The Trove: Henry Adebonojo

With the same great love for capturing the moment through the moving image as for distilling the essence in a single frame, cinematographer/ photographer Henry Adebonojo is “happiest when I am making pictures.” I met the courteous and quiet Henry in passing many moons ago as he, fan of foreign cinema, was headed to Tower Records on 66th Street, home of “the best collection of foreign films in NYC hands down,” as his colleague in the film biz (my then-beau) and I left the self-same place in a round of music shopping.   Our paths would cross here and there but it would be years later before Henry and I had a “real” conversation and his other “twin” emerged in Gemini glory: erudite and given to animated conversation about literature, music, film, politics and racing.

Henry spent his Lagosian adolescence during the rise of Afrobeat, leaving in 1978 to complete his A-Levels (college qualification exams) and continue on to university in Great Britain, where his interest in photography was sparked in earnest. He completed his undergraduate degree in Law at the University of Buckingham and went on to study International Law at the graduate level at University College, London.

Returning to the city of his birth in 1984, he entered the film business the following year with a production assistant gig.  Working his way up the through the ranks, he became a cinematographer in 1993. He has enjoyed a career which has taken him across the United States and as far away as Mozambique, South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda and Italy, where he traveled with Spike Lee to shoot behind-the-scenes footage for the film, Miracle at St. Anna. Poignantly, James McBride’s fictionalized account of the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre in World War II Tuscany and the sacrifice of African-American Buffalo Soldiers brought Henry to the hilltop village of Sommocolonia, the very place, he’d learn that his own uncle, the 21-year-old PFC Macleon Johnson, gave his life in service of the US Army in December 1944. Visit his blog, Fewer Words, for the moving account.

Henry Adebonojo and the Uncle he never knew, the heroic Buffalo Soldier, Macleon Johnson

Shooting the likes of the late Gordon Parks, (for his Emmy-nominated work on Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks) George Clooney, Chuck D, Marisa Tomei, Dave Chappelle and the POTUS, Barack Obama, he’s cut a wide swath across the mediums of music videos, commercials, promos, documentaries and short films. The one position which has remained elusive is the Director of Photography spot on a feature film, but he’s up for the challenge, and looks forward to its inevitable occurence.

Though motion pictures are his bread and butter, he is making a concerted effort to shoot the still photos that he too loves.  His images, even those which depict atrocity, reflect his inherent empathy. He brings a tender humanity even to inanimate objects.

A glimpse of the sacred amid the rubble of the most unholy, the skulls of the murdered faithful in a Rwandan church, 2004.


“Esperanza Spalding,” May 2009. A quiet moment for the jazz bassist.

“Waiting for Wesley,” Ilha de Mozambique, 2005.  On a location scouting trip in Africa for Danny Glover’s intended feature, “Toussaint,” star Wesley Snipes “was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Wherever we went a crowd formed and people followed on foot behind the car that carried him around.”

View his work, both moving images and still photography at his website, HenryAdebonojo.com.

Because I’ve rolled with Henry to some wonderful jazz performances (such as the Heath Brothers at Birdland and Sir Ron Carter with his Juilliard colleagues, Dr. Eddie Henderson, Carl Allen, Ron Blake and Benny Green in a super-tight set at Dizzy’s), it comes as no surprise that Jazz should figure prominently in the aficionado’s trove.  Read on to discover his other treasures.

1. The Masters of Jazz. Henry has completely immersed himself in the world of Jazz and though he is well-versed in the music of many artists, two stand out for their bodies of work: Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. “Any thing those men produced is a soul-stirring emotional ride for me.  I recommend the lesser known Milestones as a landmark album for Miles.  And for Sir Duke, I recommend one of his later works from 1967, Far East Suite, which is rich in the complex orchestration for which he is famously known.  I especially love Ad Lib on Nippon.”  The bibliophile adores Geoff Dyer’s self-labeled work of “imaginative criticism,” But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.  “It merges beautifully my love of Jazz music and stories with my tendency to daydream.” As for jazz films, the 1988 documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser is it. “There is a moment in the film where Monk is at an airport in Europe and he is briefly separated from Nellie [his wife] as she is handling passport stuff.  He stands staring at people to-ing and fro-ing through the airport and in his typical mad mathematician methodology he breaks out in a spin and a brief jig – the kind he is wont to do on stage. It’s a personal moment, a moment of release.  When I am in a particularly stressful moment or situation, my mind wanders to Thelonious.” (Skippy and Crepuscule with Nellie are favorites.)

“Epistrophy,” sets up the airport scene about seven minutes into this clip. It is the perfect composition for Monk’s ecstatic whirl.

2. Compact Cameras. “I’ve been enjoying the miniaturization of my personal visual tool kit.  Sometimes I don’t feel like lugging around big cameras and dealing with the attendant attention.” He purchased an Olympus EP2 in January. “It has a lower profile than my Canon camera and accepts a plethora of lenses via adapters.  It is more discrete than the beloved Leica of many a photographer and the image quality while not quite up to the Canon, serves my purposes very well.  I love to use my Voigtlander 58mm 1.4 lens on it.  Great resolution on that lens and tack sharp.” A birthday gift from his “beloved friend, Kevin Ladson,” Henry’s Flip video cam, with its diminutive size allows him to “enjoy shooting those candid moments that a larger camera would destroy.  I don’t have to worry about things like focus and exposure. I just shoot and have fun with it.”

Mighty minis: Olympus PEN EP2 and the Ultra Flip HD video camera.

3. Auto Racing. “Nothing provides the kind of adrenaline kick for me like I get when I am behind the wheel of a fast car.  That car may be a Go Kart or a race car, but the feeling is the same.  The purposeful direction of aggression with a host of other people who are guided by the same principle and all happen to be heading in the same direction.  I don’t get that feeling from anything else I do.  For Go Karting I head up to Mount Kisco to GPNY (a modestly priced experience). For race cars I go to Skip Barber Racing School (a ruinously expensive experience).  I plan to do Skip Barber before the year is out.”

H.O.A. in the driver’s seat.

4. Wrist Watches. He owns several and keeps them in rotation. “They are my jewelry and change with my moods.  I love all my watches, but I have two ‘favourites,’ both have black dials and were bought to mark trips abroad.”  An aviation chronograph from Russian watchmaker Poljot “is the only manual winding watch I own.  I love having to wind it the way I used to do the watches I had as a kid.”

Henry was drawn to the “interesting combination” of steel case and gold numerals and hands in the square-faced watch from the La Carrée collection of French watchmaker Louis Erard.

5. Fountain Pens. “I enjoy process and although I don’t use them often, I love to fill a fountain pen with ink, write on some fine absorbent paper and watch the ink settle in the way my mood or emotion might do on a particular writing.  I occasionally pop into the Fountain Pen Hospital in downtown Manhattan to see what’s on offer.  I have a Parker I love and a Conklin that I picked up there.  I’d love a Namiki-Pilot, but the ones I like are too rich for my blood.”

Photo, PressSmart.com.

6. Francis Coppola Claret. Though he claims “an unsophisticated palette,” he knows what he likes in wine: good, red and affordable. Until he celebrates an Academy Award or Grand Prix win, the $20 range suits him fine. “I find I cannot go wrong with the Coppola Claret.  I can only imagine his wines are made with the same attention to detail as his classic films.”

“Never had a bad bottle of the stuff and it does not break my bank.”

7. Busboys and Poets. “In our fast changing world where process and tactile experience is being steadily replaced by a virtual one, I hold on for dear life to those of my past.  I miss record stores – even the ones that sell CDs.  Bookstores are going the same way.”  The D.C. cafe and bookseller,  “Busboys is a reminder of what it really is like to sit back and smell the rose or coffee depending on your preferred metaphor. In the case of Busboys, it’s more like smell food and touch books.”

The Busboys and Poets Bookstore is run by Teaching for Change.  Photo, Susanna Raab for the New York Times.

8. Contemporary Nigerian Authors. “Emerging Nigerian Writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) and Chris Abani (GraceLand) are rocking my world right now.  They are brilliant story tellers who owe a great deal to the writers who came before – Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe – but have an up-to-the-minute, romantic, free style of writing.  They are essential to an understanding of Nigeria’s past, present and future.”

Exceptional prose from two of Nigeria’s finest contemporary writers.

9. Fela Ransome Kuti and the Koola Lobitos “are important to me because of the well deserved popularity of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, but they are equally important.  The two are inseparable.  I urge anyone interested in the latter to acquaint themselves with the former. I was a kid growing up in Lagos when Hi Life music was all the rage and distinctly remember the transformation Fela went through and the long journey to embrace he endured (especially by the class from which he came – little known but he was seen as a kind of class traitor because of his embrace of common folk).  It’s a more profound story than the musical could ever encompass.”

Soundtrack to a Nigerian childhood.

10. Passing Strange. The musical, the film, the cast recording have particular resonance to his life.  “I lost my mother when I was 14 years old.  My life has had a certain un-balance to it ever since.  I have not begun to reckon with that until fairly recently, to grasp some of the dimensions of altered states resulting there from.  I think boys who lose their mothers at a young age have particular stories, unique stories.  Passing Strange also resonates because of the awkwardness of career choices that remain unsettled in us and the ways we are required to embrace that in order to move forward.”

Henry was overjoyed to serve as camera operator on the Spike Lee-helmed, filmed version of the Tony-award winning musical.

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7 Responses

  1. Interesting guy! I like his mix of new-school sensibilities and old-school charm.

  2. Well…..this is so wonderfully put together. It is a joy to know that someone has captured the spirit and class of this renaissance man. From one end to the other, this article is a treasure “Trove” of what makes Henry an inspiration.

    Well done!

  3. Love this piece! I have never heard of this man. I want to check out everything in this article that was mentioned. Thank you, Sharon!

  4. Beautiful.

  5. […] From The Trove on Henry Adebonojo: […]

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    • This is a WordPress blog. Good luck.

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