The American Society of Cinematographers

Loyalty • Progress • Artistry
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Return to Table of Contents August 2014 Return to Table of Contents
Get on Up
Presidents Desk
ASC Close-Up
Kramer Morgenthau

Kramer Morgenthau, ASC

When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?

My father produced documentaries for PBS, so from a very early age I was aware of the power of moving pictures and visual storytelling.


Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?

Gregg Toland [ASC], for his brilliant expressionistic lighting and composition; Conrad Hall [ASC], for combining expressionism and realism; Chris Menges [ASC, BSC], for, among other things, his sophisticated use of color; Néstor Almendros [ASC], for his naturalistic lighting approach; and Christopher Doyle [HKSC], for reminding us that there are still many things yet to be explored.


What sparked your interest in photography?

I’ve always sought nonverbal, right-brained means of expressing my creativity. For me, it was first through music. I discovered photography later.


Where did you train and/or study?

I studied film in college at the University of Rochester. After I graduated, I moved to New York City and just started working on any films I could get. I worked in the grip and electrical department on indie movies and shot short films for film students. I learned to tell a story with a camera on my shoulder while shooting documentaries.


Who were your early teachers or mentors?

I am mostly an autodidact. I have tremendous respect for the apprenticeship system. It just wasn’t in my cards.


What are some of your key artistic influences?

Caravaggio may be obvious but is a huge influence for me. I’ve made pilgrimages to churches and museums all over to see his work. For each project, it’s different, but looking at ways great artists have used light and color is always inspiring and gives me courage to take a visual stand on a project. I also love music, especially jazz and the blues; I think rhythm and improvisation play a strong role in my work, and some of that comes from feeling the material in a musical way.


How did you get your first break in the business?

There was no single event that occurred. It took several people believing in me and giving me opportunities to shoot and gather a reel.


What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

I love the feeling of a great day on set. When everyone is in sync, all the planning and hard work comes together and a bit of magic happens. It’s a little like dancing or playing jazz.


Have you made any memorable blunders?

Early in my career, I was so focused on light that I was not always sensitive enough to the actor’s process and how delicate that can be. Simple things like standing in the actor’s eyeline, blocking his or her eyeline with equipment, or asking actors to do illogical things are some of the many mistakes I’ve made.


What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?

‘In this business, if you aren’t early, you are late.’ 


What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

Gravity is a beautiful piece of filmmaking. It feels very much like what the future of our art form might look like. I was very inspired by James Turrell’s light sculptures in his recent LACMA exhibit. Another inspiration is Todd Hido’s book Outskirts.


Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?

I’d love to shoot a Western or a musical. In general, my favorite scripts move the audience in a profound way and perhaps have social, historical or political resonance.


If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?

I’d be a landscape architect or a chef.


Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Owen Roizman, Amy Vincent and Matthew Libatique.


How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

It’s a huge honor. I feel proud every time I go to the Clubhouse. It’s also really helpful to have a network of peers to talk to about work and the changing technology. Being in the ASC has given me a sense of accomplishment. I never imagined having those letters after my name when I started out.


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