Six Decades of "Loyalty, Progress, Artistry"

American Cinematographer, June 1979 | Go to article overview

Six Decades of "Loyalty, Progress, Artistry"


After 60 illustrious years, the American Society of Cinematographers is still dedicated to the same high ideals upon which it was founded

Sixty years ago a small but dedicated group of Hollywood's leading cameramen formed the first organization in the motion picture industry to be devoted exclusively to furthering and honoring high professional achievement. Thus, it was early in 1919 that the American Society of Cinematographers was founded. The purpose of the new organization was to advance the art and science of cinematography and to bring together cameramen so that they could exchange ideas, discuss new techniques and promote the motion picture as an art form. This concept is still as much alive today as it was more than half a century ago when the A.S.C. was born.

The American Society of Cinematographers is not a labor union or a guild, but an educational, cultural and professional organization. Membership is by invitation only, to those who, "actively engaged as a Director of Photography," have demonstrated outstanding ability. Not all Hollywood cinematographers can place the now familiar initials "A.S.C." after their names. In a sense, the A.S.C. membership roster is as exclusive as that of the legendary London Clubs, for it has become one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon a professional cinematographer-a mark of distinction and prestige.

The need of cinematographers for an organization conducive to their mutual benefit grew out of the early disputes over the Edison patents-the so-called "patents war." Thomas A. Edison, inventor of the motion picture camera, tried to prevent unauthorized producers from infringing his camera patents by licensing the use of them. The producers licensed by Edison got together and formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, headed by J. J. Kennedy. Independent producers who were not licensed correctly branded this a "trust."

Kennedy was a tough fighter and used private detectives, spies and even thugs to seize or destroy the cameras of the independents and to run them out of business. It was not long before the independents -and members of the "trust"-were distrustful of everyone. All camera equipment was closely guarded and anything new was top secret.

It was a situation not calculated to further any progress in motion picture art and science.

The cameramen had no interest in the fights of the producers but they were interested in better cameras and more efficient lighting equipment. In 1913, three young cameramen at the Edison studios, in the Bronx, decided to do something about it. They were Philip E. Rosen, Frank Kugler and Lewis W. Physioc. Each was earning $18.00 a week. None received screen credit or other artistic recognition; they and all other cameramen were regarded simply as technicians. Rosen, Kugler, and Physioc believed that if cameramen formed a sort of fraternal group they could establish and maintain professional standards and gain at least some recognition as creative artists.

It was not until October 15, 1915, that the "trust" was declared illegal by the United States Supreme Court so it took real courage in 1913 to risk being blacklisted. According to Physioc they discussed their problems a long time before they decided to act.

"We had no thought of a union, or of using the organization to obtain higher pay" Physioc recalled. "Our original purpose was to get cameramen to exchange ideas and thus encourage manufacturers to make better equipment, especially lighting equipment." Physioc, incidentally, was then working directly under Edison trying to combine motion pictures with the sound of phonograph records.

Finally the three Edison cameramen acted -secretively. They mailed unsigned notices of their purpose to all the cameramen they knew to be working for both the "trust" and the independent companies. Those interested were asked to reply to a certain address in the old Tribune building.

Enough answers were received to make a meeting appear to be the next step, so one was announced. …

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