Taking up the camera is a commitment, an act that has meaning

Jimmy Glasberg seen by Dominique Gentil, AFC

Contre-Champ AFC n°339

[ English ] [ français ]

I began in this profession as a spark, and then as an assistant cameraman for television reporting - which we didn’t yet call documentaries. Because these films were shot in 16 mm film, an assistant, who often was also a spark, had to load the film magazines. That was how, through my friend Jean-Yves Escoffier, I began to work for Jimmy Glasberg.

As I remember it, we had to film a concert by Anna Prucnal, who was a Polish actress and singer popular at that time. Quickly, Jimmy and I became friendly : our relationship went much further than a working relationship, and we used to go to movies and concerts together.
I didn’t feel comfortable when I had to go to camera renters, such as Alga or Chevereau : the assistants, the ones who were making great films, intimidated me. But when I went alongside Jimmy, I felt confident, I reconnected with my desire to film and film people…
With Jimmy, there was no shoot without its story.
An advertisement with Yvon-Marie Coulais who was fresh off the plane from New York ? He showed us the first Sony Walkman with its exceptional sound quality ; the headset was passed from ear to ear ; the shoot had become like a party.
An advertisement for the City of Paris directed by Jacques Tati "Let’s curb our dogs" ? Tati filmed dogs with such love that he was simply impossible to make them piss where they didn’t want to. The city’s P.R. team refused the film and we had to start over again with another director, who had a firmer hand with the dogs !
In Switzerland, for an advertisement ? We’d thrown dozens of Kleenex tissues that flew above the immaculate mountains in order to help Japanese consumers understand the freshness of the product. It was surrealistic…

But there weren’t only funny times. In the studio shoot of Wundkkanal, by Tomas Harlan, we shot the former director of a Nazi extermination camp. The questions that were asked as though it were an interrogation, coupled with a very elaborate staging (using semi-reflecting mirrors and camera movements, with Henri Alekan designing the lighting), we tried to bring this old man to admit his guilt live on camera. But it was impossible…
The memory I’ll keep forever begins with a morning phone call : "Dom, come pick up my camera. Bring lights, nice lights, Fresnels. We have to interview Abel Gance… Yes, Abel Gance. Claude Lelouch and Francis Ford Coppola are arriving today to film him."
At 2 pm, we began to wait for them. The American journalist who was organizing the event told us that Coppola had already returned to New York. Time went by… Lelouch decided not to come, either. Jimmy refused to have come for nothing. He insisted we go see Monsieur Gance. It was a very old man, sleepy and absentminded, who arrived in his wheelchair.
Jimmy placed him in the light. He began to shoot. Suddenly, Jimmy’s loud voice startled us : "Monsieur Gance, look ! This is a camera." "THIS IS A CAMERA." The old man sat up, opened his eyes, his eyes began to sparkle : he’d understood that we were filming him. Three weeks later, he passed away.

Abel Gance, le 4 juin 1981 - Photo Jimmy Glasberg
Abel Gance, le 4 juin 1981
Photo Jimmy Glasberg

With Jimmy, I found the energy you need to go seek out a shot. I understood that without determination, it was impossible to wrest an image from the lens. He knew how to seize hold of a gesture that has meaning, the gaze that he was waiting for before the reel ran out. "Yes ! The image ! We have it !" he would say, before I took over the camera to relieve him.

I also remember Jimmy as a man without concession, who was animated by strong convictions. Taking up a camera is not a neutral act : "It is a commitment, an engagement".
We will cruelly miss his warm voice and his strong, often startling, words.
Thank you, Jimmy.

(29 January 2023)

(The thumbnail image above shows Jimmy Glasberg with the Éclair-Coutant 16 on his shoulder, in the 1960s - Glasberg Archives)

(Translated from French by A. Baron-Raiffe, for the AFC)