Through The Lens: James Wong Howe

‘First of all you have to have a good story… without a story you’re just making scenic shots’.

The story of one of the silver screen’s most influential cinematographers is one of immense productivity, perseverance and perceptive intuition. It is a story of humble beginnings, an illustrious journey and a celebrated ‘adieu’. But in many ways, his passing has signified a new chapter in film. As a new generation pick up the torch, place their cameras and light their sets, we can see a little of the great James Wong Howe in all of them.

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Born in the Canton Province of what is now Guangdong, China, a young James Wong Howe settled with his family in the United States when he was five years old. Working as a young boy in his father’s general store in Pasco, Washington State, it was clear from the onset that this kid had ambition. What wasn’t so clear-cut however, was where this ambition would lead him. As a teenager, Jimmie Wong tried his hand at everything from boxing and aviation to stills photography. 

It would be smack-bang in the middle of the silent era of Hollywood that he decided to make the move out to the West Coast; initially landing a job with a commercial photography outlet taking various portraits and stills, and in 1917 working as a ‘sweep-out boy’ keeping cameras and lenses clean at Famous Players-Lasky Studios. It would be on these studio lots that he would cross paths with the great silent director Cecil B. Demille, working- as it turns out, as a stand-in clapper boy for the film The Little American. Some say that Demille’s fond sentiment for a cigar-wielding chinaman dressed in flat cap and tweeds prompted Wong Howe’s promotion to camera assistant. In any event, this chance meeting would give Jimmie Wong the opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the brighter stars in silent film, including Mary Miles Minter.

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Minter was one of the major actresses at the time; and when Jimmie asked to take her portrait for his portfolio she was immediately impressed. Speaking in his last known interview at the 1974 San Francisco Film Festival, James Wong Howe explains how the orthochromatic film stock at the time didn’t distinguish it’s blues from whites.

In his words: ‘That’s why we weren’t able to get a white cloud against a blue sky…’

By reflecting the subject’s eyes against a dark backdrop, he had managed to bring out the depth of her blue eyes. At Minter’s request, James Wong Howe now found himself promoted to principal director of photography on her next major film The Drums Of Fate (1923). From this, Wong Howe’s reputation was cemented and he would have steady work throughout the tail-end of the silent era.

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‘The relationship between a cameraman and a director should be very, very close… a director directs the action, but he needs the cameraman to get it on the screen’

Working on over 130 films throughout his career, and employed by such world-renown studios as Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, Warner Brothers, Columbia and RKO, James Wong Howe was nominated for 10 Academy Awards for Best Cinematography (winning twice for The Rose Tattoo in 1955 and Hud in 1963), and worked alongside many of the outstanding directors of his generation like Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Victor Fleming, Samuel Fuller, Raoul Walsh, Martin Ritt and Michael Curtiz.

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The great James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

He had a definitive eye for detail; and his vast filmography is dotted with examples of his unabated diligence to push his work through technical innovations and creative ingenuity.

In the 30’s, James Wong Howe earned the nickname ‘low-key Howe’ for his dramatic use of lighting that was a pre-curser to noir. In such films as Transatlantic (1931), Howe revolutionised the game with his use of deep focus by narrowing the camera’s aperture and flooding the set with light so that elements in the background and foreground remained in sharp focus. He utilised flares for atmospheric lighting and hazy smoke when his generator blew on Howard Hawks’ 1943 film Air Force. He is credited as one of the first cinematographers to use a handheld camera in Abraham Polonsky’s Body and Soul (1947), lacing up a pair of roller skates in the same film to shoot smooth action scenes in the boxing ring (Howe would increase his mobility by being pushed around in a wheelchair in He Ran All The Way 4 years later). Adding to the psychological obscurity of John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Seconds, he used fish-eye and wide-angle lenses to layer the film with surreal imagery.

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James Wong Howe on roller skates for Body and Soul (1947)

‘That’s the way it goes… it’s been my life and I’m very dedicated to it’

In a recent survey by the International Cinematographers Guild, James Wong Howe was voted as one of the 10 most influential cinematographers of all time. He persevered through racial prejudice and political vilification to produce some of the finest moving images in cinema history. He was a versatile photographer that could add as much creative input on set as any film director. He was comfortable on a studio lot (The Thin Man) or out in the streets on location (Sweet Smell Of Success)… shooting song and dance (Yankee Doodle Dandy) or a wild west shoot-out (Hombre).

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Between takes. John Frankenheimer breaks bread with the cast, including Rock Hudson, on set for Seconds (1966)

In the words of director and lifetime friend Daniel Mann, Jimmie Wong was:

‘A master of naturalistic black and white photography, but also as one who set a standard of personal and professional excellence remembered to the present day’

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