Magazine article American Cinematographer

Painting with Light

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Painting with Light

Article excerpt

Painting with Light by John Alton University of California Press, 230 pps., cloth $45. paper $20

For many years, one of the most persistent questions called in to ASC headquarters has been, "Where can I get a copy of Painting with Light?" The usual reply was, "If you find one let us know." this legendary book, whose title has become a much-used phrase within the industry, was published in 1949, and, as the only up-to-date book of its kind, was highly influential among young people who aspired to become cinematographers. It soon went out of print, and has been almost impossible to find.

At the time John Alton wrote the book, which began in 1945 as a series of articles in International Photographer magazine, he was at the lamented Eagle-Lion Studios on Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood. There he specialized in a much-praised photographic style that gave a sharper edge to a series of what were then called hard-boiled crime dramas, such as T-Men, Raw Deal, Hollow Triumph, Canon City, and He Walked by Night. Today they're celebrated as landmarks of film noir, a term not then in use. Many of the book's illustrations are from these films.

Painting with Light originally created a great deal of controversy within the industry. The very iconoclasticism that made his work distinctive also meant that his methods would not be acceptable to many of his colleagues. In 14 brief chapters he tells a lot about lighting, including mystery lighting and lighting special situations such as rain, fog, snow, moonlight, and in the process stage; exteriors; close-ups; laboratory procedures; filming an ocean voyage, etc. There is even a chapter comparing cinematography to music and another telling how to light your home more attractively and make the lady of the house look her best.

When all of this was written, the studio system was in full sway. …

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