Haskell Wexler, ASC (1926 – 2015) & Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (1930 – 2016), two parallel trajectories

By Marc Salomon, AFC consulting member

La Lettre AFC n°262

[English] [français]

Within the same week, two major and emblematic figures of American cinematography departed this earth. They particularly represented the style that emerged within the “New Hollywood” movement, and which irrigated American cinema with a new lifeblood from the end of the 1960s to the early 1980s.

Although the careers of Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond took parallel trajectories and they both took a number of years to successfully become members of the cameraman union (they both began in independent, non-union productions), their careers were nonetheless very different and they don’t have even one director in common in their respective filmographies (with the exception of a broken-off collaboration with Tony Richardson for Zsigmond) and only have in common their sources of inspiration and the influence they had on their colleagues the world over. The first was an eclectic cinematographer and cameraman, and highly politically active ; the second, was a virtuoso cinematographer, who was highly innovative and audacious. They both shaped and revolutionized Hollywood cinema in their own way with a new generation of directors who was attempting to chart a path independently from the major studios and was choosing subjects that were closer to the lived reality of their times, inspired by the counter-culture and sometimes adopting a critical tone towards American society (the abandonment of the Hays code dates from 1966) or revisiting, sometimes dynamiting, genres that were until then comfortably established but that had become tired and hackneyed (the western, film noir, comedies, horror movies, etc.).

Haskell Wexler sur le tournage d’"America, America", en 1963
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Haskell Wexler
In his over 50-year-long career, Haskell Wexler constantly worked between documentary and fiction, each feeding off the other, and sometimes mixing them into a hybrid aesthetic. A strong character and liberal political opinions sometimes caused him to enter into conflict with directors who had opposing views. His colleague Vilmos Zsigmond had given him the nickname “the greatest director amongst the cameramen !” But he remained faithful to a few directors : Irving Kershner, Norman Jewison, Hal Ashby, and John Sayles.
Born in Chicago on 6 February 1926, Haskell Wexler began his studies at the University of Berkeley and then served in the merchant marine during the Second World War. Encouraged and financially supported by his father, he opened and equipped a film studio in Illinois, where he shot a documentary about the owner of a cotton farm in Alabama and his family (A Half Century With Cotton), which wasn’t very successful and that led him to begin working as an assistant in the early 1950s on a number of different documentaries. One of them, The Living City by John Barnes (1952), was even nominated for an Oscar. In 1956, he was responsible for the second unit on Joshua Logan’s Picnic (cinematography by James Wong Howe), including the last scene filmed from a helicopter.

In 1958, he used the pseudonym Mark Jeffrey (the given names of his two sons) to sign off on his first feature-length film, produced by Roger Corman, Stakeout on Dope Street. This was Irving Kershner’s first project as director, and the two men would work together again on The Hoodlum Priest in 1961 and A Face in the Rain in 1963. In the meantime, Wexler collaborated with Jack Couffer and photographer Helen Levitt on an unusual project that was filmed over the course of four years (The Savage Eye, 1956-60). The film was co-directed by Joseph Strick, Ben Maddow, and Sidney Meyers, and was a precursor, ten years before its time, of the New Hollywood style. This strange little independent film, which has since become cult, navigates freely between fiction (Mitchell camera) and cinema-verite (B&H Eyemo) in a poetic and off-beat satire of the ‘American Way of Life’ that visually channels the America of photographer Gary Winogrand.

"Le Mal de vivre", d’Irvin Kershner (1961)
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"The Savage Eye", de Ben Maddow et Sidney Meyers (1960)
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Kershner’s films were also independent productions (The Hoodlum Priest was filmed in St. Louis, Missouri, and A Face in the Rain in Italy), both in black-and-white and sometimes including some hand-held camera shots. They were both filmed in a documentary style (according to the standards of the time) and preferred natural sets. The Hoodlum Priest was inspired by the story of Jesuit priest Charles Dismas Clark, who tried to rehabilitate hoodlums and convicts. The (overly) stylized image of Wexler was even very inspired by film noir in certain scenes.

Elia Kazan, who had admired the photography on The Hoodlum Priest, hired him in 1963 to work on his autobiographical film America, America, which was partially filmed in Greece and in Istanbul, and in New York in Warner Studios. The harsh and contrasted images seem to be inspired from the neo-realist style of G.R. Aldo (The Earth Trembles, in particular). But the two men did not get along well : “He was a first-rate snitch, who ruined the life of many of my friends,” Wexler said of Kazan, who, in turn, described his director of photography as a “leftist intellectual.”

"America, America", d’Elia Kazan (1963)
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That same year, Wexler shot The Bus, a documentary that focused on the rallies in Washington for the great pacifist demonstration organized to defend civil rights in 1963. He chose to follow the San Francisco delegation that travelled to Washington by bus, capturing the participants’ conversations and aspirations in a cinema-verite style.

During the year 1964, Wexler had to pay homage to the West Coast labor union by accepting to work on a few TV series like “Ozzie and Harriet”, which also gave him the opportunity of working on The Best Man by Franklin J. Schaffner, starring Henry Fonda (a documentary-style fiction describing the political battle between two men competing for the nomination of their party), and with Tony Richardson on The Loved One, which was an off-beat satire of the funeral industry. Both were filmed in a pretty range of medium greys, and were closer to the traditional style of American cinema in terms of their image (similar to what Joseph LaShelle and Sam Leavitt were doing at the same time) with their sharp black-and-white and their lighting structure, with spotlights lighting up faces. Only a few hand-held shots could be interpreted as a concession to a certain form of modernity.

In 1966, while preparing Kershner’s A Fine Madness for Warner Studios, Wexler ran into Mike Nichols, whom he had met in Chicago, and who offered him to take over from Harry Stradling, whose cinematography he wasn’t pleased with, on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?. Wexler thought about refusing, but Jack Warner made him realize that shooting a major studio film with stars (Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) would be important for the rest of his career. Solidly seconded by Frank Flanagan, Stradling’s gaffer, Wexler created a more traditional lighting system, based on Fresnels on dimmers, without completely abandoning his own techniques, using some indirect umbrella lighting and shots using his hand-held Caméflex. He won his first Oscar for this film, which was incidentally the last Oscar ever awarded to a black-and-white film.

Although he had shot his first film in Eastmancolor in 1960 (Five Bold Women, a low-budget Western), Wexler truly explored colour’s potential with Norman Jewison in 1967-68 on In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair – with a vigorous style driven by directional lighting and inspired by his work in black-and-white.

During the summer of 1968, Haskell Wexler directed and filmed Medium Cool, what today would be called a documentary-fiction built around the divisions that were sending tremors through American society in the late 1960s : the civil-rights movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King and of Robert Kennedy, the homeless and the slum-dwellers (Appalachian migrants living in the slums of Chicago), with the violent climax being the police repression of demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention. The central character was a television cameraman (played by Robert Forster) who demands that viewers choose their position towards these events, and decide whether to be spectators or actors. Last but not least, Medium Cool, shot in 35 mm Cameflex with accents of cinema-verite, remains one of the Wexler’s most beautiful and exacting films, the antithesis of the mannered aestheticism that he sometimes adopted in his later works.

"L’Affaire Thomas Crown", de Norman Jewison (1968)
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"Medium Cool", d’Haskell Wexler (1969)
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Dispositif de prise de vues sur le tournage de "Medium Cool"

During the first half of the 1970s, Wexler almost exclusively participated in political documentaries with Joseph Strick (Interviews with My Lai Veterans) or Saul Landau (Brazil, a report on torture ; Interview with President Allende) and even took a trip to Vietnam with Jane Fonda in 1974 (Introduction to the Enemy).

Vilmos Zsigmond
The career and the beginnings of Vilmos Zsigmond are obviously quite different and are closely linked to those of his countryman and companion in exile, László Kovács (1933-2007).

Born June 16, 1930 in Szeged (Hungary), a city south of Budapest, to a father who was a well-known football coach and a mother who owned a pub, it was at the age of 17, during a period of recovery from an illness, that Vilmos Zsigmond discovered photography thanks to a work by the famous photographer Jenő (Eugene) Dulovits. But given his "bourgeois" origins, the authorities sent him to work in factory where he soon founded a photography club, which ended up gaining him admission to the Budapest film school. He studied there from 1951-1955 under professors György Illés, János (John) Badal and Béla Bojkovszky (whom he thanked in 1977 when he received his Oscar for Close Encounters). "In film school," he would later say, "we were taught that cinema was an art only if it had something to say. More than simply entertain, it had to have a social dimension." It was during this period he also discovered Italian neo-realist films while admiring the work of István Eiben, the greatest “classical” cinematographer of Hungarian cinema. He would be permanently influenced by his highly-contrasted style and directional lighting.

Vilmos Zsigmond had hardly begun to work in the Hungarian cinema industry when the ill-fated insurrection of 1956 broke out and was suppressed by Russian tanks. After clandestinely filming some of the events with László Kovács, they fled to the Austrian border, carrying with them several film canisters. They arrived in New York in January 1957 and joined Hollywood the following year. Zsigmond worked doing odd-jobs related to photography (laboratory work, portraits, production of microfilms for an insurance company, etc.) while learning English "word by word", then shot a few corporate films and television advertisements.

In 1963 he shot (using the name of William Zsigmond) James Landis’ The Sadist, the first of the twenty low-budget independent films he would shoot using his own equipment during the 1960s. All of these films were in the category of “exploitation films”, low-budget genre films that had catchy titles. In The Sadist, the low budget forced the film to be shot in only one location (a run-down service station in the middle of nowhere) and under the beating sunlight, which were largely offset by the visual talent of Zsigmond ; one can already see his great talent through the over-the-shoulder shots of faces, the backlighting, the depth of field, and the relationship between indoors and outdoors.

"Le Sadique", de James Landis (1963)
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Mostly directed by James Landis or Al Adamson, these Z-series films intended for drive-in audiences were sometimes filmed in Techniscope using film cuttings, and explored sub-genres in the spy movie (The Nasty Rabbit), science fiction (The Time Travellers), the thriller (Psycho a-go-go), the Western (Deadwood ’76) and the intergalactic horror film (Horror of the Blood Monsters) ! These off-beat styles allowed the cinematographer to experiment with framing and colour, and which seem to have prepared him to work with Brian de Palma later on. But he said that he was quite satisfied with the B&W photography of Rat Fink in 1965, which was the story of a twisted singer ready to do anything to succeed.
In this early period, a film like James Bruner’s 1965 Summer Children stands out. It was long considered lost, but was rediscovered, restored, and screened in 2011. It is the story of the sentimental rivalry between five young people on a sailboat travelling towards Catalina, and was filmed in a superb B&W and in a highly modern style. It was inspired by the French New Wave and of contemporary Italian cinema, and belongs to the neo-realism movement.

"The Summer Children", de James Bruner (1965)
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Nonetheless, Zsigmond’s work on advertisements for television and on a short film nominated for an Oscar (Prelude, by John Astin, 1968) would most attract attention and would allow him to make the move towards more ambitious productions, just as his compatriot László Kovács had met success with Easy Rider (Denis Hopper, 1969). Kovács, busy working on another production, was the one who recommended Zsigmond to Peter Fonda for the first film he directed in 1971, The Hired Hand, which was a dark and disabused Western, starring Peter Fonda himself (hero of Easy Rider), Warren Oates and Verna Bloom (the heroine of Medium Cool by Haskell Wexler).
With some visual inspiration doubtlessly taken from Conrad Hall and Butch Cassidy and the Kid, Zsigmond demonstrated his talent at constructing a narration using images via certain stylistic traits that would remain his signature : a predilection for twilight shots, a taste for contrast and directional lighting indoors, a sense for space and landscapes, and camera virtuosity in framing and movements combining zooms and long focal lengths (down to the superb master shot at the end of the film using a double movement combining a travelling shot and a 360° panoramic shot).

"L’Homme sans frontière", de Peter Fonda (1971)
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It was again thanks to Kovács’ intervention (who filmed That Cool Day in the Park in 1969) that Zsigmond was hired by Robert Altman on John McCabe, a winter anti-Western that was the polar opposite of Ford’s epics : “Altman wanted a Northern Western, snowy, rainy, and muddy. A film with conflictual lighting, something that wasn’t beautiful, that looked damaged and grainy.” Zsigmond therefore set about destroying any trace of chromo imaging in the film : he flashed the Eastmancolor 5254 negative that was pushed to 200 ISO, used Fog filters to lessen the definition, and didn’t use an 85 filter because it “made the colours blue and gave a more monochromatic result.” He also admitted that he learnt a lot from Altman about how to choreograph the zoom lens for a fluid result.

Vilmos Zsigmond sur le tournage de "John McCabe", en 1971
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The 1970s were marked by films that set themselves apart by their originality and their formal virtuosity, by the likes of Robert Altman (Images, The Long Goodbye), John Boorman (Deliverance), Jerry Schatzberg (Scarecrow ; Sweet Revenge), Steven Spielberg (The Sugarland Express, Close Encounters of the Third Kind), Brian de Palma (Obsession, Blow Out), and Michael Cimino (The Deer Hunter, Heaven’s Gate). Vilmos Zsigmond was distinguishing himself as the cinematographer of climate in every sense of the term. He excelled at filming and making palpable nature’s vagaries, bad weather (snow, rain, wind, fog, etc.) : John McCabe’s snowy landscapes, of course, but also the first eight minutes of Scarecrow (a windswept road in the middle of nowhere), and the first ten minutes of The River by Mark Rydell in 1983 (torrential storm, flood and muddy soil) that immediately register the story in a space that is as terrestrial as it is psychological. His landscapes are generally anything but reassuring, there always seems to be an underlying threat because he is the painter of wide open spaces, “psychological climates” in which nature becomes a sort of mental projection (the stormy and monochrome landscapes of the Irish moor in Images, the dull and opaque forest in Deliverance).

"Images", de Robert Altman (1972)
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"Le Privé", de Robert Altman (1973)
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"L’Epouvantail", de Jerry Schatzberg (1973)
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"Sugarland Express", de Steven Spielberg (1974)
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"Voyage au bout de l’enfer", de Michael Cimino (1978)
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"Blow Out", Brian De Palma (1984)
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"La Rivière", de Mark Rydell (1984)
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This sense of atmosphere is coupled with a great narrative efficiency in the use of the camera, the framing was done mostly using Scope and long focal-length lenses or zoom lenses, linking the space and characters together using wide movements (preferring master shots to overly-predictable editing), with sometimes rather virtuoso feats such as the famous 360° panoramic shot inside a car in Sugarland Express, or the constantly moving camera in The Hired Hand.
Additionally, a predilection (especially with Brian de Palma) for "split-fields" which allowed him to put a face or an in-focus object within an over-the-shoulder shot at the edge of the Scope.
"But if you look closely at my images," he said, "you will see that I am not a very skilled technician : I like to focus on the main element without losing too much time in the refinements of lighting. In my opinion, the general idea of the shot must always come before technical perfection. One thing that I consider fundamental for example, is the time of day at which you should shoot."
It is true that following in Conrad Hall’s footsteps, he was also a master of twilight, dusky atmospheres with leaden or fleecy skies through which the pale light of day has a hard time poking through. In Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), the climax of an extremely rich decade, was also in a way his way of closing the door on New Hollywood in a kind of apotheosis, of visual splendour, but also a swan song whose formal extravagance is like a catalogue of all the expertise and virtuosity of Vilmos Zsigmond.

"La Porte du paradis", de Michael Cimino (1980)
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Back to Haskell Wexler
Starting in the mid-1970s, Haskell Wexler returned to working as a director of photography under different directors, but not without a number of interpersonal problems with the directors. He began but then had to stop work on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in 1974 and also had to stop work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Milos Forman the following year. In both cases, his work was taken up by Bill Butler. But he won his second Oscar in 1976 with Bound for Glory by Hal Ashby, a film based on the life of folk singer and guitarist Woody Guthrie that was filmed in a retro style with lots of flashing and filters (Fog filters, Mitchell and Scheibe diffusers, tulles and low browns…).

"En route pour la gloire", d’Hal Ashby (1976)
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"En route pour la gloire"

In Cinquante ans de cinéma américain, Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon severely judge Wexler’s work on this film : “The film is a failure mostly because of Haskell Wexler’s cinematography, which is admirably perfectionist, audacious, and brilliant, but which always seems to go in the opposite direction from the staging and the subject of the movie.” The film nonetheless is remembered as the first ever use of a Steadicam® (with Garrett Brown) in a master shot in which the camera descends from a platform to follow David Carradine walking through a refugee camp.

Garrett Brown et Haskell Wexler sur le tournage d’un film publicitaire, en 1974
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Wexler was then contacted by Nestor Almendros to take over from him on the last three weeks of filming of Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick. "He filmed all of the scenes that took place in the city, following Bill’s (Richard Gere) death, and a few isolated shots of scenes that I could not finish. He also did the snow shots, "wrote Nestor Almendros in A Man with a Camera).
The rest of his career was characterized by his loyalty to Hal Ashby (Back, in1977 for example), a couple of documentaries, and especially over ten years of commercials and music videos produced by the production company he founded with Conrad Hall (Wexler-Hall, Inc.). In 1985, he directed Latino (he entrusted the camera work to Newton Thomas Sigel, ASC), a fiction that engaged with his political commitments by addressing the US intervention in Nicaragua, in which the Reagan administration armed and supported the "contras" in their fight against the Sandinista government. "I’m sure that some consider me to be a radical," he said at the time, "it’s just that I take democracy very seriously. I do not think that someone is anti-American just because he gives people something to think about."

He returned to cinematography and feature-length films in 1987 with John Sayles (Matewan, about a miners’ revolt in 1920) and Dennis Hopper (Colors, about the rivalry between two police officers in their fight against the gangs of Los Angeles). Wexler continued, to varying degrees, his sometimes immoderate taste for density in the image, a tendency which is found in Blaze (Ron Shelton, 1989) and The Secret of Roan Inish (John Sayles, 1993).
In 1997, following the accidental death of an assistant cameraman (returning home after 19 hours of filming), Haskell Wexler’s activist spirit was awoken and he began work on a documentary, Who Needs Sleep ? (released in 2005), in which he collected many first-hand accounts across the globe from workers and scientists in order to demonstrate the necessity of alternating between periods of work and periods of rest (summarized by the slogan “12 On/12 Off”. (see the documentary))

Willy Kurant et Haskell Wexler à La fémis, à Paris en 2004
Photo Marc Salomon

Back to Vilmos Zsigmond
Although Brian de Palma continued to work with Vilmos Zsigmond occasionally throughout the 1980s and 1990s (The Bonfire of the Vanities ;The Black Dahlia), his career moved on to other directors, but at the margins of the younger generation, as he maintained his high standards and level of technical mastery : The Witches of Eastwick (George Miller, 1986), Fat Man and Little Boy (Roland Joffé, 1989), Maverick (Richard Donner, 1993), and Assassins (R. Donner, 1995).
The Bonfire of the Vanities radically turns its back on Zsigmond’s usual palette with its sharp images, its hyper-realistic images, and its acrylic colours. Fat Man and Little Boy, on the other hand, revives the techniques of flashing, the aesthetics of dawn and dusk, the contrasting and oblique lighting. Maverick brings viewers to the wide open spaces of Westerns sculpted by striking backlighting.

"Le Dahlia noir", de Brian De Palma (2006)
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Vilmos Zsigmond sur le tournage de "Maverick", en 1994
Photo Andrew Cooper

As virtuoso an accomplishment as it may have been from a technical standpoint, The Black Dahlia, in 2005, seems to be a simple repetition of the “Zsigmond-de Palma touch” by replunging viewers into the world of 1940s film noir (“I always do the lighting as though the film were going to be in black and white,” he said back then), with its share of visible beams of light, shadows projected from venetian blinds, split-field over-the-shoulder shots in a sort of pastiche Warner film that was hybridized with John Alton’s brand of stylization in certain locations. The assembly was combined with a desaturation that brought out the brown and sepia tones in digital postproduction. Zsigmond amazes the viewer, but doesn’t surprise him.

Although in Masters of Light in 1984 he said, “a movie based on dialogues doesn’t interest me. I don’t like to film people sitting in a room talking. The best I can do in that type of situation is create an ambience and light the room in a realist fashion that fits with the story.” Vilmos Zsigmond collaborated with Woody Allen three different times in the 2000s (Melinda and Melinda ; Cassandra’s Dream, and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). On these projects, he found a second wind, with a calmer aesthetic that is nonetheless careful to remain in sync with the storyline. Melinda and Melinda is essentially an indoors film with lots of dialogue and uses the warm tones characteristic of the director’s work.

"Melinda et Melinda", de Woody Allen (2004)
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"Le Rêve de Cassandre", de Woody Allen (2007)
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Cassandra’s Dream, shot in England, is a social chronicle that inexorably turns to tragedy, which allows Zsigmond to show off his painterly mastery of landscapes and inner torments, in which he has always excelled. In 1992, Zsigmond tried his hand at directing, without much success, in The Long Shadow (starring Liv Ullman and Michael York), and entrusted the cinematography to Hungarian director of photography Gábor Szabó.
In 2012, he founded the Global Cinematography Institute along with his colleague Yuri Neyman ASC, which was created in order to train cinematographers in new techniques, ranging from digital cinematography to virtual lighting. (See website)

De g. à d. : László Kovács, György Illés, János Toth et Vilmos Zsigmond, quatre des plus grands chefs opérateurs hongrois
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Vilmos Zsigmond interviewé pour l’émission "Tracks" (Arte, 2015)
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See the video of the interview with Vilmos Zsigmond for “Tracks”, Arte’s show on new musical and cultural trends, which is an encounter with one of cinema’s great gentlemen.

  • In the portfolio below, you will find other DVD stills from the films cited above.

(Translated from French by Alex Raiffe)