As much as Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino, Steven Spielberg and Robert Altman helped to challenge the studio system and bring about the rise of New Hollywood cinema in the 1970s, their work would be nothing without the extraordinary visual eye of Vilmos Zsigmond. The cinematographer, known as the “Master of Light,” passed away New Year’s Day at the age of 85, leaving behind a vast collection of impressive 35mm photography in some of the most iconic films ever made. In an era in which the director became the authorial cinematic voice, Zsigmond’s work was a constant reminder of the vitality of the DP.
With tributes and retrospectives pouring in from around the Internet celebrating the late Zsigmond, we thought we’d honor his legendary career in the most appropriate way possible: By letting his images do all the work. Below are 9 essential shots from Zsigmond’s portfolio, all of which show his expertise for lighting and blocking and that prove there will never be another cinematographer like him.
“The Deer Hunter” (1978)
This stunning establishing shot from Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” is about as potent and introspective as visual metaphors get. Torn apart by the horrors of the Vietnam War, Robert De Niro’s Michael “Mike” Vronsky is a walking shattered soul, split between his tormented self and the ghost of his past.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
Zsigmond’s work on Spielberg’s extraterrestrial drama alone made him worthy of his “Master of Light” moniker. Adding to the aliens’ ambiguity, Zsigmond found a way to light their presence in numerous scenes as to make their intensions unclear. Are they saviors or destroyers? Aliens or angels? Are they bringing promise or hellish destruction? No wonder the film is so intensely involving.
The terrifying final moment of “Deliverance” acts as a clinching metaphor for the film’s anti-war sentiments. A serene lake interrupted by a dead man’s floating hand is the nightmare that rattles Jon Voight’s Ed Gentry, forever crippled by the horrors of the past.
“Blow Out” (1981)
Climaxes don’t get more gorgeous than this one. As John Travolta’s Jack Terry races through Philadelphia’s Liberty Parade in order to save an escort (Nancy Allen) from the hands of an assassin, fireworks begin exploding in the sky as Zsigmond captures these blasts of color on their faces like bombs in a hectic war zone. Only when Terry holds Sally’s lifeless body in his arms does the camera spin to reveal the actual display exploding in the sky —it’s a moment of pure visual and emotional opera.
“The Long Goodbye” (1973)
No shot encapsulates Elliott Gould’s Philip Marlowe better than this one. The trees form a monotonous tunnel that keeps extending, leaving Marlowe to endlessly wander forward as the distance stretches on into the abyss.
“Heaven’s Gate” (1980)
Love the film or hate the film, there’s no denying the jaw-dropping scope of Zsigmond’s cinematography in Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate.” Shots like these capture the rural setting in all its widescreen glory, creating an ambitiously epic vista on which the film’s central conflict plays out.
“The Crossing Guard” (1995)
Zsigmond’s work in Sean Penn’s second feature film marks some of his most intimate cinematography, eshewing his preference for widescreen photography in favor of meticulously blocked close-ups and establishing shots that visualize the disorienting torment in Jack Nicholson’s Freddy Gale. No shot speaks better to this skill than this one.
For a story centered around a New Orleans businessman who falls madly in love with a look-alike of his deceased wife (think “Vertigo”), few shots evoke the ambiguous power play in the movie between life and death like this deep focus mesmerizer.
“McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971)
There are countless reasons many consider Zsigmond’s work on Robert Altman’s anti-Western to be his greatest achievement, starting with the use of natural lighting, which brings a warm intimacy to candle-lit interiors and, as it does here, an icy chill to snowy exteriors.
READ MORE: Watch: 70-Minute Masterclass With Legendary Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond