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Diamond Shadows: 5 Photographers That Changed the Image of Cinema


This list includes the grand masters of that sublime art of capturing movement.

Cinematography is a term composed of two words of Greek origin, kinema (movement) and graphein (register). And this sums up what a director of photography does in cinema: record movement. Here are five exceptional examples:

Eduard Tisse (Latvia 1897 – Russia 1961)


Known above all for being the cinematographer of much of Sergei Eisenstein’s work, the master of Soviet montage, his style was characterized by dizzying angles that transmit a sensation of greatness, make close-ups sublime windows and find the underlying hieratic in almost any corner. Tisse left a testament of how to look at ordinary objects and turn them into something great and make the shape of movements abstract; of how the camera is much more than a recording instrument and can become a producer of a perspective that is even spiritual. In his masterwork, ¡Qué Viva México! (1931), which was sadly unfinished, the women of Tehuantepec become goddesses with hellish, strange mascots in the form of iguanas; pyramids are infinite ribs and other fantasy textures. None of this is captured by Tisse’s lens but is projected onto the consciousness of the viewer.

Fritz Arno Wagner (Germany, 1889 – 1958)


He defined some of the sacred, almost ritualistic, characteristics that would become film noir, contributing more than anybody else to the essential elements of German expressionism. A builder of almost living shadows that are vital to the plot, in ambiences of contrasts between the darkness that chases the light (and vice versa), this German established dissolution as the end of eternity on silver nitrate, staircases as diagonals that communicate worlds of shadow, over exposure in the darkness to represent props – such as the possession of Mina, in the chilling Nosferatu (Murnau, 1922). Arno Wagner collaborated in what could have been the first film about a serial killer and which would catapult Peter Lorre to fame, (Fritz Lang, 1931).

Robert Burks (USA, 1909 – 1968)


The exaggerated use of color in the films that Burks photographed for Alfred Hitchcock in the second half of his career, of an unreal aspect, has to do with the techniques of developing and printing of the time, but also with his way of portraying cinematographic reality with a personal style. Although it could appear that being the photographer of choice of the master of suspense would result in being simply and plainly subordinated, it is enough to just see Psycho (1960), one of the films that Burks did not photograph, to comprehend his immense value as a director of photography; Hitchcock’s films end up being by Burks. He matured alongside the master, and visually, his last films were dreams made up of impeccably edited scenes, of what takes place outside of the character’s head and what takes place inside, creating perfect sequences in their lines, execution, rhythm, frame and lighting; the light is one more character that brings reality to what is happening in front of the camera in a psychological and slightly unreal way.

Sacha Vierny (France, 1919 – 2001)


A poet that, choosing the images with which to express himself, allowed various already sophisticated directors to elevate their virtuoso scenes into living verse. Directors such as Alain Resnais, Luis Buñuel, Raúl Ruíz, Andrezei Zulawski and Peter Greenaway transcended their narratives through Vierny’s lens. In black and white it is enough to see a film such as Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, 1961) to appreciate the quality of the door into the unconscious that cinema can be. Belle du Jour (Buñuel, 1967) continues to work the premise of exploring the character’s interior, but supported by color photography manages to enter into the blonde subconscious forests of Catherine Deneuve. What would the mental labyrinths of Raúl Ruíz be without Vierny’s camera? Especially the violent monochrome of Three Crowns of the Sailor (Ruiz, 1983), which remains the infrared of the behind-the-scenes of adventure films of the beginning of the 20th century; and the angular lens that wants to see everything brings a quality to the images of a gate to a boundless death. The films of Zulawski are frenetic but curiously none as much as La Femme Publique (1984), shot by Vierny, the scenes of which not only never pause for breath but even the lighting participates in this restless dynamic.

Gregg Toland (USA, 1904-1948)


Just taking into account Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941) would be enough to discuss his direct influence on various cinematographic styles. Although the film depends a great deal on the way in which it was shot from the script, if the force comes from the point of view of a flashback as a way of articulating the investigation, the photography of Toland makes this intricate world that Welles imagined possible on paper; Toland’s visual proposition ends up being the benchmark that builds this labyrinthine film. But it is worth noting that Toland’s greatest contribution is his more humble style in the film he shot for the already very experienced John Ford, who adapted Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1940).

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