Since the lackluster initial reception of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” 60 years ago, its reputation has risen — steadily, tectonically — until it now looms high in cinema history. On the last critic’s poll conducted by the film magazine Sight & Sound, it ranked as the No. 1 movie of all time. A peak so lofty casts a long shadow. Indeed, we’ve reached the point where “Vertigo,” like Giorgione’s “Sleeping Venus” or Delacroix’s “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment,” is part of the cultural landscape, inspiring new classics that cast shadows of their own.
Two photography shows in New York reveal the breadth of the film’s influence: Jean Curran’s “The Vertigo Project,” at the James Danziger Gallery, and Catherine Opie’s “The Modernist,” at Lehmann Maupin.
Ms. Curran, 37, an Irish photographer who lives in London, is presenting 20 film stills that she selected from the movie and made into dye-transfer prints. That act of appropriation is far more laborious than it might seem. Dye-transfer printing uses color filters to separate a film image into three negatives and, in a process something like silk-screen printing, registers them sequentially on a dye-absorbing gelatin-coated paper. That is a wildly oversimplified summary of the technique. In the hands of an artist, dye-transfer prints are intensely saturated, highly contrasted, and gorgeous. The most celebrated example is William Eggleston’s “Los Alamos” series, exhibited last spring at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In a previous body of work, Ms. Curran enlisted a local artisan to hand-color the photographs she took of Western soldiers in Afghanistan. She reasoned that by teaching herself the craft of dye-transfer printing she could further advance her quest to infuse photography with a painterly, handmade quality. This time, though, she salvaged images made by others. The dye-transfer method is very similar to the way Technicolor movies were processed. After considering “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” she chose “Vertigo” and obtained an original film print from the Hitchcock estate. “I needed to find something with a little more depth to it, with layers,” Ms. Curran said in a Skype interview.
She learned the intricacies of this dying art from the diminishing band of dye-transfer practitioners. Ms. Curran had to search out the chemical dyes and the coated paper; Kodak stopped manufacturing dye-transfer materials in 1994. She made her own or scavenged from the hoards of fellow devotees.
The use of an obsolescent technique to memorialize “Vertigo” is fitting. Among other things, the movie is about the attempt to hold on to a vanishing past. It is set in a magically beautiful San Francisco that shimmers like a lost dream when we see it today on the screen — a feeling that the filmmaker anticipated. “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast,” one character remarks early in the movie.
Ms. Curran said that she considers the dye-transfer process to be the antithesis of the disposable profligacy of digital photography. Because of the extraordinary care Hitchcock took to set up each shot, the act of slowing down to scrutinize surface details starts to seem profound. For instance, by sequencing her stills in the order they appear in the movie, Ms. Curran reveals how Hitchcock used color like a Wagnerian leitmotif, shifting from an early reliance on red, the hue associated with Scottie Ferguson (the character played by James Stewart), to the greens that define the Kim Novak figure, a shop girl named Judy who has been employed by a murderous plotter to impersonate his wife, Madeleine.
In the sumptuous dining room of Ernie’s, the now-gone San Francisco restaurant where Scottie glimpses Madeleine for the first time (and which Hitchcock recreated in the studio), the green of her gown jumps out as a visual exclamation point against red flocked wallpaper. In what may be the most mysterious image in the film, Judy, badgered by Scottie to replicate Madeleine, emerges from her bedroom in a powdery green light cast by the neon hotel sign outside her apartment window. It is a morbid glow; indeed, Scottie’s unrealizable longing will cause Judy’s death.
Ms. Curran’s sumptuous dye-transfer prints recall the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, which look like film stills but are in fact moments in a nonexistent movie, constructed with the aid of a vast production crew. It’s a testament to Hitchcock’s genius that, viewed frame by frame over its more than two-hour length, “Vertigo” blows away anything Mr. Crewdson can conjure.
Ms. Curran is not the first artist to be transfixed by the artistry of “Vertigo.” The abstract painter David Reed digitally inserted his own canvases above the beds in the movie and then reproduced the rooms in two installations, “Judy’s Bedroom” (1992) and “Scottie’s Bedroom”(1994), with the altered film running on a continuous loop on a television monitor. Tailoring scenes from “Vertigo” is a clever way to monkey with perception, and very much in the spirit of the movie.
Victor Burgin, a photographer, critic and conceptual artist, brought a psychoanalytic perspective to “Vertigo” in his installation “The Bridge”(1984). At the film’s climax, Scottie tells Judy: “I have to go back into the past once more. Just once more. And then I’ll be free of the past.” But it’s an earlier scene in the movie, when Scottie rescues Madeleine from a plunge in the San Francisco Bay, that galvanized Mr. Burgin’s black-and-white panels that combine image and text. Mr. Burgin recast Madeleine as the drowned Ophelia in Sir John Everett Millais’s Pre-Raphaelite painting. For him, Scottie’s libidinal desires to rescue Madeleine from water and transform Judy into Madeleine evoke the Oedipal drive to possess the mother, an ambition that repeatedly fails.
These reconsiderations of “Vertigo” can feel like grabs of intriguing, but very particular, bits of a monumental elephant. The work that most deeply and creatively engages with the central theme — the obsession with a lost, imaginary past — fixates on a pier, not a bridge. Chris Marker’s short film “La Jetée” has become canonical itself. Made in 1962, at the height of Cold War anxiety about nuclear annihilation, it is set in a Paris that has been razed by World War III. The film’s protagonist is sent into the past on a time-travel experiment, chosen because he harbors an indelible memory of a blond woman (with an uplift hairstyle just like Madeleine’s) whom he spotted when he was a child, before the war, on a pier at Orly airport. The movie is ingeniously constructed out of still photographs. The stop-time technique fosters a sensation that each passing moment is a drop washing away.
As laborious as dye-transfer printing, the stop-time movie — Marker called it a “photo novel” — doesn’t invite imitators. It was audacious of Ms. Opie, a much admired photographer who established her fearlessness in the 1990s with portraits of her friends and herself in the San Francisco lesbian fetish scene, to take it up in “The Modernist,” her 2016 film. Daring, too, in an era of ferocious California wildfires, is the 22-minute movie’s subject matter: An arsonist loner (Ms. Opie’s longtime friend and muse, the queer performance artist known as Stosh or Pig Pen) is burning down famous midcentury houses in Los Angeles, including John Lautner’s Chemosphere and his Sheats-Goldstein residence.
The arsonist constructs a collage on the wall of his studio apartment with newspaper clippings about the fires. (Prints from the film are on view at the gallery where “The Modernist” is playing continuously in an auditorium.) By repeatedly photographing the same movements and actions from varying vantage points and with different depths of field, Ms. Opie instills a riveting narrative drive. In place of a startling moment of film in “La Jetée” when Marker breaks out of stop-time and a woman blinks, Ms. Opie injects midway through her movie, which is otherwise silent, the loud rasp of a struck match.
A resident of Los Angeles, Ms. Opie, 57, has transposed Marker’s Cold War angst to the Trump era. “What is our relation to longing for a past that is always past?” she said recently in an interview in New York. “My longing is for the idea that we will never achieve a utopian dream. Modernist architecture is about utopia. We’ve been able to create an enormous amount of fear in our culture, because we’re so scared of everything being taken away from us. I’ve kind of been questioning all of nostalgia. Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ is an ultimate nostalgic gesture.”
From her perspective, the people clamoring to restore America’s vanished majesty are instead perpetrating “the unfounding of democracy.” The character of “The Modernist" is an aficionado of the masterpieces he is destroying. That paradoxical killing of the thing one loves is both the nub of Ms. Opie’s political critique and the melancholy viewpoint her film shares with “Vertigo.”