I recently watched two movies in quick succession, The Dark Corner (1946, photographed by Joseph MacDonald, ASC) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959, photographed by Joseph Brun, ASC).  Both were film noir, black and white B-titles, pedestrian stories at best (though expertly crafted and thoroughly enjoyable).  What makes them worthy of comment is the undeniable passion with which they were made.  Here it is, 74 years and 61 years after their release and the feeling positively leaped off the screen.  Even if these productions were just another job of work for the filmmakers, their professional culture guaranteed the high premium.  And in today’s era during which cinematography is often referred to as an act of ‘image capture,’ I assure you, there was nothing ‘captured’ about either of these films.

            That phrase is annoying but there’s a great irony there, too.  By referencing only equipment and hardware, it ignores the notion of ‘image creation,’ which refers to how those tools are applied artistically.  If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it’s that without the human touch even the newest technology is worthless. 

            ASC legend Haskell Wexler took this a step further when he declared that our tools are the least important part of our work: “It’s really about the people you’re involved with and the effort you make together, the relationships you create.  It’s learning about yourself and experiencing things and growing as a human being.”  What a refreshing antidote to what can sometimes be a heartless business!  Endorsing what he said is easy.  Putting it into action is something else entirely.

            If cinematographers are to maintain any sort of relevance in the future, we’re all going to have to make an effort well beyond the realm of ones and zeroes, of wires and glass.



  1. Yes, this fetishising of equipment does stick in my craw. Although we work in a medium that is highly reliant on technology and the need to be proficient with it in order to express ourselves, to me it would seem a lot of people place more importance on prowess with kit, unfortunately, than on the creative aspects of the job. Having the ideas in the first place is, to me, the more impressive part.

  2. Totally agree. “ Image capture “ is , by design, a very sterile term which should only be used in discussions of the technology of filmmaking along the value chain from capture to display . ( another emotionless term when used to describe a large , white, cinema screen ). I like “ image origination “ a bit better ,probably due to my Kodak background- we classified all of our negatives as “ origination films “. But all genuine Kodak folks knew we were just supplying the tools

  3. What I like about watching older movies is that they feel like they were made by humans instead of machines, there is more of a handcrafted quality to them. I am always reminded of the Japanese term “wabi-sabi”, the beauty of imperfections, though these professionals strived for something very polished. You watch these classic b&w movies and you can feel the crew just off-camera with ladders ready to run in and adjust some flag or barn door…

  4. I agree and it’s sad seeing how technology is dictating most of the productions’ choices.
    I’m still at the beginning of my career, shooting so far only indie projects, but I’m struggling with finding work, mostly because I constantly face directors that hire a certain person not for his body of work, his skills or expertise, but because he owns a specific camera. Like using a RED or an ARRI makes the movie suddenly a masterpiece.
    I have to compete more with people with money that can afford a camera, than with other cinematographers that know their job.
    And even if I get selected to be the cinematographer for a movie, the director tells me he wants to use the ARRI, or the RED, or the Blackmagic.
    I’d like to respond: “Okay, but for the main character I want Leonardo DiCaprio.”
    Because if you impose which tool I have to use, I impose which actor you have to hire.
    In the end I don’t do that or I risk to lose the only job I was able to secure after months of fighting camera owners.
    It’s frustrating and it’s a constant struggle I hope will end when I’ll be able to take the leap towards a higher level of productions.

  5. Luigi – don’t get discouraged! As you begin to work with smarter, more experienced producers and directors you’ll find this less of a problem. In these instances it’s incumbent upon you to prove yourself indispensable in other ways. You have to be so good at your job that they look beyond the technology and hire you because of the special vision and talents you bring to the project – that no one else can. I know…not a simple thing, especially when you’re dealing with simple people. But it’s something to aspire to.

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