Still from Mindhunter. Courtesy of Netflix.
In the first scene of the Netflix crime show Mindhunter, the camera trails a car through the run-down streets of small-town Braddock, Pennsylvania. We don’t know that it’s 1977, or that someone will be offed in the next five minutes—but the setting provides clues. It’s a rainy night lit only by moody street lamps and the beams of an AMC Matador police car. The nearby buildings ooze seediness.
The scene is lonely, unglamorous, and wildly intriguing. It’s also resolutely American—and whisks viewers swiftly back to the 1970s.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the show’s creators were inspired by the pioneering U.S. photographers of that decade—namely, the great Stephen Shore, whose career spent capturing backroads, motel rooms, and lunch counters across America is currently being celebrated in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. “Since Mindhunter is a period piece, photography from the era was hugely helpful to all of us,” the show’s cinematographer, Erik Messerschmidt, tells me from Los Angeles.
The show, which debuted on Netflix this past October, is directed by David Fincher, a Hollywood bigwig known for high-suspense films and T.V. shows populated by creepy, psychologically complex characters. Take his 1999 thriller Fight Club, which documents the downward spiral of a depressed insomniac, played by Edward Norton, who turns to recreational fighting; or his 2007 mystery Zodiac, where Jake Gyllenhaal plays a brooding political cartoonist consumed with solving a 1969 San Francisco murder.
For its part, Mindhunter tracks the work of a 1970s FBI agent, Holden Ford (played by Jonathan Groff) who becomes obsessed with understanding the minds of murderers—and lays the groundwork for criminal psychology in the process. The show’s drama unfurls as he travels across the country, interviewing incarcerated serial killers in hopes of solving recent murders—and preventing future crimes. His escapades double as a road map of America that not only navigates the country’s geography, but also its material culture (cars, diners, bellbottoms) and its citizens’ fears (political chaos, Charles Manson, the rise of the serial killer).
Naturally, like all of Fincher’s work, the twists and turns of Mindhunter’s plot come to life through the show’s visual choices—from lighting and shot nuance to set design. For Fincher and Messerschmidt, these decisions were made through a lengthy process of brainstorming and combing through reference material.
“David and I have a similar aesthetic sensibility and similar tastes, so we have a short hand in terms of finding reference material and discussing the approach,” explains Messerschmidt. Together, they looked at a range of images taken during the ’70s, but continually returned to Shore’s work for inspiration.
“I looked at some street photography of the period as well, but I didn’t find it as helpful in terms of developing a tone for the show, because I was more interested in place,” he continues. “So much of the show takes place off the beaten path in small towns across the country, so Shore’s work seemed particularly appropriate as a reference.”
Shore’s most well-known series, “Uncommon Places,” offered consistent fodder. The body of work corrals photographs of the town squares, diners, and occasional passersby he came across during a series of road trips in the ’70s, when he was in his twenties. There’s nice connection between Shore’s tendency to drift and the main character of Mindhunter’s own penchant for cross-country travel. The former’s photographs are often titled to include the name of the town where he shot each image; likewise, the occasional title cards that pop up on Mindhunter remind the viewer where a scene is located: “Wichita, Kansas” or “Santa Cruz, California,” for instance.
Throughout “Uncommon Places,” Shore’s camera captured parking lots devoid of people but chock full of sleek, candy-colored cars, or main streets decorated with bold advertisements and bright midday light, but similarly empty of human activity. They embody everyday America—but also a certain strangeness and existential uncertainty that feels appropriate for a psychological thriller like Mindhunter.
Messerschmidt nods to numerous scenes from the show that are particularly informed by Shore’s aesthetic—mostly shots that situate Ford and his cronies on Middle American main streets or in front of dilapidated precincts. Astute viewers should watch out for the police station cameo and exterior prison scenes in episode four, and the shots of Altoona Pennsylvania courthouse in episode six.
Harry Callahan, Providence (Shepards), 1966. © Harry Callahan. Courtesy of Jackson Fine Art, Atlanta.
Shore isn’t the only photographer who Messerschmidt looked to when creating Mindhunter, however. “William Eggleston and Joel Sternfeld were also incredibly influential,” he explains. “And I have to admit, I did borrow from Harry Callahan a bit when Holden, Tench, and Ocasek exit the hair salon in episode five.”
He points to Callahan’s film-noir-esque Providence (1966), which shows a woman’s reflection melting into an image of a busy city street. Her expression is downright serious, deep in thought. The corresponding Mindhunter scene captures a similarly fraught moment, when Ford, his sidekick Bill Tench, and a local police officer Mark Ocasek leave a salon they thought might hold clues to a murder they’re trying to solve. It turns out to be “a dead end,” according to a frustrated Ford.
But as the crew takes to the town’s streets, and Tench lights up a cigarette, they decide to continue their hunt through small-town USA: a very convincing recreation of the America captured by Shore and his contemporaries some 40 years back.