Cinematography: A Modern History of Filmmaking Edited by Patrick Keaton I.B.Tauris (April 2015), 224 pages, ISBN: 978-1784530198 (paperback), £14.99; ISBN: 978-0813563503 (hardback), £58
About the reviewer: Mick Farr is a Lecturer of Cinematography at the University of Bolton. Following his first degree, he worked predominantly as a lighting cameraman for television; firstly for the BBC and then in a freelance capacity for all terrestrial and digital broadcasters. Mick has maintained a keen interest in all aspects of visual culture, graduating from the University of Manchester in 2005 with a Masters degree from the School of Arts, Histories and Visual Cultures. He is currently researching and exploring the significance of colour in Late and Post-Modern architecture, as well as continuing to develop a project with the award-winning Keo Films.
Don’t allow the title of this book to mislead you; it’s not a manual for would-be cinematographers, which in my opinion is a good thing. There are too many ‘how to do’ books that purport to inform the reader how to achieve excellence in a few easy stages. What this book is (and you have to read the smallest font on the front cover to find an indication of this) is a detailed and well-researched account of the evolution of the cinematographer within the American film industry. In chronological order, over six chapters, Cinematography offers an informed and interesting account of the growth of the US film industry from the cinematographer’s perspective, starting from the end of the nineteenth century and ending with the digital revolution of the twenty-first century. The book offers no obvious academic thesis or argument, but this is certainly not a shortfall. What it delivers instead is a thought-provoking narrative of technological developments that helped shape the evolution of US cinema, set within a detailed historical context that is as informed as it is interesting to read.
These six essays detail just how influential key political, social and scientific developments (including the impact of television documentary, the growth of the VHS market and the development of digital technology) were to the US film industry, and how they in turn affected the role of the cinematographer. Conversely, the cinematographers’ influence over technological changes within the film industry is also discussed, especially following the demise of the Hollywood studio system in the wake of the Second World War. Contextualising the profession in this way allows the reader to understand the complex nature of a role that demands more than a working knowledge of science and an aesthetic sensibility. Indeed, much of what is discussed within this publication focuses on the difficult issues that have faced the cinematographer over the past century, such as authorship, artistic control and what the role of an arts-based technician should be in the creative but industrial and invariably commercial process of filmmaking. Indeed, this last point is particularly pertinent to both those beginning a career as a cinematographer and those studying the film industry in a broader context. To what extent one person might be responsible for a film’s overall look is constantly debated throughout this book, with the roles of the Director, the Studio, and in more recent times, Production Designers and Special Effects Producers taking their place alongside the Cinematographer.
As a former lighting cameraman now lecturing in film production, I would argue that Cinematography’s real strength lies in its value to both the would-be cinematographer and the student of film history. Impressively researched and drawing on a wide range of key figures from within the film industry, it stands as a valuable contribution to academic study; and because it is so easy to access it is ideal for A-level and under-graduate students. Too often, in my opinion, academic publications seem to rely on impenetrable language to impress; thankfully this book avoids such a pit-fall. And because it draws heavily on the thoughts and comments of practising cinematographers, it serves as inspiration for those considering shooting their own films. While it does require a degree of technical knowledge about the subject of photography/cinematography, the clarity of writing, range of illustrations, and the glossary at the end of the book, ensure that most readers could easily follow the lines of discussion in each of these chapters. That said, I would advise any reader to watch at least some of the films mentioned, if only to further explore the work of the cinematographers discussed and to give broader context to each of these authors’ comments. Regardless of the quality of any still illustration (and most of them are good here) they remain a poor substitute for viewing the films in their entirety.