The camera takes center as Cocteau directs.
I became more interested in cinema when I began to understand the various working parts of the medium. My interest especially took off when I started to grasp the idea of cinematography and the role of the cinematographer. This growing realization came upon me sometime during my undergraduate years. Like the music connoisseur who finds new albums by seeing which musicians are listed in the credits and then following the trail, I began to find films based on who shot them. If I liked the cinematography of Apocalypse Now (1979), I would see that it was shot by Vittorio Storaro, and that fact would lead me to the films of Bernardo Bertolucci. Or I could look for a kind of aesthetic story by tracing a cinematographer’s oeuvre, such as Robby Müller shooting the great early films of Wim Wenders, for example Alice in the Cities (1974) and The American Friend (1977), and then shooting Repo Man (1984), and then To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), and then Down By Law (1986).
Recently I noticed something about myself as well. The cinematic image is like a drug for me. In fact I am frequently more moved, and more intrigued, by the images on the screen than the stories they tell. Narrative is often not my main reason for watching and liking films. I watch films in much the same way that I walk through a gallery or museum, going from one art work to the next, tying them together in my mind, creating connections. As the images move and shift in a film I take in each shot like the paintings in a gallery. Maybe this is because I was a professional photographer for a number of years. Or maybe that’s why I became a photographer.
With cinema the images are part of a narrative, and I do find the way those images serve the narrative to be interesting as well. But it’s still the images that get me first. The story is the excuse for their existence. I can’t say that’s a good approach to watching films, but I can’t help it. I guess I am wired that way. That may also explain why learning about cinematography and cinematographers opened up my appreciation of cinema as a whole.
Here is a list of some of my favorite cinematographers. These are the ones who’s work have most influenced my appreciation of cinema. Needles to say, there are many more I could and should list, but then it just gets unwieldy. There is so much great work out there. I have broken the list up into two groups, not as a designation of quality or capability, but of the place each has played in my development. The list is also not ranked. They could go in just about any order.
There may be no more significant film in my cinephiliac development than Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which was the first of Young’s three academy awards for best cinematography. The other two were for Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970). But look at his other films, like: Treasure Island (1950), Lust for Life (1956), The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), and You Only Live Twice (1967). Beautiful stuff.
Coutard was THE cinematographer most closely associated with la nouvelle vague and, in particular, Jean-Luc Godard. He shot Breathless (1960), of course, but take a look at his list and you’ll see a what’s what of ground breaking films, including Week End (1967), maybe the most significant work of art in the latter half of the 20th century.
Storaro may have been the first cinematographer that I really noticed for what he did. For a while he was my favorite. His films include such seminal works as The Conformist (1970), The Spider’s Strategem (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), 1900 (1976), Reds (1981), Ladyhawke (1985), The Last Emporer (1987), and many others. He also has won three academy awards for best cinematography.
Robby Müller does not get considered enough in the U.S. But look at his film list! I already mentioned some films above, others include The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1972), Kings of the Road (1976), Paris Texas (1984), Dead Man (1994), Breaking the Waves (1996), Dancer in the Dark (2000), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), and many more. His work with Wim Wenders was seminal in my development. All that angst was just what I needed at that time. Sometimes I still do.
For me it was a revelation to discover Almendros was the cinematographer for Eric Rohmer. Some of those films includes such greats as La Collectionneuse (1967), My Night at Maud’s (1969), Claire’s Knee (1970), Chloé in the Afternoon (1972), and more. He was also the cinematographer for Truffaut. Some of those films inlcude Two English Girls (1971), The Man who Loved Women (1977), and The Last Metro (1980). But he also shot Days of Heaven (1978) which is stunningly lensed.
Ah Sven. There are few filmmakers that have had as much influence on me as Ingmar Bergman, and Nykvist was his primary cinematographer. I don’t need to list those films, you know them. He also shot Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice (1986) and Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).
Deakins is almost the defacto shooter for the Coens. He started with them back on Barton Fink (1991). Before that conspiracy he shot Sid and Nancy (1986) and Mountains of the Moon (1990). He also lensed Passion Fish (1992), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Kundun (1997), and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), plus a lot of other wonderful films.
I first heard of Alekan by way of Wings of Desire (1987). Only later did I realize that he photographed such great films as Beauty and the Beast (1946) and Roman Holiday (1953).
For me Semler is the guy who shot The Road Warrior (1981). I can hardly think of a better way to use a camera than to build a cage around it, put it in the middle of the road and then, while its running, crash a car into it. That’ll give the guys at the lab heart palpitations, or at least it did back then.
Yusov was the early cinematographer for Andre Tarkovsky. He and Tarkovsky cut their teeth together. His most famous film was Andrey Rublyov (1969). But Solyaris (1972) is worth a gander (as are all of Tarkovsky’s films). Tarkovsky is my second favorite filmmaker, right behind Jean Renoir. Or maybe they’re tied.
I already wrote a post about Freund. Check it out. Don’t you just love that picture?
Many of these cinematographers are rather long in the tooth and several have passed on. Many were long past their prime by the time I “discovered” them. Fortunately their work survives and still lives. I have not been keeping up with the newer crowd who are re-setting the standards. But my point here was to list off those who played a part in my earlier development as a lover of cinema. I cannot say how many I have left off the list, but it is a lot. I hope you have your favorites as well.