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James Wong Howe, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

James Wong Howe knew how little the public understood cinematography – and wasn’t afraid to say so.

In December 1945, as reported in the American Cinematographer, “Stephen Longstreet, a nationally-known novelist, editor, critic and currently a motion picture scenarist, made passing comment that ‘brilliant cameramen are the curse of the business’ in an article appearing in the August issue of the Screen Writers Guild monthly publication The Screen Writer. He generated a quick retort from James Wong Howe, ASC.

Replying with an article published in the October issue of The Screen Writer under the title ‘The Cameraman Talks Back,’ Howe described the important contributions of the director of photography to the overall results of a motion picture production. It’s one of the best explanations of the many responsibilities and achievements of the cinematographer, and makes decidedly interesting reading. As Howe wrote:

‘I agree with the criticism of placing camera gymnastics and an epic of sets over, or in place of, story values. I take issue with the statement that this is the fault of brilliant cameramen, and that “dumb cameramen” are a necessity for good pictures, along with less money, a good script, old standing sets and some lights and shadows. Who makes the lights and shadows which creates emotional tones on the screen? They don’t come on the old sets. The cameraman makes them.

The trouble with many critics and ex-critics is that for all their skillful talk, they don’t understand the techniques of motion pictures. They still criticize movies from the viewpoint of the stage. This results in any number of false appraisals, but the one with which I am concerned here is that this approach leaves out the cameraman entirely. For the stage, there is the audience eye.

For movies, with their wider scope and moving ability, there is the camera eye. If these two were one and the same kind of production, the cameraman’s part would merely be to set his camera up in front of the action as a static recorder, press a button and go fishing. Let the lights and shadows fall as they will, or better still, paint them on some old sets. The director, the actors, the writers, the producers, the bank — and the audience and critic — would object to this, but there you have the recipe for making movies with a dumb or inanimate cameraman.

This critical ignorance affects the cameraman in still another way. When the photography of a picture is good, the critic usually praises the director for his understanding and handling of the camera. It is true that a good film director knows and makes use of this knowledge, but the good cameraman is not merely a mechanic to carry out his orders.

His contribution may be technically expert and artistically creative. His understanding of the dramatic values of the story will carry over into his creation of mood. His manipulation of lights for such effects requires both technical and skillful imagination. His handling of the camera on certain action produced by the writer and interpreted by the director may well contain some added dramatic value of its own, which enhances and further interprets.

A scene from Hud (1963), photographed by James Wong Howe – masterful work in black and white.

Camera gymnastics and strange angles are not what I would call the stock of a “brilliant cameraman.” A man of limitations, director or cameraman, may use these mechanics to cover his thinness of understanding. Some of the most well-known writers possess technical skill and slickness and very little else. A limited writer can do far more harm, or lack of good, than a limited cameraman, because of the power of word and thought. I believe that the best cameraman is one who recognizes the source, the story, as the basis of his work.

Under the best conditions, the writer, the director and the cameraman would work closely together throughout the production. In spite of the present setup, a measure of cooperation is achieved, especially between the director and cameraman. Writers have often consulted me on how to get over certain scenes with lighting and the use of lenses.

Sometimes, as now, I am tempted to detail some of the work of a cameraman in an effort toward further cooperation. By its varied parts, he faces a job of integration on his own. Throughout the picture, there is that shared responsibility of keeping to the schedule; this, with all its other implications, means the executive ability to keep the set moving. He has a general responsibility to fuse the work of all the technical departments under his direction in order to achieve the equality of the story.

He is concerned with the makeup and the costume coloring. He works with the art director to see that the sets are properly painted to bring out their best values photographically. (I refer here to black-and-white, as well as color film.) For the same reason, he confers with the set director as to the colors of furniture, drapes, rugs.

The cameraman alone is responsible for the lighting, which is a part of photography but often referred to separately.

John Frankenheimer, James Wong Howe, and star Rock Hudson on the set of Seconds (1966).

Naturally, the cameraman studies the script. His main responsibility is to photograph the actors, action and background, by means of the moving camera, composition, and lighting — expressing the story in terms of the camera. I believe in a minimum of camera movement and angles that do not violate sense but contribute intrinsically to the dramatic effect desired.

“Unseen” photography does not at all mean pedestrian photography; in its own terms it should express emotion, and that emotion, according to the story, may be light, somber, sinister, dramatic, tragic, quiet. Within this frame there may be “terrific shots,” but there should be none outside it for mere effect. Photography must be integrated with the story.

The cameraman confers with the director on: (a) the composition of shots for action, since some scenes require definite composition for their best dramatic effect, while others require the utmost fluidity, or freedom from any strict definition or stylization; (b) atmosphere; (c) the dramatic mood of the story, which they plan together from beginning to end; (d) the action of the piece.

Because of the mechanics of the camera and the optical illusions created by the lenses, the cameraman may suggest changes of action which will better attain the effect desired by the director. Many times, a director is confronted with specific problems of accomplishing action. The cameraman may propose use of the camera unknown to the director which will achieve the same realism . . .

These things may amount to no more than ingenuity and a technical trick, but they carry over into the dramatic quality of a scene. There are many studio workers behind the scenes whose contributions toward the excellence of a motion picture never receive the credit, because outsiders have no way of discovering where one leaves off and another begins.’”

Read more in my new book Black & White Cinema: A Short History, out September 17th 2015 from Rutgers University Press.

John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966)

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Rock Hudson seldom got to play roles of substance; he was stuck with the “pretty boy” leading man image all his life. John Frankenheimer’s brilliant and sadly forgotten film, Seconds (1966) offered him a chance to do something more than his usual action film, or romantic comedy. Seconds — as in “I’ll have seconds, please,” or the “seconds” of one’s life, or a “second chance” — is about an aging man, Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph), who is suddenly offered the chance to live his life over again, in a new body, and to disappear from his desperate and mundane suburban existence. All he has to do is to sign over everything he owns, and he’ll wake up with a new identity, thirty years or so younger, and a whole new lease on life. Or so he thinks.

Tricked into signing over all his worldly possessions and agreeing to the Faustian bargain only under duress — the company that will do the makeover drugs him, then stages his participation in a faked pornographic film, so that it’s impossible for him to change his mind — Hamilton wakes up after the surgery as Rock Hudson, and is given a new identity as a beach bum artist, but as he soon discovers, nothing comes without a price — in this case, one that will obliterate him – in either persona – entirely. Unremittingly bleak and downbeat, the film was, not surprisingly, a financial failure at the boxoffice, but Seconds is nevertheless a film that speaks directly to the cult of eternal youth that is being pushed relentlessly in the media today, and remains one of Frankenheimer’s most resonant, and successful films.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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