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A Master of Illumination

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff will receive an honorary Oscar for pioneering in the color era.

March 18, 2001|DAVID GRITTEN | David Gritten is a regular contributor to Calendar

SEVENOAKS, England — "You have to look hard at the things you love. I looked hard at paintings, and I learned about light."

Those simple sentences perfectly encapsulate the long life's work of Jack Cardiff, widely regarded as one of the world's great cinematographers. At 86, with more than 100 films to his credit, the English-born Cardiff will receive an honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards ceremony next Sunday--the first honorary Oscar ever given primarily for achievements in cinematography. (In 1952, George A. Mitchell received an honorary Oscar for the design and development of the camera that bears his name, although the citation also mentions his works as a cinematographer.) He will be able to place it next to his Oscar for best cinematography for the 1947 film "Black Narcissus."

He is hardly a household name, but within the film industry, Cardiff is revered as the first lighting cameraman to explore color in films to its fullest potential. Martin Scorsese, who contributed the foreword to Cardiff's autobiography, "Magic Hour," called him "a pioneer of color," adding: "He worked in one capacity or another on many of the greatest pictures ever made, films that have captivated me from childhood to middle age."

And Scorsese goes on to cite "The Four Feathers" (1939), and four films Cardiff made with director Michael Powell and producer-screenwriter Emeric Pressburger: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp" (1943), "A Matter of Life and Death," also known as "Stairway to Heaven" (1946), "Black Narcissus" and "The Red Shoes" (1948).

Cardiff is also regarded as an elder statesman of genius by his fellow cinematographers. A statement by the British Society of Cinematographers noted: "We are all delighted that the American academy have chosen to honor a cinematographer . . . and more so that it is our own British 'Master of Light' Jack Cardiff. It is a delight to us all, as the award reflects on the quality of British cinematography, which is renowned worldwide. Jack has been in the forefront of innovation and excellence in cinematography for over 50 years."

And Bill Taylor, visual effects governor of the American academy, said: "Jack Cardiff, one of the few remaining pioneers of color photography, has given us some of the most enduring images in film. And he's not only a pioneer. He is a living example of the very highest standards of his art--the same high standards the academy is chartered to recognize."

But Cardiff reacted to the honorary Oscar with typical modesty. "It's unbelievable," he said. "I think what happened is that the [academy] committee met, and they decided: Why not give an Oscar to a technician this year, rather than a star, a director or producer?"

His admirers would balk at his use of the humdrum word "technician." But Cardiff, who has also directed 15 films, knows the boundaries of a cinematographer's duties.

"I've believed for a long time that photography shouldn't stick out too much, but enhance all the subtlety a director puts into it," he said. "Because it is the director's film. The director has the responsibility for everything on the picture, and the cameraman's job is to serve him."

He mused on this at his home in this leafy small town southeast of London, where he lives with his third wife, Nicki; they have been together 30 years. A genial, welcoming man, Cardiff is more than happy to launch into anecdotes about his career, which astonishingly began in 1918, when he was a 4-year-old actor. (His parents were traveling entertainers in music halls, and Jack grew up without a sense of a permanent home.) He began work behind a camera at age 14.

In his time, he worked with legends. As cinematographer on "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957), he looked on helplessly as actor-director Laurence Olivier and lead actress Marilyn Monroe waged war on set. He traveled up the Congo with John Huston, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn for "The African Queen" (1951), a film marked by appalling conditions and various nautical disasters. Cardiff enjoyed a chaste romance with Sophia Loren on the set of "Legend of the Lost" (1957), and tried in vain to rein in the wayward Errol Flynn, who was producing his first film, the ill-fated and never completed "William Tell" in 1953.

Cardiff clearly had the charm, charisma and talent to be liked and trusted by leading actors and world-class directors (he also worked with Alfred Hitchcock and King Vidor). But his reputation rests on the technical advances he achieved as a cinematographer, which coincided with the advent of Technicolor.


He was a camera operator on the first Technicolor film made in Britain--"Wings of the Morning" (1937), starring Henry Fonda, and worked for Technicolor for 10 years while also working in film. His first big break came when Michael Powell asked him to be cinematographer on "A Matter of Life and Death."

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