Vilmos Zsigmond, one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, died on New Year’s Day at the age of 85. Ironically, his death came less than a week after the death of Haskell Wexler, another great cinematographer of the 1970s. (Check out the memorable Budapest episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown” which focused on Zsigmond and his 1956 escape after the Soviet invasion with canisters of film under his arm.)
Credit for good films is usually given to the director and then to the actors. Yet Zsigmond’s stamp on Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” and “Heaven’s Gate,” on Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” for which he won his only Academy Award, on Brian De Palma’s “Obsession” and “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and, most clearly on Robert Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” is unmistakable.
Asked what makes good cinema by Filmmaker magazine two years ago when he was honored by the Cannes Film Festival with an “Excellence in Cinematography” award, Zsigmond answered “good images.” But it never was simple to create those good images. When Altman gave the young Hungarian exile his first major job on “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in 1971, he set Zsigmond the task of “creating the archaic feel of an old photograph left for too many years in somebody’s attic album” (which is the way I described in the New York Times what was happening on the set of “McCabe”in 1971). The fading look of a yellowed and aging newspaper was Altman’s vision, but Zsigmond was the instrument that made his vision into reality.
Zsigmond was 26 years old when he escaped from Hungary after Russia invaded his country in 1956; and he took with him footage of the invasion that he and his film school friend Laszlo Kovacs had surreptitiously filmed. In Hollywood he worked as a lab technician and still photographer, moving to cheap grade C movies in 1963. It was Altman who pulled him out.
Zsigmond was a master of simple lighting and natural light, and he was rewarded with three other Oscar nominations, for “The Deer Hunter, “The River,” and Brian De Palma’s “The Black Dahlia.”
“Creating the mood is more important than making everything look beautiful,” he said in a 2009 documentary.
Working until he was over 80 years old, Zsigmond did television and several films with Woody Allen. In that Filmmaker interview, he looked back. Cinematography is less of an art today, he said. “The only thing that people see as art now is the visual effects movie.
Asked by the magazine, “If art is lessening and you feel like you haven’t done good work since your work with De Palma, why do you continue to shoot films?” Zsigmond had a simple answer.
“Because I love photography. I love to shoot stills. I love to shoot movies.”