The A.S.C. Cinematographer: One Frame at a Time, Part One

01_asc cover

The end pages of the 1930 Cinematographic Annual published by the A.S.C. feature full page ads with headshots of society members, first generation pioneers of Hollywood motion pictures: Hal Mohr, John F. Seitz, Alvin Wyckoff, Victor Milner, John Arnold, Charles Clark, Guy Wilky, Charles Rosher, as well as “best wishes” ads from director Ernst Lubitsch and actors Joan Crawford and George O’Brien. The body of the volume contains several dozen articles, mostly on newly emerging movie sound systems and cameras, on lens filters, color and lab sensitometry, even make-up. The volume offers a window into new equipment and techniques at the cusp of film’s transition from silents to sound. An arresting, forty-page mid-section highlights photographs made by the society’s members. A few are dramatic, moody set stills such as aerial cinematographer Elmer Dyer’s from the 1930 Hell’s Angels.

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Or Ned Van Buren’s personal desert nature studies. He gave up cinematography early in his career to work for Kodak Hollywood.

03_the sentinel

Fred Archer contributed a glamorous reflection reverie. Several years later he was set photographer on Grand Hotel, cinematography by William Daniels.

04_reflection study

But the most prestigious of all the cinematographers contributing to the annual was Karl Struss.

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Two Studies by Karl Struss.

A few years previous, Struss had shared the first Academy Award for cinematography with founding ASC member Charles Rosher for Murnau’s Sunrise. Before WWI Struss had been a member of the Alfred Stieglitz Photo-Secessionists in New York, a student of Clarence White.

John’s Bailiwick: Karl Struss, A Tripod in Two Worlds: Part One–New York link

Struss had come to Hollywood after the war and soon became set photographer for C.B DeMille. Though he became an operating cameraman with his purchase of a Bell and Howell 2709 camera in 1923, Struss maintained his dedication to stills photography throughput his career— even into the 1950s when he took a 3D still camera to Italy for his sojourn there as a 3D cinematographer.

05a_struss B&H 2709

Struss with B&H 2709, framed by Cooper-Hewitt lights.
Photo by Edward Weston, 1923.

Struss was the subject of a four-part essay I wrote for this blog in Dec. 2009. His career as a still photographer is emblematic of this ongoing photo tradition in the ASC, even up to today.

In recent years, the ASC has toured an exhibition of member photographs curated by Isidore Mankofsky, ASC. It was while thinking of this long history of ASC members and their dedication to still photography—that I decided to offer a periodic look into members’ personal stills work, this being the first of what will be a continuing series. I start with images of the Society’s most recent past president, Stephen Lighthill, who is also a dedicated printer. Currently, he is Senior Filmmaker in Residence at the AFI.

Lighthill offers a summer midnight landscape from Norway.

Stephen Lighthill

Stephen Lighthill

His daughter, who is “jumping for joy in an old Norwegian church.”

Stephen Lighthill

Stephen Lighthill

And a stunning “slit scan” style motion study of a nighttime streetcar in Poland taken during the annual CamerImage festival.

Stephen Lighthill

Stephen Lighthill

Steven Fierberg submitted images that included these three in the NYC subway, their casual intimacy recalling earlier subway portraits of Walker Evans and Bruce Davidson. Fierberg’s black and white photos evoke a quiet, even contemplative mood amid an environment of grinding wheels, and numbing  fluorescent lights.

Steven Fierberg

Steven Fierberg

Steven Fierberg

Steven Fierberg

Steven Fierberg

Steven Fierberg

Russell Carpenter, who won an Academy for his cinematography of Titanic, sent this stunning portrait of a young bride from the “hard-bitten” mining town Donetsk in the Ukraine.

Russell Carpenter

Russell Carpenter

More toward home is his abstract study of West Hollywood’s Beverly Center.

Russell Carpenter

Russell Carpenter

In a street market in Old Delhi, Carpenter discovered a “manly woman” whom he describes as “the Alpha dog in her family.” The receding line of the five faces behind her lends a sense of formalism to the busy alleyway.

Russell Carpenter

Russell Carpenter

The formalist in Carpenter is even more graphic in this self-described “reflection fetish” study that calls to mind a Photo Realist canvas of Ralph Goings, reflections amok in the glass.

Russell Carpenter

Russell Carpenter

Cinematographer Bob Primes has an intense fascination with texturing and vibrant color, perhaps inspired by his wife Theo’s brilliant interpretations of Bach fugues she plays on their massive home pipe organ. There’s definite synesthesia in Primes’ images. Here’s his description of a riot of roofs.

These are some jumbled rooftops I compressed with my 300mm lens in Estonia. I liked the ordered chaos of shapes and colors.

Robert Primes

Robert Primes

A silhouette of Theo at night has a Seurat Pointillist ordering of the color field. He describes it as:

 A shot of Theo, my wife, caught with a little pocket camera and tweaked to show the strangely beautiful lighting in this little alley at night. Pulling the colors from the modest camera created a few artifacts that I learned to live with.

Robert Primes

Robert Primes

And a tourist beach scene looks like a Photoshopped “Where’s Waldo” nightmare, but Bob insists it is unmanipulated.

Here’s a 300mm shot compressing a whole lot of cruise ship tourists into what seemed to be like a hellish way to spend a vacation. Crowding people this close seemed to serve only the interests of cruise line investors. I like to examine all the different ways people are trying to find their happiness here.

Robert Primes

Robert Primes

You can only hope that Bob and Theo weren’t booked on that cruise.

For Fred Goodich, the windows out to MoMA’s sculpture garden evoke personal memories cast in a stark silhouette.

Fred Goodich

Fred Goodich

Several weeks ago, Fred asked me to come to the Sunset Blvd. offices of Canon where he was making mural sized prints of photos he’d taken at an abandoned Soviet era steel factory in Ostrava, the Czech Republic. He was printing them singly and in negative/positive diptychs. Some of the images are high angle perspective waste-scapes. Some are a closely observed riot of pipes and valves, which he describes here:

The worn, rusted texture of the metallic surfaces are set off by the photographic grain/noise in this image. There’s something ‘masculine’ about this object, a drama in the play of rich tones: gray, white and black.

Fred Goodich

Fred Goodich

Conversely, a fleeting instant of a passing background, with complementary color streaks on a subway window gives mood and weight to an intriguing semi-silhouette.

Fred Goodich

Fred Goodich

Many cinematographers are also photography collectors. Steven Poster (whose photos will be in the next part of this series) is a colleague I encounter often at local galleries. Bob Richardson, like Carol and me, is also an avid collector. When I asked him to contribute to this essay, he sent a single image—a self-portrait (I think). Bob’s accompanying text expresses the ambivalence many cinematographers have about presenting themselves as “photographers,” a designation that often carries with it overtones of “artist,” a characterization that doesn’t fit comfortably for men and women whose principal work is the creation of images in motion, ever fleeting, never subjected to that moment of static contemplation so inherent in stills. Cinematography is a crucial but single element in the complex, collaborative tapestry of the finished motion picture. Cinematographers’ “stills” are often held close, at times simply a visual diary, but often it is an intimate internal visual dialogue, not fodder for public gallery walls.

Bob Richardson

Bob Richardson

Richardson says it best:  john – a week past this image – austin – burned after 16 days – i don’t take stills – certainly nothing i want published – i collect emotions – i collect moments – all or most disposable – bob”

 

Next: The recently restored by Milestone “Orphan Film” –“Portrait of Jason.”

2 Responses to “The A.S.C. Cinematographer: One Frame at a Time, Part One”

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  • John,

    Great Job! Keep writing about those “behind” the camera and what they personally enjoyed beyond their work as Cinematographers. I am sure your research in creating such interesting stories of these individuals can be quite a task. Don’t give up on many of us that really enjoy your writings.

    Best Regards, Chuck

  • Great to read this stuff.

    Keep it up John. I relly enjoy reading your publishings.

    I hope you will have a fine Christmas Holiday

    Best Regards

    Kristian in Norway

    JOHN’S REPLY: A lovely holiday to you as well, Kristian. Please look for my “holiday” blog on Dec. 16. A “different” celebratory card.

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