2003 ASC Lifetime Achievement Awardee Michael Chapman (1935-2020) was an important member of the 1970’s generation of cinematographers who redefined what movies looked like. Taxi Driver (1976), The Last Waltz (1978), Raging Bull (1980) and The Fugitive (1993) represent a small sampling of his notable titles. Each remains as visually powerful as they were on the day of their release.
I got to know him in 1988 as an assistant cameraman on the New York segments of Ghostbusters II. His gruff exterior belied an artist’s sensitivity and a master’s control of the set and technology. By the time I met him years later at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood, his East Coast-edge had softened and I was taken by his insight on the issues of the day.
The following quote is reflective of Chapman’s true temperament. Don’t be distracted by the first few sentences; they’re boilerplate material, the type of things most any cinematographer would say. But the final line elevates his thinking in a striking way.
If the act of creating images for the entertainment of others can be considered an artform in any sense, a more fitting quote has never been uttered.
“Cinematography isn’t something you can learn by rote. You have to trust your instincts. The audience doesn’t consciously see everything we do, but they remember how it made them feel. This is a serious business – an act of commerce – but there is also in it a subconscious yearning for something deeper. It reminds me of a line that W.H. Auden cribbed from Shakespeare and used as the title of one of my favorite poems, “The truest poetry is the most feigning.”