I’d like to recommend a number of books written by cinematographers that are well worth seeking out. Each is a personal memoir recounting the lives and careers of some incredibly talented and interesting individuals. Their narratives vary in style, but all offer a glimpse at what it was like to be engaged in what was once a romantic occupation. Reading any one of them will remind you of why you got into this business in the first place.
One Reel a Week (Arthur Miller, ASC with Fred Balshofer; 1967): With seven Academy Award nominations (and three wins) Miller is one of the giants of ASC history. He started as an assistant to his lifelong friend and co-author Balshofer in 1908 and worked on some of the best films produced by Hollywood for the next four decades. His amazing account paints a vivid picture of the time during which cinematographers were making up the rules as they went along. Interesting sidelight: Miller’s own camera – which he used to shoot The Perils of Pauline in 1914 – is on display at the ASC Clubhouse. The book also features a foreword by fellow Society associate Kemp R. Niver, longtime curator of the ASC Museum.
Billy Bitzer: His Story (Billy Bitzer with Beaumont Newhall; 1973): For another look into the earliest days of the film industry, this rollicking autobiography is a fabulous place to start. Bitzer is best known as cinematographer for the majority of D.W. Griffith’s films, including Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. To this day, Bitzer remains one of our greatest innovators; he is in fact the creator of many effects and conventions that Griffith is often credited for. Added value is provided by the perspective of his co-writer, who was a giant in the field of photo curation.
The Light On Her Face (Joseph Walker, ASC and Juanita Walker, with a foreword by Barbara Stanwyck; 1984): Another fabulous entry to the canon, this time from perhaps the most unsung genius in ASC history. Walker spent most of his career at Columbia Pictures, where he shot more than 140 films, including twenty four with Frank Capra. In addition to his four Oscar nominations, he was also an inventor who held 20 patents for camera-related equipment. Use this book as a guide to seek out examples of his best work – you will be blown away by his artistry!
Every Frame a Rembrandt: Art and Practice of Cinematography (Andrew Laszlo, ASC and Andrew Quicke; 2000) and It’s a Wrap! (Andrew Laszlo, ASC; 2004): When he retired, Andrew embarked on a writing career that included several wonderful works of fiction. That same talent is on display here as he imparts much of the wisdom he earned during a life behind the camera. His great humor and sharp observations are present in abundance and make this depiction of a more recent era a delightful experience.
The Lion and the Giraffe: A Naturalist’s Life in the Movie Business (Jack Couffer, ASC; 2010): For something completely different, try this one. An early pal and collaborator of ASC legends William A. Fraker and Conrad Hall, the author’s career as a wildlife cinematographer eventually took him to every corner of the world. In addition to a fruitful period writing, directing and shooting episodes of The Wonderful World of Color for Walt Disney, his footage has appeared in countless features. In 1973 he was Oscar nominated for his work in Jonathan Livingston Seagull; his writing style is evocative of that movie’s breezy tone.
If those are not enough, here are some others you’ll enjoy: Conversations With Jack Cardiff: Art, Light and Direction in Cinema (Justin Bowyer; 2003); Huston, We Have a Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Filmmaking Memories (Oswald Morris, BSC with Geoffrey Bull; 2006); Take One: Tales From Behind the Camera (Alex Thomson, BSC; 2008); and Freddie Francis: The Straight Story From Moby Dick to Glory (Freddie Francis, BSC with Tony Dalton; 2013).
After a long run of lockdowns and a tough winter, it’s good to know that more pleasant days are here. Add any of these titles to your summer reading list and you won’t be disappointed!