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BEST OF 2012, Mikki Ansin
Cambridge, MA
Project: A motion-picture still photographer who has been allowed to document how films are made, in order to show what really goes on behind the scenes.

© Mikki Ansin

© Mikki Ansin


For close to 40 years, Mikki Ansin has worked as a still photographer on movie sets. While fulfilling the job requirements for Hollywood studios and independent productions alike, she became fascinated with documenting behind-the-scenes activity, most notably in the production of Merchant Ivory films. "The pay may have been less, but they let me do what I wanted," Ansin says. "I took pictures of the stars with their feet up and their hair down, of the cast and crew at play — from the softball field to the set. I've always been captivated by how things happen."

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

Mikki Ansin: Since 1974 when I finished film school.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

MA: Since 1976 when a photo of Jimmy Carter and his sister that I had licensed to be used quarter page in a book interior, showed up full bleed on the back page of the Sunday NY Times Book Review. I called ASMP right away for advice, which was excellent and gratis, and I joined immediately.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

MA: Film and journalism. Politics and offbeat stories.

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable professional tool?

MA: If I must say so myself, my ability to get along with all kinds of people

ASMP: What piece (or pieces) of gear could you not do without?

MA: My cell phone and my 18-200 lens.

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers and their work?

MA: I’m very quick. I see the moment and grab it.

ASMP: How did you get into a career of making still photographs on film sets?

MA: I went to film school to be a screenplay writer. The first semester I took a very academic course load (Images of God in Cinema, Revolution and Despair). The second semester they let us use the equipment. Something clicked in my brain, and I didn’t want to talk about theory anymore. I started by editing news outtakes and making compilation films from them, and that taught me how to shoot. I began on the 16mm film camera at school. In 1976 the little-known Governor Jimmy Carter asked me to work for him in Massachusetts. I told him that it was not on my path, but I would give him till the end of the Massachusetts primary. I knew by New Hampshire that he would win, and I was off and running as a still photographer.

ASMP: What photographers and/or filmmakers most inspired you early in your career, and why? What photographers and/or filmmakers do you find most inspiring today?

MA: Jacques Henri Lartigue is my all time hero. Henri Cartier-Bresson. Sebastião Salgado. Galen Rowell. Eadweard Muybridge. Francois Truffaut. Francis Ford Coppola, Federico Fellini, Pedro Almodovar, H.G. Welles, Billy Wilder.

ASMP: Tell us about the protocol for making still photographs on film sets. Is there a pecking order and kinds of restrictions do you generally need to abide by? Do you need special equipment in order to make pictures on a film set, such as an especially quiet camera or sound blimp?

MA: Protocol is very strict on a film set: whom you may talk to, where you may walk, when you may shoot. And you must always use a blimp. Action on set is like a choreographed dance.

ASMP: Do you get personal access to the actors you photograph on a film set? How do you develop a rapport with them if you do? Is it possible to develop a rapport with them without on-set access? If so, how?

MA: Being on set gives you access; you are part of the family. Developing rapport is chemistry: it’s there or it isn’t. Rapport always helps in getting the job done.

ASMP: Tell us about your favorite assignment as a still photographer on a film set. What made this project so memorable?

MA: I loved my time on ‘Mr. and Mrs. Bridge’. First of all, the shoot began in Paris (need I say more). The actors were superb: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Blythe Danner, Kyra Sedgwick, Simon Callow, Austin Pendleton. The sets, costumes, and make-up were the usual Merchant Ivory spectacular.

ASMP: What was the most challenging film you photographed? What made it challenging and how did you overcome these challenges?

MA: Going to India for three months on ‘The Deceivers’ with Pierce Brosnan in the lead. Conditions were often very difficult and sometimes dangerous. I just had to bite the bullet. It was a great adventure.

ASMP: Most of your in-depth work has been created on films made by Merchant Ivory Productions. This company pays less, but they let you do what you want to on set. Do you find you’ve often had to trade good pay in exchange for freedom to photograph throughout your career?

MA: Definitely, but then, I’m not a corporate kind of person.

ASMP: Your Web site indicates that you are a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600. Please talk about this aspect of working in the motion picture industry. What are the guidelines for membership and what kinds of benefits do members enjoy?

MA: I love saying that ‘I’m a Union Man’ (sisters: forgive me). The Union gives you job protection and in many cases job security. I enjoy being a member of a group. Still photographers work on their own on set and in general; it is very gratifying to know that you are working alongside colleagues.

ASMP: Working on film sets for over 40 years must mean you’ve worked a lot of long hours and spent a lot of time away from home. Do you always enjoy this lifestyle or has it been difficult at times to be away from home and/or work so intensively? Please recount a particularly grueling experience. Are there any particular resources that you find particularly helpful in these kinds of circumstances?

MA: Now we have the Internet, Facetime, Skype, and so on. In my early days it was more difficult — such as when we were shooting for weeks in the jungle of Madhya Pradesh. There were two crews: one English and one Indian, and I was lucky to be able to make new friends.

ASMP: When you first began photographing on film sets, still photographers had a lot of leeway in what they could photograph, whereas today, much of that control is in the hands of publicists. Please talk about when and how this change occurred as well as how your photography has been affected by changes of this sort.

MA: The days of easy shooting on set are over. Period. In this age of total obsession about ‘the stars’ and their lives and loves, the publicists, actors and studios control all images. Cell phone photo taking is not even allowed on sets.

ASMP: Is the pursuit of being a still photographer for films a valid career path any more, or has this role been usurped by technological developments that enable still frames to be generated from motion capture? Please describe the current state of the industry and any career opportunities that may still exist for photographers.

MA: Yes and no. More and more technology will rule, but a camera cannot think nor reason. A human being making decisions and documenting what’s going on can never be replaced.

ASMP: You specialize in photographing well-known people in film and politics. Have you observed any similarities between the subjects you cover in these two occupations, given cameras are important vehicles for both film stars and politicians?

MA: That’s a very good question. High profile people are very similar; they are always aware of the camera and play to it. Some do it better than others. I try to be easy to deal with.

ASMP: You are currently assembling your film still images into book form, which represents a repository of American film history. You describe recently going over some photo permissions for this with director James Ivory. What is involved in permissioning for such an extensive archive as yours and how do you organize this?

MA: I show everything to Jim and abide by what he says. As for use of the other images, I have consulted with Nancy Wolff, one of the best copyright and permissions lawyers in the country, and will continue to do so as the project enfolds.

ASMP: You’ve also published three other books. Please talk about the process of editing images to appear in book form. Do you find there to be anything different about the editing process for a book? In your opinion, what do you find to be particularly unique and/or appealing about the book form?

MA: Picking the best image is often like picking a tie: it jumps out at you and you have to grab it. The challenge is assembling those selects so as to make the sum of the whole better than the parts. Just as a newspaper photograph is different from a magazine story, a book is different from each, and takes the edit up a notch.

ASMP: Are there portrait subjects high on your list to photograph whom you have not yet approached, or anyone who has not yet responded to a pending portrait request?

MA: I have a list. I regret that Salinger is gone.

ASMP: How did you get your start in photographing politicians? How did you begin photographing for the Carter White House, the Kennedy Foundation and the Board of Governors of the USO?

MA: Once I said yes to Jimmy Carter when he was a little-known Presidential candidate, one thing led to another.

ASMP: While photographing prominent people, there must have been several instances you would have liked to photograph, but were not allowed to for one reason or another. Can you describe one of these situations?

MA: It really depends on the situation. One always has to try. At the same time always be trustworthy.

ASMP: Your Web site features categories for people and place that include a lot of international work. Were most of these pictures shot during editorial assignments? Is there a particular international assignment that’s most memorable?

MA: My first trip to China in 1983 was a press trip that blew me away. Everyone in China was still wearing Mao, there were few cars and lots of propaganda. I recognized how little I knew about China and it’s history and culture. It was an extraordinary photo opportunity.

ASMP: Do you engage your subjects any differently when travelling in foreign countries like India, Cuba, France and Turkey than when you photograph in the United States? If so, how?

MA: No. I try to learn some words of the local language and blend in. Basic behavior also includes being polite and respectful.

ASMP: What kind of marketing or networking do you cultivate for your photography? Do you pursue different marketing channels for film, politics, commercial portraiture and personal projects?

MA: At this point in the game, I am concentrating on my personal projects: this book, my archives and my own fine art photography.

ASMP: Is there any aspect of marketing yourself that you find difficult but necessary? If so please talk about how you motivate yourself to do this work.

MA: There is so much to do constantly: I have slacked off on my blog posts, but try to keep my hand in on Facebook. I tweet less and less. When I do post on the blog (mikkipixandtalks.posterous.com), I send out a mailing even though it’s preaching to the choir.

ASMP: How did you end up basing your business in Cambridge, Massachusetts? Do you feel economic pressure to be more of a generalist in this regional market?

MA: I’m from here and I like having Cambridge as a base. I spend a lot of time in France and California every year. Certainly there is some gypsy in my DNA.

ASMP: What do you do to keep up on the latest trends in photography? How did you weather the industry’s change to digital technology?

MA: It was very hard for me to embrace digital, but I have had a lot of help (thank you Sarah Gaw). Finally I’ve got it down, but I must say I think I was a better shooter with analog.

ASMP: Although you graduated from film school, you ended up pursuing a career as a still photographer. Why did you make your initial decision to pursue still photography over film? Have you reconsidered this at all given the growth of motion capture among visual communicators in recent years? Please share your thoughts on the future of visual media in its widest sense as well as the relationships between various components.

MA: Another good question. The invention of the typewriter didn’t make more writers. The invention of the HDSLR might make a lot more filmmakers, or it might make just a lot more digital clutter, or both. Making a film used to take thought, care, planning, diligence and determination. Now, it’s going so fast that it’s hard to fathom the trajectory.

As for me, I’m not done yet. I veered off into still photography because I was in the right place at the right time. Now I am taking the reins and going back to my early film work — which is where it all began for me. And then, there is that screenplay that I went to film school to write….