“Script girl.” “Best boy.” “Cameraman.” Each of these on-set job descriptions are terribly outdated, but only one of them persists in our collective vocabulary, such an ingrained part of the cinematic lexicon that few people ever think to challenge what it implies. “Script girl” has been rebranded as the more inclusive script supervisor, while “best boy” — a relic from a time when it was automatically assumed that a man would be a master’s most capable apprentice — remains common parlance in the film industry, yet meaningless to the rest of the world.
“Cameraman,” on the other hand, remains the kind of thing that people say without thinking, every utterance of the word helping to reaffirm the gender bias that created it. And so we find ourselves in a world where women comprise only four percent of the American Society of Cinematographers (as of 2015, anyway), and the phrase “female cinematographer” is still a helpful — if understandably frustrating — way of reinforcing how few of them have broken through.
But they have broken through. Moreover, they’ve probably shot some of your favorite movies. Last week, “Mudbound” director of photography Rachel Morrison became the first woman ever nominated for a Best Cinematography Oscar, a well-earned accolade for her extraordinary work on Dee Rees’ Depression-era epic. But Morrison is hardly the first woman deserving of consideration for her field’s greatest honor, and her recognition — while a wonderful and overdue step forward — also reinforced the fact that Hollywood has been looking the other way for far too long.
Here are seven other female cinematographers who should have been nominated for Oscars; they are hardly the only worthy choices, but we call attention to their work in the hopes that nobody feels the need to call them female cinematographers for much longer (and also because their work is awesome).
Ryan Coogler has never shot a movie with a male cinematographer, and — considering his track record — why the hell would he want to start now? Between collaborating with Rachel Morrison on “Fruitvale Station” and “Black Panther,” Coogler teamed up with Maryse Alberti for “Creed,” and he couldn’t have picked a better sparring partner. Alberti was at the top of his list because of the naturalistic physicality she brought to Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” (a movie in which the action is lit to look unromantic but heavy as hell), and she immediately one-upped her previous work by delivering the most visceral and intimate Rocky movie ever.
That being said, Alberti’s story starts a long time before any of that, working as a still photographer on porn sets in the ’80s before producer Christine Vachon snagged her to shoot Todd Haynes’ “Poison” in 1991 (how she hooked up with Raúl Ruiz for “The Golden Boat” the previous year remains something of a mystery). Quickly establishing herself as a maestro of 16mm, Alberti became invaluable to fiction and documentary filmmakers alike, lending her talents to everything from Terry Zwigoff’s “Crumb” to Todd Solondz’s “Happiness.” However, in a career filled with Oscar-worthy camerawork, her greatest accomplishment / biggest snub likely remains 1998’s “Velvet Goldmine,” which was so evocatively shot that it invited the whole world to go back in time and be glam kids for a couple of hours.
One recurring theme in this article: A certain European country was characteristically ahead of the curve when it came to recognizing that great cinematographers come in all shapes and sizes. The first feature that Caroline Champetier ever shot was for the great Jacques Rivette (1981’s “Le Pont du Nord”), and somehow her career has only gotten more impressive from there. A legend of French cinema who has almost exclusively collaborated with legends of French cinema (Téchiné, Godard, and Straub-Huillet, to name just a few), Champetier has reached a new level of international recognition in the last 10 years, with films like “Of Gods and Men” and “Holy Motors” breaking through on the world stage in ways that even her previous work did not. The latter film in particular is a remarkable showcase for her talents, as each of the nine chapters in Leos Carax’s episodic masterpiece rely on a completely different aesthetic. Champetier makes it look easy as she floats between the various modes, finding a common tonality between a Kylie Minogue musical number, a virtual reality sex scene, and a foul-smelling rampage through the sewers of Paris.
Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto” never quite got the attention that it deserved, but her incredible high school drama has proven to be a galvanizing moment for a new generation of performers and below-the-line giants. From actors Nat Wolff and Jack Kilmer to costume designer Courtney Hoffman, so many of the people who were given a chance to shine on that project have gone on to establish themselves as major new talents in the movie business. Nevertheless, none of the film’s breakout stars boasts more potential than cinematographer Autumn Durald, whose soft lighting sewed together a handful of loose-knit stories into a coherent whole that made them all feel that much stronger. Sensitively attuned to the romantic glow of street lamps and the muted agony of teenagers who are trying hard to look cool so nobody sees how invisible they feel, Durald shades “Palo Alto” in our own fuzzy memories of being that age; banal and beautiful all at once, her cinematography takes you back to those nights when the process of growing up made it feel like you would be young forever.
Even if that other guy had never been born, the name “Godard” would still have become synonymous with the cinema. Through her frequent collaborations with the great Claire Denis, Agnès Godard has created some of the most ecstatic images that have ever been projected onto a movie screen. From the spartan ruggedness of “Beau Travail” to the supple intimacy of “35 Shots of Rum,” Godard’s camera has been singularly attuned to the raw potential and resting power of the human body; she manages to see every muscle, lighting Denis’ characters so that all of them look like tangled networks of anxiety and desire. Nobody makes energy feel so palpable.
But it would diminish Godard’s accomplishments to simply tether her to one director and leave it at that. Her work with the likes of Erick Zonka (“The Dreamlife of Angels”) and Ursula Meier (“Home”) is remarkable in a different way, feral or mannered in ways that Denis would never allow. Godard’s contribution to Meier’s “Sister” deserves special attention, as her first digital feature revealed a rare understanding of how the format would affect her craft; rather than just trying to futilely recreate the look of film, Godard built a new aesthetic from the ground up, creating a Haneke-cold fairy tale that kept everything in harsh focus.
There was no greater precedent to Morrison’s Oscar nomination than Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” a pointedly titled 2016 travelogue that the cinematographer culled together from all the footage she’s collected on film shoots over the years. Among many, many other things, the film is an elliptically moving testament to the idea that people need to see the world through a woman’s eyes. Of course, DPs are virtually never recognized for their non-fiction work (another dumb bias to add to the list), but Johnson’s nomadic career is a masterclass in the art of shooting life as it happens. From “Derrida” to “The Oath,” nobody does a better job of seeing drama in the banal details that most people would try to obscure; Edward Snowden has complicated the legacy of Laura Poitras’ “CITIZENFOUR,” but nobody who saw that movie will ever forget the flat white contours of that Hong Kong hotel room, and how each shot was lit to look like an impossibly mundane sequel to “All the President’s Men.”
Maybe the most accomplished cinematographer on this list, the great Ellen Kuras has a resumé that would make Roger Deakins green with envy. She shot a formative work of New Queer Cinema (Tom Kalin’s “Swoon”), worked with indie luminaries like Jim Jarmusch (“Coffee and Cigarettes”), and was behind the camera for both of Spike Lee’s most underrated films (“Summer of Sam” and “Bamboozled”). And then there’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a high-concept abstraction that would never have felt so tactile and real if not for how Kuras’ melancholy shading managed to create a clear emotional foundation for even Michel Gondry’s wonkiest sequences. Kuras could have been nominated for any of those films, but her only recognition from the Academy remains a Best Documentary nod for her 2008 directorial debut, “The Betrayal.” Now mostly devoted to non-fiction, Kuras recently shot both “Jane” and Errol Morris’ “Wormwood.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
Reed Morano may have recently established herself as an exciting director in her own right (“The Handmaid’s Tale” owes so much to how she handled those first three episodes), but she’s still one of the best cinematographers in the game, shooting her own stuff better than anyone else ever could. “I Think We’re Alone Now” isn’t necessarily a standout from this year’s Sundance crop, but it contains some of the most evocative filmmaking you’ll see all year; with just a few evocative shots of a sole figure moving through an empty Hudson Valley town, Morano creates a convincing post-apocalyptic world that feels somber but not entirely sad.
Also, for whatever this is worth, Morano is the only cinematographer alive who’s been endorsed by Beyoncé and LCD Soundsystem. Sure, working on the “Sandcastles” segment of “Lemonade” and earning Beyoncé’s seal of approval probably made the rest of her accomplishments feel small, but Morano had already become a star with “Shut Up and Play the Hits.” Running the show on one of the most immersive and emotional concert docs ever made, she captures every inch of light and iota of love that was bouncing around Madison Square Garden that night; her camera sees the sweetness of living your dreams and the solitude of leaving them behind. James Murphy’s band may have gotten back together, but they’ll never top the emotional clarity of their first goodbye.