A Conversation with Hannah Kozak


Hannah Kozak makes you look at the world twice. You’ve seen her but likely never realized it. She’s performed stunts in big Hollywood flicks like Wild at Heart and Transformers and doubled for ladies like Isabella Rossellini, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Cher. She’s been a photographer, though, from even before the time she was a stunt double. The same way, knowing there’s someone invisible in these on-screen images makes you take a second look at them, her on-set photos present movie scenes and celebrities—images we’ve seen for years and faces we can’t help but recognize in an instant—from an entirely other perspective.

I talked with Kozak mostly by email before and after she travelled to Spain to receive several Julia Margaret Cameron awards for her photography, including Female Photographer of the Year for her Pain and Loneliness series of nudes.

10_Isabella_Rossellini_Hannah_Kozak_Wild_at_Heart Isabella Rossellini,Hannah Kozak, Wild at Heart, Sept 1989 (courtesy of Hannah Kozak)

09_Amanda_Pays__Hannah_Kozak_The_FlashAmanda Pays, Hannah Kozak, The Flash, Jan 1991 (courtesy of Hannah Kozak)

How did you first get into doing stunt work?

I was working in a camera store in the early eighties when a stunt coordinator came in with Fall Guy on his baseball cap. While I was helping him decide between a Nikon or Canon, I made a deal with him that if he brought me to a movie set, I would photograph the action for him. He brought me to the set of Knight Rider where he introduced me to one of the top three stunt-women in Hollywood, Victoria Vanderkloot. I shared with her that my dream was to be a stunt-woman and asked if she would help me. She turned out to be the most caring soul in the world. Not only did she mentor me to have a twenty-five year career as a stunt-woman, she is my closest friend. She believed in my strengths and helped empower me. Being able to go to the top of a building, look down, and intentionally let go helped me learn that great power comes from walking into what terrifies us most. I also went to stunt training school with Paul Stader, who was Erroll Flynn’s stunt double. He taught me boxing, high falls, and how to throw a proper punch.

Even before you yourself were working in the industry, I read that you snuck onto film sets and snapped photos. What drew you to the movies?

I was drawn to the magic and illusion of the movies. I loved the make-believe, the fantasy and escapism from the time I was a little girl. I think artists are constantly straddling the need to be in the real world with the need to be escaping and creating. All art is an escape from the realities of the world. When I was a little girl, I read until my eyes drooped for the same reason: I lost myself in the stories. Yes, I snuck onto movie sets lots. I got a big thrill out of breaking rules; seeing if I could figure out how to get in and not get caught. Then, I’d watch and not speak to anyone. Once I was comfortable, I’d simply talk to the actors and they would allow me to photograph them so I was not just shoving a camera in someone’s face. In every shot, they are willing subjects. I kept going and even went back with 8×10’s and was able to have them sign my photos. I learned early that photography was not about clicking the shutter but was about connecting with people.  Photography is a conversation. The subject is always more important than the photo.

Hannah_Kozak_Full_FireburnHannah on fire, Photo credit: Jeffery R.  Werner, Incredible Features, Inc.

07_Hannah Kozak_Victoria VanderklootVictoria Vanderkloot, Deadly Force, 1982. Photo: Hannah Kozak

06_Hannah Kozak_The Fall Guy (1)Victoria Vanderkloot, The Fall GuyAug 1983. Photo: Hannah Kozak

From your perspective as both stunt-woman and photographer, what is it like to pull back the curtain on all the invisible work that goes into producing cinema?

It’s so much fun being on the set of film-making even though it can be gruelling. There are so many creatives involved, from the director of photography to the camera crew, special effects, hair, make-up, writers. Interacting with all the personalities is fascinating because of their passion for what they create. There’s a lot of people involved in a film crew so when we wrap, photography is a perfect medium for me to go off on my own and explore in solitude. I crave my personal space, and photography provides that space for me.

You’ve doubled for stars like Cher, Angelina Jolie and Isabella Rossellini. For the job, you dress up exactly like someone else and the goal is to sort of disappear, for no one to notice you. What’s that like?

I love that aspect of stunt work. I’m there but I’m not really there. Being behind the scenes is perfect as I watch and observe, just like I do with photography, which is what I like to do best. Hair and make-up are not my forte so to have a professional apply my make- up and style my hair plus have a fun outfit to run around in, it’s perfect for me. And I learned how to do high falls and car hits all in high heels so I’m pretty good walking around in three inch pumps.

A lot of your photos are about the relationship to the body. How has doing stunt work informed your own connection with your body? Has working with your body changed how you relate to it?

Yes, working with my body gave me a lot of confidence with myself and my physical body. There comes a great feeling of self-discipline. I went to India eight years ago with my yoga teacher Gurmukh while I was simultaneously studying to teach Kundalini Yoga. Kundalini Yoga, the mother of yoga, is an ancient technology that is a perfect combination of awakening the kundalini energy through the regular practice of meditation, pranayama, chanting mantra and postures. Kundalini Yoga gives you the ability to be still with your breath, it helps cultivate our creative spiritual potential by focusing on compassion and consciousness to serve and heal others. Staying in shape was a way of life as a stunt-woman and I continue to welcome any opportunity to do something physical.

03_Hannah Kozak_Nic CageNicolas Cage, Wild at Heart, Sept 1989. Photo: Hannah Kozak

02_Hannah Kozak_Isabella RosselliniIsabella Rossellini, Wild at Heart, Sept 1989. Photo: Hannah Kozak

04_Hannah Kozak_Nic Cage, David Lynch_HeartNicolas Cage, David Lynch, Wild at Heart, Sept 1989. Photo: Hannah Kozak

08_Hannah Kozak_David LynchDavid Lynch, Wild at Heart, Sept 1989. Photo: Hannah Kozak

 A lot of your work focuses on women. From your photos, I feel like you are getting at a sort of collective female experience in your subjects even when your individual experiences are different, for example when you are working with subjects in Bolivian prison or at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.

Yes, you are astute in your observation. I flew to La Paz, Bolivia to spend one afternoon in jail with those women. I was drawn to the women in Bolivia because most of them were and are still in prison for simply standing up to their abusive husbands. In many cases, they were imprisoned for fighting back. I have a need to be a voice for the voiceless and disenfranchised, just as feminist philosopher, educator and writer Mary Wollstonecraft did in writing her famous book, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Wollstonecraft’s father was a violent man who beat his wife in drunken rages. Mary would lie outside the door to her mother’s bedroom to protect her. My role was also to protect my mother from her husband’s violent rages and so Mary Wollstonecraft’s work resonates with me. I have been working on a photo essay for the past four years and ten months called He Threw the Last Punch Too Hard or Domestic ViolenceForty Years Later about my mother and the effects of domestic violence on her life. I have a righteous appetite for justice. My Devotion series at The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem started organically. I have been enraptured with Israel ever since I moved there to study Hebrew when I was twenty. I was at the Western Wall years ago, watching the women with their complete and utter devotion to the magnificence of the wall, many of them with their babies. I’ve always been fascinated by the relationships between women, particularly the mother/daughter relationship, because I never truly had my mother in my life, and then I essentially lost her again to brain damage. So there is a part of me always searching for the understanding of the mother/daughter relationship.

You seem like you’ve been drawn to photography almost intuitively from an early age. How does it help you relate to your world? Do you believe in photography having therapeutic potential?

I hadn’t completely formulated as a child what I was doing with photography but yes, photography was and is a stabilizing anchor since I was about 10 years old. People aren’t stable, they are constantly changing, which is healthy. Art, on the other hand, is a stable vehicle. It was never easy for me to verbally communicate my feelings. My childhood turned me into a story teller and film taught me discipline because you have to be decisive when shooting. As Henri Cartier-Bresson wrote, the essence of photography is capturing the decisive and for me, intuitive moment. Oh, this is such a complex question. Photography is how I relate to my world. Photography has a great therapeutic potential. I could not visit my mother for many years as I would get depressed from walking into the nursing home and seeing her sitting in the hallway with that crummy linoleum or I would feel guilty if I didn’t go. So I came up with the brilliant plan of just not going. Of course, that didn’t work and after I got hurt on Iron Man 2, I started to visit her with my camera. My camera provided the separation and connection point I needed. I run from my pain by transfiguring it in art. I believe that art mends what life painfully shatters. Photography, it provides an untrammelled freedom.

12_Madchen_Amick__Hannah_Kozak_Twin_PeaksMadchen Amick, Hannah Kozak, Twin Peaks, Dec 1990 (courtesy of Hannah Kozak)

11_Lara_F_Boyle_Hannah_Kozak_Wayne's_WorldLara Flynn Boyle, Hannah Kozak, Wayne’s World, 1991. (courtesy of Hannah Kozak)

You’ve just received several Julia Margaret Cameron awards. You mentioned you identify with her ethos of not caring what other people think of her work. Can you explain more about how you relate to her legacy?

I love that Julia M. Cameron became enraptured with photography at forty-eight, becoming one of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography and proving it’s never too late to find a passion. Her photos combined an unorthodox technique, a deeply spiritual sensibility, and a Pre-Raphaelite-inflected aesthetic. She was self assured in her art, she didn’t waver even when she was condemned by her contemporaries. I love how she purposely chose soft focus and long exposures that allowed the subjects’ slight movement to register, truly giving the photos more life. To sum it up, in the face of rules and dogmas, Julia upheld her absolute individual liberty. She resonates with me because she was not creating for anyone but herself. I used to have a friend who said I was too dark. I realize that was her projection of her own darkness, aimed at me. (That’s what happens in intimate friendships. ) I believe our Western culture subscribes to the constant feel good notion of staying away from pain. Well, that’s just plain silly. Life is suffering. It’s the first noble truth in Buddhism.  There is no darkness without light.  The brighter the light, the darker the shadow. Our traumas are our hidden gifts that break us open to uncover who we really are. There is a purpose to pain and how we answer the question “Why me?” will determine how we experience our world.  I’m not uncomfortable exploring darkness and definitely not judging it or anyone’s path.  I never created any of my art for an audience. Each series, from Pain and Loneliness to He Threw the Last Punch Too Hard to Devotion (to the children I have been photographing around the world since the early eighties,) I listened to my heart and not to sound like a clichéd narrative, my soul’s purpose.

No one wants to be alone but there comes a great value from the productivity of solitude. I think it you can’t be alone, you’re basically hiding from you. As poet Seamus Heaney said “if poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness.”

Michael Jackson didn’t fit in, Julia Margaret Cameron didn’t either. Nor do I, and I’m perfectly okay with that.