to college for?
Liberal arts. I had no idea. I was kind of an idiot, and I went to these alternative high schools that didn't teach you how to write a paper, how to do any math, how to do anything. I wasn't built that way, so I was worried about how that was all gonna go. I don't even know how I got into Sonoma State, but I did.
And did you know then that you wanted to go into film? Was that interesting to you?
No. I had no idea. I just thought I wanted to be a photographer, and I really didn't even know what that meant. I just knew I liked taking pictures. And then at Art Center I learned commercial photography, how to do ads and stuff. Then I moved to New York. Nicole [Holofcener] was at school and living in an apartment, and I moved in with her.
My first job was kind of my one and only job, I think. I worked for Steven Meisel. And I remember going into the job thinking, "I'll never get this fucking job." There was a supermodel applying for the job. And some cool guy with a shaved head. And then there's me. "I'm not getting this job."
After, I walked out and they ran after me and said, 'Do you want the job?'
They were like, ‘Not a bimbo. Great.’
Was that assistant work?
I was hired as the studio manager. There were two assistants that were on full-time, but they quickly learned I knew a lot about photography. So, I worked really closely with Steven on retouching and editing. It ended up being very photographic. And for me, I got to participate. It was a great experience. I mean, I learned what I didn't want to do. I learned not to be intimidated. Then all of a sudden, one day, I was like, "I got to get out of here."
How long were you at that job?
Three years. And they would have made it so I could stay, but all of a sudden, one day, I just walked in and Steven looked at me. He goes, "You're done, aren’t you?" You know? He just saw it on my face.
It was a great first job because I was new to New York. But I needed to know what else was out there. I couldn’t have my life go by and know that I didn't try anything. Even if I failed, that would have been okay. I just didn't want to look back and have any regrets. Then I would have felt nauseous.
How old were you, about, at the time?
My mid-20s. I got married at, I think, 29. So I was probably like 26, 27, 28, something like that.
That’s when the ennui hits.
Yeah. Then I quit, and it was like, "Oh, fuck. Now what?"
My then-boyfriend, who became my husband, moved to New York. We moved into an apartment in Chelsea. He started doing photography. We shot out of our apartment for a while. Then he got a studio, and I did some pretty good styling jobs for him. I put together a portfolio and took it around, which was humbling and horrifying and awful.
And then, because I worked with Steven Meisel, one of his agents was really good friends with Bob Balaban. So, Bob Balaban called me and wanted to know if I would shoot his daughter's Bat Mitzvah. I was like, "Sure!" You know, it was cash. I shot it all black and white. I had bought myself a Leica camera at this point. I saved up. I didn't use a flash for any of it. It was rough, but I have to say, I kicked ass.
Did you feel confident going in?
No. I didn't know what I'd be given. It was at this really cool old-school club in Midtown. There were all these celebrities there, and that was funny to me.
After that, Bob did a movie, and he asked me if I would do it. It was called The Last Good Time. I was like, "Huh. What do I think about this?" It was non-union. It was low budget. It was way back in the day of that stuff. I didn't even know what a union was. So, I did it. I did a good job. The second movie I did was called Palookaville. And then I shot Kids.
Oh, shit. You shot Kids?! Have we ever talked about that?
How was that?
That was fucking nuts. It was a bit of a shit show. I could talk for two hours about it on another day. You know, half of those people probably aren’t even around anymore. I mean, these kids’ lips were blue. That was real.
How did that happen? Was it union?
No, no, that was not union. But that’s when I first found out about the union. And I thought, "I can't work on movies and make a good enough living and have a life. I want to have a couple kids. How is this going to work?"
I don't remember the timeframe, but when I was on Palookaville, I started to get really tired. It ended up I was pregnant and didn't realize. When that happened, I was kind of like, "Alright, fuck this. I can’t spend a bunch of money to join the union right now. Commercial photography is much more where it's at in terms of money, stability, my hours. Plus, I can walk to work."
When you were first shooting stills on a film set, did you know what the job was? Had you seen it before?
When Nicole and I were roommates, she would be shooting movies, and I'd be shooting pictures. And I did sort of pay attention. I took photos, which, I don't think anything was usable, but I started to understand it. No, I learned the job on The Last Good Time. And I didn't have a blimp. I don't know how I did what I did, but I got great pictures.
What's a blimp?
A blimp is a big box that goes over your camera to silence it. It's like working with a bag over your head and your hands tied behind your back. It's a huge box. It takes the nuance out of everything. If you want to change your shutter speed or F-stop or anything, you have to open the back. It does have a tube where you can rotate a zoom lens, but otherwise—
What is this, the 1800s?
Yeah, it's heavy, too. It's really fuckin' heavy. You've never seen one?
I must have, right? Although I guess nowadays they’re all pretty quiet.
Now, they're silent. They're more silent than the blimp, because you could still hear the shutter through it a little bit.
Were you just New York-based or were you taking calls from California, at that point?
No, no, no, I wasn't even really in the business. It was very small. After the three of those movies, it was like, "Okay, I can't be up all night. I need to have a life." I also really needed to make money, and I didn't see that happening in this industry at the time.
At that point, we’d moved our business to a great studio on 26th Street. It was on the top floor with a skylight. We had, like, 2000 square feet. It was amazing. We put a darkroom in. We were both just functioning commercial photographers. We were in that studio probably 20 years.
My ex-husband started shooting for Apple. Apple called me one day and asked to see some of my photographs. I’d had all these albums with photos of my kids and lifestyle-y stuff. None of it was digitized, so I FedExed a couple of them to Apple. They called me and told me not to bother; they weren’t going to use them anymore. And I said, "Well, it's too late. I already sent you my photo albums but just send them back." Well, they got the albums and decided to use a ton. The whole flagship store was covered in my photographs.
That was, what, mid-90s?
Now, you're pushing it. I don't remember. See, that's where I'm really bad. If you asked me when I graduated high school or college, I can't even tell you. Anyway, I was like, "Oh my god, this is amazing!" My kids were all over the Internet, all over their store walls. They had those big launches for Apple, you know? Steve Jobs would speak, and they'd put all my photos in the background. It was pretty cool.
Then they called me and said, "We want you to take your kids apple picking." So, I drove out to Long Island, and I just spent a day dressing them, changing them, shooting them. It was really great! Then they had me do screensavers, they had me do—
Tell me you shot that big green hill.
No, I didn't. I don't think so …
I hope you did and you just don't remember.
[Laughs] Then they said, "Take your kids on a ski vacation." So, we went to Utah. We did every activity possible; tubing, those snowmobile things, lots of skiing. We were there for about five days. It was exhausting. Everything was a photo op for me. If the kids sat by the fire at the end of the day, if they were walking in the snow, it was like, "Oh, I gotta take this picture!"
Did it take you out of the moment?
Oh, totally. How do you separate? All I could think about was: this is work, and I gotta do a really great job.
Cut to: My kids are still kids but bigger, and I’m becoming more established. Joel [Coen] reached out and said, "We're making a movie, why don't you work on it?" And I was like, "It's not really what I do. I don't know, I don't think so ..." I mean, I was hemming and hawing.
Yeah, we know you.
Yeah. [Laughs] I just didn't want to disappoint. And I also didn't know if I could do a good job. So that was the first time I'd ever used a blimp. I rented one. I had no idea what the fuck that was about. I had no idea what a real movie set was. Now, this was a real movie. It was Inside Llewyn Davis.
Yes. And my photographs are beautiful. I'm not narcissistic; in fact, the opposite, but they're good photographs. I can say that.
I’ve seen them. They’re unbelievable.
I mean, some of it's given to you to some degree. But, I would say, not. There's a lot of people that would have done it different. The first few days were rough, in terms of my own inner emotional, like, figuring it out. That was when I had to learn how a set works. When am I in the way? When am I not in the way? How does this work? I didn't know what a timecard was. I didn't know how to fill one out. Nobody told me about any of that stuff.
And at this point, you’re still non-union?
To work on their movie, I had to be in the union. I did what probably never happens; I paid my complete union dues in their entirety, right then. This was the initial $8,000 or whatever the hell it was. And I paid in full because I had a business at the time. If it didn’t work out, it would’ve just been a business expense. That was kind of how I looked at it. I was lucky.
I took the job because my life was changing. I could feel it happening. My marriage was falling apart. My agent at the time was thinking about getting out of the business. Stock photography started to take over. It just all sort of started to be like, where's this going?
So, I shot Llewyn Davis, and did a good job. Alejandro González Iñárritu was making Birdman. I went in for an interview, I got the job. That's another job where I wish I knew what I know now about the business. All 360 degrees, all in one take ... And I had a blimp! I fucking killed it because when you look at the pictures, I was there. I was 150% there.
How were you not in the way the whole time?
I got yelled at once by Michael Keaton. And, you know, he wasn't unjustified. I was way too in his face over an intense scene. But they wouldn't let me in the room half the time, so I would have to hide. When you look at the pictures, man … I don't know how I did it. I really don't. Maybe I could do it again? But I don't know.
You think it was one of those things where you didn't know enough, so you just did amazing? Like if you knew more, you would have gotten stuck?
Yeah, maybe. I would have understood how hard it was. The thing is, I was used to being in charge as a commercial photographer. But on this one, I felt like a nuisance. I was just so used to running it all. That’s not what it’s like on set.
I remember at one point on Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan were looking at me and they were laughing because I was just taking pictures. They said, "We like how you amuse yourself." You know, 'cause I was just like, "There's so many beautiful things here! Look at that cigarette butt! I'm gonna take a picture!" I was a still-life photographer also, so to me, everything was a photograph. Of course, photographing the actors and whatever they needed me to do came first, but my goal was always just to take good pictures. That's what mattered to me.
Now, what are those pictures usually used for?
They’re used for articles. They're used for advertising. They usually do publicity shoots within the job, on a seamless, of the actors and different things. Those are kind of stressful, because the actors don't want to do them. I have to light them myself. And I better do a good job.
If there is a publicist, and they're good at their job, they can be very helpful. I knew one who was afraid of all the actors and that was a pain in the ass. I'm not doing this because I want to hang a picture of these guys on my bedroom wall. You know? I'm doing this because it's my job.
And you negotiate when you take the job or as it comes?
Well, sometimes that comes in later. I mean, I know so much more now. Every day was like a learning experience. I know where I got hosed on things. I learned about the different union jobs. When I worked on commercial stuff, I always rigged my own C-stands, I rigged my own lights. So, when I first walked on a set, I was like, "Oh, well, let's just move this light." But, that's a big no-no. I didn't know I couldn't use somebody else's scotch tape. Now I get it completely, but not at first. The film business is a different animal.
No, it is. Coming from the indie and non-union world, it's like, "Pick up a C-stand on your way in." Now it's like, "Don't even look at a C-stand or you're fired." As a photographer, that means a lack of control over your environment. Because you can’t touch anything, do you just have to shoot the set as is?
Yes. But I look for where I think is the most beautiful picture. Sometimes that's where the camera is, sometimes it's not. And then sometimes there are circumstances that just don't allow for much, and you have to deal with what you get.
I was always very respectful of actors and not bugging them, not pulling them to the side for things. I tried to be as stealth and invisible as possible. Joaquin Phoenix paid me a huge compliment at the end of a shoot. I said, "Thank you so much. I'm leaving now. Let me know if you ever want to see anything." And he just gave me a big hug, and he said, "Thank you so much. I never knew you were there." He got it, I got it. Done.
Now you're on that run, doing all these movies. You were doing this full time, right? Had you given up commercial stuff at that point?
Yeah, so I moved out of the studio and gave it to my ex-husband. I moved all my shit into my apartment. And I was in the union. I didn’t have an agent anymore. I was like, "Okay, this is my new career. I guess it sort of worked out well." I was in my late 40s.
It was frightening. But it was also such a relief. I felt like the lucky one because that's when I really realized the photography business was changing enormously. I didn't want to have to go find a studio. I didn't want to have to get another agent. I felt like it had fallen in my lap in a good way. I paid attention, I took the opportunity to do it, and it worked out. I worked really hard, I will say. I worked really hard to do a good job.
At this point, you’re shooting primarily digital. Which do you prefer?
For movies? Digital. Absolutely, 150%. There's no reason not to. What you can achieve with digital, at the end of the day, with all that you can do … there is no reason to shoot film. It costs a fortune, and I need to see what I'm getting right away. I understand it from a DP's point of view, though. That's different.
Did working with a camera your whole life take the fun out of it? Do you still want to pick up a camera and shoot stuff?
No. Right now I don't. And I think part of it is the business and part of it is the technology. I'm not a techy person, and I don't care about that shit. And when my computer keeps needing to be upgraded … I'm not that person. When I can't depend on just myself to do what I need to do, I don't like that.
Probably, if I were going into it right now, thirty and starving, and I was still who I am, I would never have the career I’ve had. Because I can’t figure out the technology. Yes, I'm good with focus and composition, and with people. I was good with a four-by-five. I was good with all that shit. I know my camera. But when it glitches out on the computer or in the download, I'm not ... I'm not a dork that way. I wish I were, but I'm not. Like, you have to be a brainiac to work a camera now, which I think is a big loss for a lot of people.
Totally. I have two more questions, I think.
I have more to say.
Oh, please do. I’m glad we had all that prosecco. How is the relationship between Still Photographers and DPs? Is there often tension?
No! It can be the most romantic thing. It should be symbiotic. There are assholes, and sometimes they’re talented but, to me, who cares? Your talent goes out the door with your attitude.
When you show up on a day, do you know, based on the scene, how you’re going to shoot it?
I don't know until I'm there. And then I kind of figure it out, assess. That's why watching a rehearsal is very important for me. I think anybody that says it's not is missing the point. Looking at how they're lighting it, too, I always pop in. I don't want to be there too early, but I don't want to be there too late and then scramble. And that's why I will never let anyone tell me that my call time can be after crew call. I'm there when the camera crew is there. That’s critical.
Okay, now for my most important question: You shot The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. How was Tom Waits? I have a crush.
Who doesn’t? He’s amazing. He let me do my job, 150%.
And he's tall, right?
He's just medium, I guess. But very cool.
Let’s talk gear for a second. What do you always bring to set with you?
I have two Sony cameras, an a7 and an a9. I have an 85 lens, 1.2. I have a 24-70 and 70-135. Three lenses, two bodies.
An 85 is the most beautiful lens, and it's a 1.2 so you can shoot in total darkness. The Sonys do allow you to shoot in really low light anyway, but the 85 takes it a step further. It’s amazing, but sometimes I just need to zoom. Either I need to get there, or I need to know I can change distance quickly. If a scene is covering three distances, then I’m not going to have time to change lenses. I used to carry two bodies. It's clunky. And again, I like to be as stealthy as I can, fit into the smallest space, get as sucked up to the dolly as I can. Or in a corner, whatever it is. I had knee surgery one year. I thought, "Fuck, I can't squat the way I normally do. What am I going to do if I can't get up quietly, without groaning?" [laughs] I was panicked!
I had a very good system down for how I did things. Used batteries went into bags, this went into this, I flipped cards. I had a whole method. Sometimes I look back and I'm kind of proud, like, "Oh my god, how did I do this?"
When you tell me you're thinking of retiring, do you mean it?
I think so.
How did that decision come?
I think it was a combination of things. COVID, definitely. Seeing people die so quickly, so fast, so many. Knowing that life is really short, in the big scheme of things. Understanding the importance of my friends and family and kids and life. Also, our business has changed. There are a lot of people that don't know what they're doing. When you're on a job where you’re not respected, it’s hard. It's just not as rewarding. And that starts to get to you.
Also, seeing the demands on me, physically and personally, and the general disrespect towards crews. It’s like, why? Nine months out of my life? It’s not worth it right now. Maybe when I was 40 or 30. But right now, I'd rather not.
I get it. This is when you all should be retiring.
Yeah! Well, everybody drops dead after they retire in our business. They all drop dead. And I don't want to. I want to just enjoy things. I don't want to be the oldest one on the camera truck, you know? There's just too much I want to do. And so, if the timing is right and everything falls into place, then yeah, maybe I’ll do another movie. But I don't know, we’ll have to see.
If somebody does want to go down this path, what's your advice? Do you think it's a feasible career right now?
Yes, but I think it's a hard one. But I guess everything is hard. Where I have an advantage now is I know what I know, and I know what to ask for. And I have the history to be able to ask for what I do. A new person doesn't, and that's a disservice and a disadvantage. They'll say, "Oh, can you bring a laptop and edit on set?" No. If I'm on set, I want to be looking around and seeing what I'm seeing. That's why I get good pictures; I'm paying attention.
I also think the standards are changing, and they're not getting better. You have all these people who really don’t know anything about the business. And they're hired for the wrong reasons, which is a disservice to all of us. I bust my fucking ass to do a good job.
There's just a lot of bullshit. There's a lot of double standards, there's a lot of hypocrisy, and I just don't have the patience. I'm kind of over it all. And I feel lucky to be old! [laughs]
Cheers to that! I mean, you hit it at a great time. Coming up when you came up, with the collaborators you’ve had. There is no art world left for people to immerse themselves in and make those friends and make the work. New York isn't like that anymore.
No. I started at the top, and it’s all been downhill from there. Because when you work with the collaborators I’ve had ... First of all, the whole crew is usually amazing. It's like a family. It's tight. Everybody does a good job. There's an enormous amount of respect. And you are watching people that have prepared for that job. That know what they're doing. They're smart, they're funny. But they have prepared, and they make it look like it's super easy. And it's not easy. It's because they're fucking prepared. They storyboard, they think ahead, and it's a pleasure to learn from. It's a pleasure to watch.
What an amazing experience to be around the actors I've been around, to be around the directors, the DPs, the gaffers, the grips, the makeup and hair people, to be around everybody that kicks ass. I would pinch myself sometimes on set, going, "I'm so fucking lucky to be in this room." Like, I get goosebumps. I am so lucky.
*Feature Photo: Alison Cohen Rosa