Pierre Lhomme, from Sidney Bechet to the "Light of God"

La Lettre AFC n°300

[English] [français]

Pierre Lhomme’s career has traversed nearly fifty years of French cinema, displaying the same ease and rigorousness with directors such as Alain Cavalier, Chris Marker, Jean Eustache, James Ivory, Joris Ivens, René Féret, Jean-Pierre Melville, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Margurite Duras, Patrice Chéreau, Robert Bresson, Bruno Nuytten, and others. These richly-diverse collaborations were all nourished by an attentive and uninterrupted observation of natural lighting in all of its forms : “I train my eye everywhere, in the street, in the cinema. I am very curious about gazes, ambiences, climates. Reality is a prodigious source of inspiration.” (P.L.)

With his singular trajectory that emerged between the “classics” (with whom he started his training) and the Nouvelle Vague, Pierre Lhomme was able to reconcile the rigorousness of a staged and pre-planned image (“my tastes are rather classical and rigorous”) with the style of the times (the 1960s) for a more realistic and less polished approach to cinematography.

A few cinematographer’s obsessions did mark his path and ended up, perhaps not in forging a style, but at least revealing a continuity and a coherency in his gaze : a distinct taste for dawn and dusk and night-time ambiences, as well as attentive care given to faces, the respect of skin tone and texture. We know that Jean-Pierre Melville hired him on The Army of Shadows because he liked the quality of the skin tones in La Chamade (Alain Cavalier, 1968). Here, we can identify the two poles of a style that he would decant and refine from film to film and whose apex was in Cyrano de Bergerac, by Jean-Paul Rappeneau, in 1989.

Born on 5 April 1930, Pierre Lhomme spent the war years going from town to town, attending eleven high schools between 1939 and 1944 ! At the end of the Second World War, he realized he was passionate about jazz, and was a regular at “Le Lorientais,” a club in the Latin Quarter where many American jazzmen were playing, such as Errol Garner, Earl Hines, Duke Ellington and Coleman Hawkins, as well as French clarinetist Claude Luter. His admiration for the great clarinetists such as Jimmie Noone, Johnny Dodds and Sidney Bechet, made him turn towards that instrument with the goal of pursuing a career in jazz. As a regular at the “Lorientais,” he was recruited as an extra for a scene in Rendez-vous de juillet, by Jacques Becker, in 1949, shot in the Studio Francœur.

He received a scholarship and stayed in the United States in 1949-50, where he became friends with painter and lithographer Robert Kipniss, with whom he created and ran a cine-club while continuing to frequent jazz milieus. But, aware of his limited skill in this area, he sold his clarinet to Sidney Bechet and returned to France to try to become a part of the cinema world by enrolling in the school of the Rue Vaugirard in the same class as Philippe de Broca, Jean-César Chiabaut, Yann Le Masson and Charles Bitsch in 1951-53. During the first year there, he did an internship on Guy Lefranc’s film Knock, cinematography by Claude Renoir, who he had barely paid any attention to two years earlier on Jacques Becker’s film.

Exercice de tournage à l’école de Vaugirard : Roland Delcourt et Charles Bitsch (debout en arrière-plan), Yann Le Masson (accroupi), Pierre Lhomme (assistant caméra) et Jean Lavie (cadreur)
Exercice de tournage à l’école de Vaugirard : Roland Delcourt et Charles Bitsch (debout en arrière-plan), Yann Le Masson (accroupi), Pierre Lhomme (assistant caméra) et Jean Lavie (cadreur)
Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme


Yann Le Masson, Charles Bitsch, Jean-César Chiabaut et Pierre Lhomme en 2011
Yann Le Masson, Charles Bitsch, Jean-César Chiabaut et Pierre Lhomme en 2011
Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

Then it was military service at the SCA (Army Cinema Service) in Baden-Baden in Germany, from 1953 to 1955, where he worked with his classmates from Vaugirard and Alain Cavalier, Jean-Paul Rappeneau and Jean-Claude Brialy. He shot newsreels and short films, such as Le 40 Bofors (directed by A. Cavalier) on an anti-aircraft cannon, and comedies with Jean-Claude Brialy, such as Chiffonnard et Bonaloy.

Tournage de “Chiffonnard et Bonaloy”, en 1954, avec Pierre Lhomme, à la caméra, et Jean-Claude Brialy, à droite
Tournage de “Chiffonnard et Bonaloy”, en 1954, avec Pierre Lhomme, à la caméra, et Jean-Claude Brialy, à droite
Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

Pierre Lhomme obtained the authorization to shoot a documentary intitled Paris mon copain in Paris in 1954, co-directed with Charles Bitsch. A young critic from the Cahiers du Cinéma, François Truffaut, visited their shoot.

Pierre Lhomme tourne “Paris mon copain”, en 1954, sous le regard de Robert Lachenay, Charles Bitsch et François Truffaut
Pierre Lhomme tourne “Paris mon copain”, en 1954, sous le regard de Robert Lachenay, Charles Bitsch et François Truffaut
Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

From 1955 to 1958, Pierre Lhomme worked as an assistant cameraman for Michel Kelber (Sophie et le crime, by Pierre Gaspard-Huit), Henri Alekan (Casino de Paris, by André Hunebelle, 1957, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, by Jean Meyer, and Le Cerf-volant du bout du monde, by Roger PIgaut, in 1958), and Ghislain Cloquet (Les Naufrageurs, by Charles Brabant, in 1958).

Tournage du “Cerf volant du bout du monde" avec Pierre Lhomme, assistant opérateur, accroupi au centre
Tournage du “Cerf volant du bout du monde" avec Pierre Lhomme, assistant opérateur, accroupi au centre
Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

In 1958, he shot Alain Cavalier’s first short film, Un Américain, which he felt was his first important project : “We’d forged our first arms during our years with the SCA and we felt we were true collaborators. Gradually, Alain told me what he wanted from this film : realistic ambiences and simplicity in the images ; we were looking for an authentic lighting environment where any trace of a spotlight should be excluded, no incongruous shadows, no systematic backlighting. […] In the 1950s, French cinema seemed too academic to us. There was a visual code that was shocking to us. We didn’t want to make “cinema of the cinema”. The stylization of the image in studio, be it poetic or theatrical, really bothered us.”*

Between 1958 and 1961, Pierre Lhomme was behind the camera alongside Nicolas Hayer (Le Signe du Lion, by Eric Rohmer, a film about which he would later say : “I learnt a lot from that film, I learned how to use a camera…That film was when I discovered how to frame an image.”), Jean Penzer (Les Jeux de l’amour and Le Farceur, by Philippe de Broca), and Ghislain Cloquet (Les Honneurs de la guerre, by Jean Dewever, La Belle américaine by Robert Dhéry, and Un nommé La Rocca, by Jean Becker).

Except for Ghislain Cloquet, who was his mentor and friend (his “older brother”), Pierre Lhomme always said that his meetings with certain directors were more influential than the influence of any given cinematographer whose work he might admire. In 1961, he began shooting the feature-length fiction (Le Combat dans l’île) before exploring the new possibilities of what was then called “direct cinema” with Chris Marker (Le Joli mai), which was made possible by the arrival of lightweight cameras and synchronous sound. He would continue to bear the mark of both approaches, fiction and documentary.

Tournage du “Joli mai” avec Antoine Bonfanti (ingénieur du son) et Pierre Lhomme, à droite, prototype caméra KMT et zoom Pan Cinor avec viseur côté droit
Tournage du “Joli mai” avec Antoine Bonfanti (ingénieur du son) et Pierre Lhomme, à droite, prototype caméra KMT et zoom Pan Cinor avec viseur côté droit
Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

While Le Joli mai still evinces today the obvious jubilation of a liberated camera that observes and listens, Le Combat dans l’île and La Vie de château are, at this early date, already revelatory of the mastery of the rigorously composed and structured lighting of the black-and-white image. The faces in particular (Romy Schneider, Catherine Deneuve) show a classical influence (a key light, a back light, a fill light, and sometimes also a side light to highlight a contour), which Pierre Lhomme will later abandon in favour of sculpted forms and softness.

Romy Schneider, dans “Le Combat dans l’île”, et Catherine Deneuve, dans “La Vie de château"
Romy Schneider, dans “Le Combat dans l’île”, et Catherine Deneuve, dans “La Vie de château"
Photogrammes - Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme


Isabelle Adjani et Isabelle Huppert
Isabelle Adjani et Isabelle Huppert
Tests photos par Pierre Lhomme - Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

With The Army of Shadows, Pierre Lhomme took a decisive step, and felt he had definitively earned his promotion to the rank of cinematographer to a master director (J.-P. Melville) who did not belong to his generation. A sort of manifesto film (“the loveliest dusk scenes in French cinema,” Benoît Jacquot would later say) profoundly anchored in a dusky climate, with cool dominant colours which lean towards cyan-blue, a tone that he loved and which is present in most of his films, and which also has the advantage of perfectly suiting the differentiated rendering of skin tones : “If there are four people side-by-side, each one has a different skin. If you go too much towards warm colours or if you light with coloured lights, you’ll find they all have the same skin, like in a Woody Allen movie”.

“Quatre nuits d’un rêveur”, de Robert Bresson (1970)
“Quatre nuits d’un rêveur”, de Robert Bresson (1970)
Photogramme avec lily - Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

With Robert Bresson on Quatre nuits d’un rêveur, in 1970, Pierre Lhomme most fully attained a pared-down image – certainly also due to budgetary constraints – and began a decisive turn towards an increasingly-subtle use of “natural” lighting, captured or recreated in its infinite variety of nuances, without ever losing sight of the need to stick to the subject. He would later say, “The entire career of a cinematographer is his marriage to natural light. If he does not have that awed regard for natural lighting, a cinematographer loses his footing.”

From then on, he created the touchy black-and-white of La Maman et la putain, the sun-gorged colours of Le Sauvage, the pale, even deathly, lighting and the pale brightness of La Chair de l’orchidée and L’Ombre des châteaux, and the warm and cosy ambiences of Quartet et Maurice, the estheticizing and icy climate of Mortelle randonnée… but throughout, the same attention paid to the lighting remains clear. “I attach great importance to the credibility of the lighting, I think that there are often too many things on the screen, too many effects, and that half of them don’t get noticed and cloud the emotion and the gaze more than anything else. I like when there is a certain amount of obviousness, a certain structure, and I don’t like when there’s a mess on screen : mess means a lot of things to me, coquetries, when an image is overloaded with information, it tends to disappear. The visual relationship between the actors and the set is of capital importance, it’s related to the frame, the directing, the lighting, and we must be very aware of the legibility of an image, and of its purity.”

Tournage de “La Vie de château” : Pierre Lhomme (à gauche), Jean-Paul Rappeneau (derrière la caméra) et la scripte Elisabeth Rappeneau
Tournage de “La Vie de château” : Pierre Lhomme (à gauche), Jean-Paul Rappeneau (derrière la caméra) et la scripte Elisabeth Rappeneau
Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme

Of his very eclectic filmography, particularly memorable is the fidelity of directors such as Alain Cavalier, Jean-Paul Rappeneau, Chris Marker, James Ivory and actress Isabelle Adjani, who he lit five times, and in all of these films, Pierre Lhomme applied himself with a never-failing rigor to create the image of different universes, yet always taking inspiration from natural light, whose richness and mysteries he had fully comprehended, that light that he prettily and modestly called “the light of God.”

Les visages d’Isabelle Adjani dans “Mortelle randonnée”, de Claude Miller (1982)
Les visages d’Isabelle Adjani dans “Mortelle randonnée”, de Claude Miller (1982)
Captures d’images d’après DVD

* Excerpts from unpublished interviews with Pierre Lhomme conducted by Alain Bergala, intended for publication in a book that never saw the light of day.

Pierre Lhomme and the AFC
Almost thirty years ago, on 22 January 1990, a preparatory meeting on a “Principle of collaboration” was held between a group of cinematographers, namely Ricardo Aronovich, Alain Derobe, Bruno de Keyzer, Pierre-William Glenn, Denis Lenoir, Pierre Lhomme, Jacques Loiseleux, and Edmond Richard, founders of an association that would later be named the AFC. Boris Todorovitch, of Agfa, Gérald Fiévet, of Fuji-Fiaji, and Bernard Jubard, of Kodak, were also present at this meeting, and they would later become the first associate members to support the association.
On 15 February of the same year, a constitutive general assembly was held during which the first board of directors of the AFC was elected. On 19 February, the board elected the bureau and Pierre Lhomme was elected first president. He served in this role until 1993, and continued to be elected to the board of directors until 1997. Pierre was honorary president of the AFC starting in 2003, succeeding Henri Alekan, Michel Kelber and Raoul Coutard.
Besides the various activities related to his role as president, he was also a member of the editorial committee of three of the five first Cahiers de l’AFC, from 1990 to 1992, and also participated, alongside twenty other AFC cinematographers, in the drafting of the Charte de l’image, published in 2005.

Some awards, distinctions, and prizes
- Nominated for the César for Best Cinematography for La Chair de l’orchidée and Le Sauvage in 1976, Dites-lui que je l’aime in 1978, Judith Therpauve in 1979, Mortelle randonnée in 1984.
- Promoted to the rank of Officer of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 1984
- César for Best Cinematography for Camille Claudel in 1989,
- Nominated Best European Cinematographer at the European Film Awards for Cyrano de Bergerac in 1990, for which he also won the CST Grand Technical Prize at the 43rd Annual Cannes Film Festival in 1990, the César for Best Cinematography in 1991, the BSC Best Cinematography Award in 1991, and the BAFTA Award in 1992
- Minerve for Best Cinematography for a commercial in 1991
- Nominated for the British Academy Award in 1992,
- Nominated to the rank of Chevalier of the National Order of the Legion of Honour in 1993
- Exposition “Hommage to Cinematographers : Pierre Lhomme” from 11 September to 31 October 2000 at the Bibliothèque du Film
- Gianni di Venanzo Award (Golden Light Meter) for his entire career in 2005
- Kodak Cinema Lesson, dedicated to L’Armée des ombres in 2006
- Lifetime Achievement Award at Camerimage in 2008
- "Cameflex AFC Award", in 2015
- Golden Camera 300 for Lifetime Acheivement at the Manaki Brothers Festival in 2017.

Remise par le président de la République de Macédoine, Gjorgje Ivanov, de la Caméra 300 d’or à Pierre Lhomme
Remise par le président de la République de Macédoine, Gjorgje Ivanov, de la Caméra 300 d’or à Pierre Lhomme
Photo Manaki Brothers - Archives personnelles Pierre Lhomme
  • Read or reread the article on the restoration of Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac
  • Read or reread the interview granted to Denis Lenoir, AFC, ASC, by Pierre Lhomme, about his work on the last scene of Cyrano de Bergerac
  • Read or reread Pierre Lhomme’s tribute to Chris Marker.
  • Watch or rewatch the interviews with Pierre Lhomme taken in 2014 by students of La Fémis, under the supervision of Priska Morrissey and available in full at the Cinémathèque française Médiathèque.
  • Watch or rewatch a discussion with Pierre Lhomme at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse in March 2015.
  • Link to the page of the Cinémathèque française website discussing Pierre Lhomme’s bequest of a large part of his written and photographic archives.

This article was written in its majority by Marc Salomon, a connoisseur of cinematographers’ work and a consulting member of the AFC, and translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe.

The thumbnail image of this article is one of Pierre’s favourite photos (legend in the portfolio below). The AFC thanks Renée Lhomme for allowing us access to Pierre’s personal archives.