Sam Taylor-Johnson/Photo © Johnnie Shand Kydd
Even before a frame was shot, the adaptation of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey was already one of the most buzzed-about productions of recent years, anticipated by fans of the book and also gleeful rubberneckers. In the furor over the screenwriter (Bret Easton Ellis?), casting (Ian Somerhalder! No, Matt Bomer! Charlie Hunnam?! Jamie Dornan ... oh), and possible rating, the choice of director went almost unnoticed. While Universal approached names like Patty Jenkins ("Monster"), Gus Van Sant ("Good Will Hunting"), and Joe Wright ("Atonement"), their surprise pick was the British director Sam Taylor-Johnson, whose only major feature is the John Lennon biopic "Nowhere Boy." Though the press used the hiring to discuss her marriage to the much-younger actor Aaron Johnson, Taylor-Johnson has a professional pedigree that makes her one of Hollywood's most intriguing bets.
A graduate of the prestigious art college Goldsmiths, Taylor-Johnson (then known as Sam Taylor-Wood) emerged in the early 1990s as a photographer and video artist and was shortlisted for the 1998 Turner Prize. Of some early work -- images with her posing cheerfully with her pants down, in tee-shirts printed with sexual slang, or marked with love bites -- she said, "One of the things I was interested in doing in these photographs was putting myself in a seemingly vulnerable position and then turning that on its head by using humor and other simple devices." This self-awareness and subversion recurs in her work, along with themes of sexuality, vulnerability, performance, and death.
It's these themes, as characterized in her most famous works, that suggest that Taylor-Johnson could pare back James's fantasy romance for a complex exploration of BDSM. For the portrait series Crying Men (2002-2004), Taylor-Johnson shot Hollywood stars, from Paul Newman and Dustin Hoffman to Daniel Craig and Ryan Gosling, weeping -- intensely private images conscious also of being an act. Likewise, Self-Portrait Suspended (2004) and Bram Stoker's Chair (2005) are about performance, capturing the artist poised acrobatically in mid-air or on a tipping chair. Taylor-Johnson used harnesses to suspend herself from the ceiling and then erased them in post, creating an illusion of weightlessness teased by our awareness of her underwear-clad body. Finally, the video portrait David (2004) films soccer icon David Beckham as he sleeps. Illuminated -- as if by his own celebrity -- like a religious figure, Beckham nevertheless appears vulnerable because he isn't (for once) performing. Like BDSM, these works deal with physical and symbolic questions of the body, gender, and power and how they bind and restrain us as participants.
Sure, it's easy to see "Fifty Shades" as an odd choice, or as a sell-out detour in a reputable career, but it could arguably be read as a logical progression, too. Taylor-Johnson was part of an influential generation known as the Young British Artists, who produced work that combined mass culture and conceptual art in an accessible package. (A notable contemporary is Steve McQueen, the award-winning director of "12 Years a Slave" and a Turner Prize-winning video artist. His work, which includes his previous feature films "Hunger" and "Shame," shares similar interests in limits, power, and the body.) Classing up a mass culture product with a contemporary art sensibility is very much in keeping with this group's philosophies, with "Fifty Shades" looking like a natural extension of Taylor-Johnson's career. As the artist Harland Miller, a frequent collaborator, once wrote of her photographs, "I've often thought that Sam's works were like stills for films that hopefully one day -- would be made."