The American Society of Cinematographers

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Tom Hurwitz

Tom Hurwitz, ASC

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

When I was about 10, I don’t know why, but my mother took me to see Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. Just as one would expect, I had nightmares for months. But I never forgot any image that Gunnar Fischer shot for Bergman. The frames were engraved in my mind. I intuitively understood the power of cinematography to make images that create a world of meaning.

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

Goodness! That is almost as hard as picking a favorite film. I’m sure I’m going to leave many, many out. For features — in no particular order — [ASC members] Gregg Toland, James Wong Howe, Arthur Edeson, Haskell Wexler, Gordy Willis, Peter Suschitzky, Roger Deakins, Philippe Rousselot, Conrad Hall, Boris Kaufman, Owen Roizman. And for docs, Roman Karmen, Paul Strand, Al Maysles, Don Lenzer, Bob Richman, Andy Young.

What sparked your interest in photography?

As a kid, looking at the photo book The Family of Man. In it I first saw the work of the great still documentarians, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helen Levitt, Dorothea Lange and W. Eugene Smith. Later, Garry Winogrand. I think I first understood the power of documentary cinematography when I saw the work of Paul Strand, who shot my father’s watershed documentary feature, Native Land. It’s still a masterpiece.

Where did you train and/or study?

I really wanted to get a liberal-arts education — which I would recommend for anyone making films, especially documentaries — so I went to Columbia University. Also, my young adulthood coincided with the Vietnam War; my experience organizing to end it, in all sorts of communities, helped me to understand the grandeur in everyday people.

Who were your early teachers or mentors?

My first mentor was my father, the documentary director Leo Hurwitz, who taught me that understanding editing was the key to cinematography. I worked with director Robert M. Young on one of my first features. He had come out of documentaries and shot people in a wonderful way. In documentaries, I assisted Don Lenzer and Bob Elfstrom, and I learned from them and many others.

What are some of your key artistic influences?

I love to look at paintings. Just a sampling of favorites: medieval icons, Northern Renaissance masters; Italians like Duccio and Fra Angelico; then Vermeer, Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Goya; the Dutch landscape painters; the French, like David, Utrillo and Degas; then Hopper, Eakins, even Arshile Gorky.

How did you get your first break in the business?

There were so many breaks and chances. I think every good career is full of lucky challenges. Starting out, I was standing on a corner in Manhattan, talking to a friend, and a cameraman she knew walked up and asked if she knew any assistants who could work the next day. His had gotten sick. I worked with him for the next year.

What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?

In documentaries, catching the dénouement as it happens, in one shot, composed and in the right light. I have shot some of those. They are like grace.

Have you made any memorable blunders?

My first day as a cameraman. I was very young. The cinematographer had gone on to another job and left me to finish the last day. I made every mistake possible and lost a client, but I learned not to make them again.

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

'Always listen to the story.' Great cameramen use their ears as well as their eyes.

What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?

Docs: Winter Nomads, The Overnighters. Features: Leviathan, Ida. Plays: Wolf Hall. Opera: The Nose.

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

I’m currently shooting documentary features or television series that involve modern dance, boxing, a hospital, and the biography of a great woman. I just finished one about a man trying to save the last free tigers on Earth. Working on the challenges ahead is enough for me.

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

We have the best job in the world. When I’m not shooting, I’m teaching young filmmakers at a great program at the School of Visual Arts: MFA in social documentary.

Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?

Haskell Wexler, Nancy Schreiber, Fred Murphy and Joan Churchill.

How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?

As one of the first documentary cinematographers to be admitted, I was proud that our area of this great art and craft was being recognized.


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