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11 Great Female Cinematographers Who Subvert the Male Gaze

IndieWire celebrates the work of Rachel Morrison, Ellen Kuras, and nine other cinematography greats with the help of some of their greatest collaborators and admirers.

“11 Great Female Cinematographers Who Subvert The Male Gaze”

FSLC/New Yorker Films/David Bomba/HBO

This summer, New York is playing home to one of the biggest film events of the season: the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s packed 36-film retrospective featuring the work of 23 women cinematographers. Keying off Rachel Morrison’s first-ever Oscar nomination for a female cinematographer, the series serves the dual purposes of celebrating the incredible work of the pioneering artists who broke into the male-dominated field, as well of re-examining Laura Mulvey’s seminal essay about the male gaze by asking if there is such a thing as the “The Female Gaze?”

In the spirit of the series, IndieWire, with the help of some of our subjects’ closest collaborators and fiercest admirers, took a deeper look at 11 of the DPs featured in the series to discover what makes their work so great.

Maryse Alberti

Maryse Alberti and Ryan Coogler on the set of "Creed"

Maryse Alberti and Ryan Coogler on the set of “Creed”

Barry Wetcher

Key Films: “The Golden Boat,” “Poison,” “Crumb,” “Happiness,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “The Wrestler,” “Creed,” “Chappaquiddick.”

When someone cites Alberti’s documentary experience to describe her cinematography as “naturalistic” one wonders if that person noticed the four minute visceral take from inside the ring in “Creed,” or has seen the David Bowie-meets-Oscar Wilde dream world of “Velvet Goldmine.” Even when Alberti is given a pseudo-doc assignment like “The Wrestler,” her work is impossibly textured and effortlessly evocative. Non-fiction or dreamscape, what unites her work is how organic it is to the cinematic world she is helping create. Realism with style, beauty without adornment, one of the most talented, but invisible, cinematographers we’ve ever had.

Christine Vachon (producer of “Poison,” “Happiness,” “Velvet Goldmine”): Maryse always has had a great eye, but most people who shoot for a living tend to have great eyes and a great sense of light and color, but she also just had such a way on set that put the actors at ease. It’s hard to describe because it’s an extra layer that great DPs bring, but I believe it truly makes the work better.

By the time she shot “Velvet Goldmine,” Todd (Haynes) was just very comfortable with her and it didn’t occur to us that anyone else would shoot the movie. It was tough. In those days female DPs were very few and far between, the crews were almost exclusively male, and I think in New York we started to make some strides – there were a few women starting to be gaffers and camera assistants – but in the U.K. where we shot “Velvet Goldmine” absolutely not, it was very old school. She had to jump into that without her usual crew and really face a tremendous amount of guarded hostility and distrust, and she really rose to the occasion and shot an extraordinary-looking film. Maryse is an incredible talent and I’m proud to have been involved in the beginning of her career. Her tremendous visual skills, along with her ease and charm helps directors and those around her do their best work.

Natasha Braier

Natasha Braier & Nicolas Winding Refn

Natasha Braier and Nicolas Winding Refn

Amazon Studios

Key Films: “The Milk of Sorrow,” “The Rover,” “The Neon Demon.”

One of the most inventive DPs working today, Braier is the cinematography equivalent of a high-powered engine that can travel smoothly at any speed, but is more than prepared to open up and let it fly. With “Neon Demon” Braier did exactly that, creating a colorful nightmare from the allure of fashion magazine beauty. Watching the film again, and taking into consideration its $5 million budget, you see how much of the transformation of Los Angeles into a beautiful hellscape is simply the product of Braier transforming locations with light and color. In earlier films, like “Milk of Sorrow” or David Michôd’s apocalyptic “The Rover,” Braier created very different looks rooted in very different landscapes, each though laced with a dreamy atmosphere. With upcoming films by Sebastián Lelio (“Gloria”) and Alma Har’el (“Honey Boy”), it will be exciting to Braier explore the unique worlds of different auteurs.

In meantime, the cinematographer’s career is filled with amazing short material – music videos, commercials, and shorts – that’s well worth watching. For example, she shows a different side of her chops with her black and white photography in the Natalie Portman-starring James Blake music video “My Willing Heart” (directed by Anna Rose Holmer) and Lynne Ramsay’s fantastic short “Swimmer.”

Alma Har’el: A month ago I finished shooting my first scripted film with Natasha Braier. On the last day of our shoot she wore a T-shirt that read “I’m in the Vortex.” The Vortex, in this case, was not a whirling battle of time but the black boxed monitor by which she orchestrates her creation frame by frame. It was one of the many things that Natasha does differently than any other DPs I worked with and second only to the famous “Chorizo” – her invention that has to be seen to be believed – and her mysterious powders that are flown-in from all around the world. Natasha is not only a true artist who understands light and cinema like others understand bread and water, she is a mad scientist who can transform every image into something only she can imagine.

Nicolas Winding Refn (director, “Neon Demon”): We had shot a number of commercials together and I really admired her ability. She’s brilliant, a fireball of activity and emotion that brings a real creative energy. Doing a movie where women are the focus, I [found] it very interesting to be working with Natasha because there’s all this talk about the female versus the male gaze. I’ll let other people be the judge of that. I think that our combination, her and I, the yin and the yang was one of the greatest collaborations I’ve ever had. It was a very intense experience.

I had this idea that what would be titillating would be also repulsive. If you seduce with what you show you can [build] in all the horrors and the reaction that you can’t stop looking. That’s a great head space to be in both as a creative but also as a viewer. It’s intellectually a fascinating concept, it’s a different thing to execute and you realize how much of that is done with her lighting, the use of color and even just the way she made the actresses appear on screen. It’s a remarkable piece of cinematography.

Ashley Connor

Ashley Conner

Ashley Conner

courtesy of Ashley Conner

Key Films: “Butter on the Latch,” “Thou Wast Mild and Lovely,” “Tramps,” “Madeline’s Madeline,” “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”

You might not recognize Connor’s name, or body of work, in comparison to the other 22 luminaries in the “Female Gaze” series, but give it a week, literally. In 2016-17, Connor shot a whole slate of indie films that are just starting to trickle out, including the film that won Sundance (“The Miseducation of Cameron Post”) and arguably the best reviewed film to come out of Sundance (“Madeline’s Madeline”), both of which are hitting theaters in early August and are prime examples of why she is the most exciting new DP to emerge from low-budget filmmaking.

When Connor finished film school, she was equally drawn to cinematography and experimental film. She choose the former because it meant employment, but in her fortuitous pairing with director Josephine Decker she was able to employee both her passions. While Decker explored her unique process of improvising and finding the story with her cast, Connor would find ways to mirror the characters’ psychology with the medium itself. Obscured images, where objects would come in and out focus, Connor finds bold frames that simultaneously narrowed our perspective while finding a layer of mystery and dreaminess in Decker’s unorthodox approach to storytelling.

On more traditional narrative projects, Connor has proven adept at squeezing the most out of light, color and texture from locations that adds a layer of expressiveness to the naturalism of the indie films, while demonstrating how easily she can sink into the vision of different directors. On “Cameron Post,” her instincts for capturing expressive bodies in motion elicits the rotating emotions of repression, freedom, and awkwardness in the teenagers at a gay conversion therapy center, while juxtaposing the drabness of the institution to the moments of intimacy, nature and escape.

Josephine Decker: In a weird way my process emerged from working with Ashley because we were making films before I knew how to make films. “Butter on the Latch” was shot on a [Canon] 5D and it was literally her, me, and a sound guy. I was producing, directing, costume designing, running around the woods being the PA and all the writing was improvised, so Ashley really determined so much about the look of that film. There’s a thing that emerges when you look through a camera and it’s more than what’s there. That’s what she gives to her images.  She has an experimental film background and she’s really versed in how to make images move beyond being a picture of what the story is and it becomes a mystery that the audience is solving with her and the characters.

Crystel Fournier

“Girlhood”

Key Films: “Water Lilies,” “Tomboy,” “Girlhood,” “Paris Can Wait,” “Nico, 1988.”

In her three films with director Céline Sciamma, Fournier has shown a talented eye with an empathetic heart. May it be the confusion of a gender non-conforming preteen in “Tomboy,” or the strong-willed young African-French women unable to escape the violence and misogyny of their poor Paris suburb in “Girlhood,” Fournier’s camera captures a harsh reality naturally, but also adds a subtle glow mirroring the inner beauty and strength of her characters. In the incredible blue-lit hotel scene set to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in “Girlhood,” along with her early work in “Water Lilies” and new film “Nico, 1988,” it’s clear Fournier is more than capable of dialing-up the expressiveness of more stylized lighting when called for.

Susanna Nicchiarelli (director “Nico, 1988”): The collaboration with Crystel was crucial for the film. She was so helpful in making me understand what I was looking for, enthusiastic and brave in every choice, especially the ones we couldn’t turn back from (like the 4:3 format, or the choice of shooting in a lower quality than normal). On a film, having a “vision” and being consistent with it for the entire shooting, through production difficulties and unexpected obstacles, is never easy. You need strong, intelligent, and talented people around you. Crystel was one of them.

Agnès Godard

“Beau travail”

Key Films: “Jacquot de Nantes,” “The Dreamlife of Angels,” “Beau travail,” “Trouble Every Day,”  “The Intruder,” “35 Shots of Rum,” “Bastards,” “Let the Sunshine In.”

The line between where the work of Agnes Godard begins and director Claire Denis’ ends is impossibly blurry, as the two long-time collaborators work has meshed to become one of the most singular visual voices in modern cinema. Godard started in the camera department in Denis’ films, before graduating to cinematographer in the mid-1990s. It’s at this point Denis’ images find their directness – a hypnotic beauty and movement grounded in character and story. Often Godard’s camera doesn’t find a tripod, as she moves in an unique way that is both instinctively tied to the narrative moment, but finds distinctive (sometimes unorthodox) frames that become part of an incredible mosaic and a story told through bodies in motion.

As the two women’s careers evolved, the need for less gear and apparatus has only become stronger, yet Godard’s ability to shape striking images with natural light remains. “Beau Travail” has long had its flag planted as the pinnacle of visual poetry in modern cinema, but what is remarkable about Godard and Denis’ films since 1999 is not only the consistency of excellence, but the variety of canvases— landscape, genre, and story — in which Godard is able to expertly paint on while working so minimally. A true master.

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