Red Book, Cosmopolitan, Billboard, Variety there aren’t many periodicals that have been around longer than American Cinematographer, which is celebrating its 85th year of continuous publication. Early readers of Red Book and Cosmo, which specialized in popular fiction, would only find the titles of these women’s magazines familiar today. Surprisingly, Billboard was actually created to service the outdoor-advertising industry before it became a trade paper for circuses, then movies, and then the record industry. Variety looks much the same as it did in 1905, but vaudeville is dead, and inside dope on the entertainment industry now dominates the book.
American Cinematographer has also seen changes through the years. It started in 1920 as a twice-monthly, four-page, slick, tabloid-sized club newsletter filled with information about what ASC members were doing, with occasional, brief articles by members about various aspects of the cameraman’s craft. The newsletter also featured the usual bits of poetry and “wisdom” intended to fill up space when the other editorial content was short. To wit: “When in a fix, sweating will get you further than swearing. Let mules do the kicking.”
Only a handful of the earliest issues of AC are known to survive on the West Coast. The first page of the first issue can be found on a Perma-Plaque in the ASC Clubhouse. The earliest known complete issue (Volume 2, Number 1, January 1, 1921; see image at right) is in a private collection, and the Margaret Herrick Library of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has several issues from later that year. According to avid reader Sol Negrin, ASC, there may be copies of the some of the earliest issues in the New York Public Library Theater Arts Collection.
In October 1921, AC trimmed its physical dimensions and added pages. The magazine became a monthly in March 1922 and took its first, sometimes faltering steps toward becoming the internationally respected journal it is today. Covers were often generic in the early and mid-1920s, and were repeated for months at a time. Inside, there was still some club news, but technical articles sometimes reprinted from the SMPTE Journal, Kodak Research Laboratory bulletins and other sources, according to David Mullen, ASC and more informative “how to” hints began to predominate. However, these pieces dealt with technique in general rather than the photography of specific films, and there were insistent pleas for recognition of the cinematographer’s importance in the filmmaking process. The magazine also had the feel of a publication that would take what it could get to fill space. The November 1, 1921, issue, for example, contained an unsigned editorial about the rise of Japan as a Pacific power; it was certainly prescient, but it had nothing to do with cinematography.
It was in 1928 that AC began to take on the look that is more familiar today, with pictorial covers appearing on a regular basis first scenic “art photos,” and then, beginning in 1929 and continuing into 1931, portraits taken by ASC members. With the arrival of Hal Hall as editor in 1929, the magazine expanded its coverage of the amateur moviemaking scene; this allowed AC to find an audience beyond the boundaries of Hollywood, but it also gave the periodical a split personality that it would retain for nearly 30 years. For a time in the 1930s, AC was even produced in “reversible” mode. Folded and stitched one way, it was American Cinematographer with an Amateur Movies insert; folded and stitched in the other direction, it became Amateur Movies with an American Cinematographer insert. Outside of subscriptions, AC found its widest circulation in consumer camera stores.
For a magazine that is noted today for its coverage of individual productions, it is surprising how little such coverage there was in AC’s early years. Even when production was the focus of an article, the results were not always enlightening. “There was an important article by Gregg Toland [ASC] on shooting Citizen Kane in 1941, and the merits of deep-focus photography were argued in various subtle ways in articles about other productions,” notes Mullen, who began collecting AC when he was in college. “But just read, for example, the article on the photography of Spartacus  to get an idea of how lacking in information many of those old articles were.” Often in these earlier issues, the on-set photos on the covers and sprinkled through the magazine offered more information than the articles themselves.
Not a lot is known about the early editors of AC. Hall was a film editor who specialized in travel films; George Blaisdell came to AC after serving as editor of International Photographer magazine; and William Stull was a cameraman and ASC member.
The modern era of the magazine really began with the appointment of Herb Lightman as editor in 1966. Lightman was wearing his Army Signal Corps Photographic Unit uniform when he met Hall at a party in 1945, and Hall asked him to write about his experiences shooting films for the Army. The article was well received, and Lightman was soon turning out a steady stream of technical articles sometimes as many as three stories per issue, under a variety of noms du plume.
Lightman became actively involved in filmmaking but continued to write for the magazine, and when editor Arthur Gavin died, Lightman was asked to take over. He declined, but agreed to do the February 1965 “obituary” issue. Finally, in early 1966, after a succession of short-tenured editors, cinematographer Arthur Miller, ASC persuaded Lightman to assume the editorship, telling him that the magazine would be dead in two months if he didn’t accept the post. Lightman agreed to take the job until the ASC found a “real” editor, and he ended up staying at the magazine for the next 16 years.
“When I took over, I didn’t regard American Cinematographer as a top professional magazine,” says Lightman. “Most of the earlier editors I’d worked with had a background in editing magazines for amateur moviemakers, and that was a lot of their emphasis. I moved toward covering the professional filmmaking world. I didn’t edit from a desk, but traveled to where films were being shot to get a close-up look at moviemaking, and often shot my own photos to go with the articles. It was a real chore. I was making films during the day and editing the magazine at night, and I feel that being editor of AC probably hurt my filmmaking career. But I came to realize how important the magazine was to filmmakers around the world who had little or no contact with Hollywood professionals.”
As the studio system collapsed, Lightman began to feel that moviemaking wasn’t as much fun as it used to be, and he began enjoying the time he spent at his second home in Lake Tahoe more than the periods he spent in Hollywood. He found it easy to give up the editorship and slip into an active semi-retirement, taking on projects that interested him.
A far-reaching overhaul of AC began in 1982 with the appointment of Richard Patterson as editor. Patterson had occasionally written for AC as far back as 1972, when he wrote a production article about I Walk the Line, on which he served as an intern to director John Frankenheimer. He also covered Eastman Kodak’s demonstration in response to Martin Scorsese’s campaign against color fading in film. The latter article attracted the attention of ASC members Harry Wolf and Al Keller and the Society’s Publications Committee.
Patterson was hired to be AC’s video editor, covering the emerging field of video imaging. He put together a special issue on electronic cinematography and was promoted to editor and business manager of the magazine with the July 1982 issue, which featured extensive coverage of Blade Runner. “I attempted to reconceive the format for the magazine,” recalls Patterson. “I wanted to let articles run continuously rather than jumping all over the place. I wanted the magazine to be more appealing and appropriate visually. I wanted to expand the coverage to techniques for all phases of production, because the banner billed it as a magazine of motion-picture production technique and not just cinematography technique. I also wanted to upgrade the writing in the magazine to provide more technology and less P.R.”
To give the magazine a new look, Patterson hired designer Sheila de Bretteville, who had been involved with a revamp of the Los Angeles Times. “The process of working with Sheila to redesign the magazine was one of the most enjoyable, stimulating and rewarding things I have done professionally,” he says. “The results have stood the test of time, although at first we had problems because the fonts chosen for the articles were too small. When the overhaul was complete, Sheila suggested that I hire Martha Winterhalter to be the magazine’s art director Martha had been a student of hers.” Today, Winterhalter is AC’s publisher.