Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe was one of the greatest masters of the moving image.
Everyone sees the cinematographer’s name in the credits of a film, but few fully understand the responsibilities involved in that role. Most think the cinematographer merely holds the camera, but the job is far more than that. The cinematographer is responsible for the placement of the camera, the composition of the image, the focus and the lighting. Sadly, the cinematographer is overshadowed in critics’ traditionally overwrought fetishization of the director, but it’s the cinematographer who’s the master of the moving image.
Born August 28, 1899, James Wong Howe was a Chinese-American cinematographer who overcame institutionalized racism to become one of the most respected, award-winning cinematographers in cinema history. He was nominated for 10 Academy Awards for cinematography and won two — for The Rose Tattoo and Hud. In a 2003 survey of International Cinematographers Guild members, he was named one of the 10 most influential cinematographers of all time. Most recently, on May 25, 2018, he was the recipient of the most modern kind of honor: He was the subject of a Google Doodle.
James Wong Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Guangdong, China, before his family emigrated to America in 1904. They settled in Pasco, Washington, and his parents ran a general store. After his father’s death, a teenage Howe began a brief career as a professional boxer before moving to San Francisco and then Los Angeles. At that time, in the 1910s, Los Angeles was a small community, and the burgeoning motion picture industry, which was growing at an extraordinary pace, always needed workers. After several odd jobs in the city, James Wong Howe ran into an old boxing colleague who was photographing a comedy film. The chance meeting renewed Howe’s interest in photography, which he’d developed as a child after purchasing a camera at a drugstore.
The young, inexperienced James Wong Howe approached cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff at a studio called Famous Players-Lasky (now Paramount Pictures) and landed an entry-level job in their film lab. He eventually got a job on the set of a film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, best known today for his epic The Ten Commandments. DeMille, the biggest name on the Famous Player-Lasky lot, was impressed by Howe’s work ethic and talent and promoted him to camera assistant.
In Hollywood films of the early 1920s, lighting was purely functional. Scenes were lit to reflect, as much as possible, the normal lighting of everyday life, and stylization was absent. However, German expressionist films, with their extremely stylized visuals and chiaroscuro set design and lighting, were quickly becoming an international sensation. James Wong Howe, like the Germans, had an inherent understanding of how light works: how it’s reflected and the shadows it casts. He made the eyes of then-star Mary Miles Minter appear darker by photographing her while she was looking at a dark surface. Minter was impressed, and James Wong Howe soon earned his first job as primary cinematographer. The film to which he was assigned, Drums of Fate, was released in January 1923 and launched his 52-year career as a director of photography.
It wasn’t long before James Wong Howe became renowned for his gift of balancing light and shadow in black-and-white. Howe innovated what’s known as low-key lighting. Most lighting setups use a “key light,” the main source of light in a scene. This is tempered by “fill lights,” which soften shadows cast by the key light. Then “back lights” add a sense of three dimensions to a scene by creating halos of light around the actors, separating them from the background. The term “low-key lighting” is counterintuitive, because it’s a bright key light, while the fill and back lights are dimmer, creating the kinds of stark shadows we associate with the old monster movies and ’40s film noir.
Even in the 1930s at MGM, which employed a traditional style of flat lighting to accentuate the glamour of the actors and their surroundings, Howe still managed to employ some graceful use of shadow. For example, in 1934’s The Thin Man, one of the great detective movies and comedies of the era, Howe used shadows not only to create a sinister imagery of the title character, a scientist named Claude Wynant, but also to accentuate the thinness of the Thin Man.
Deep-focus photography was another innovation introduced by Howe. “Deep focus” simply means having objects both in the foreground and in the background all in focus. The challenge, especially in the early days of film, is that the set must be extremely brightly lit to allow for deep focus.
Howe was also an innovator of camera movement. Before the Steadicam was invented in the 1970s, cinematographers had to be especially creative to move the camera steadily. Howe developed the crab dolly for the 1927 silent film The Rough Riders (sadly, a lost film). For Body and Soul (1947), he shot portions of boxing sequences inside the ring on roller skates.
Howe was respected for all his innovations professionally, but he had to make every advancement under the thrall of institutionalized racism. Howe fell in love with a respected writer named Sanora Babb, and in 1937 they were married in Paris. Babb, however, was white, and because of miscegenation laws in California, the state did not recognize the legality of the marriage. To add insult to injury, because Hollywood studio contracts contained a morals clause, Howe was contractually obligated not to publicly acknowledge his marriage in any way. Fortunately, the law was abolished in 1948 and they were permitted to marry legally.
Howe was also affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented him from applying for American citizenship until, in 1943, an act was passed overturning the law. In Hollywood films at the time, Asian-Americans were portrayed in an especially negative light, usually relegated to servant roles. Chinese-American cinematographer Howe likely benefited from being behind the camera instead of in front of it, because he lensed nearly 150 films throughout his career.
That career peaked in the ’50s and ’60s when Howe won Oscars for The Rose Tattoo in 1956 and Hud in 1964. By this time CinemaScope, VistaVision and other widescreen processes had changed the movie experience and hindered some directors and cinematographers accustomed to the 1.33:1 Academy ratio. James Wong Howe, however, thrived and became the most in-demand cinematographer during those final years when black-and-white movies were still being produced.
The Howe films I most recommend are Sweet Smell of Success and Hud. Their settings couldn’t be more dissimilar — the former set in Manhattan and the latter in rural Texas — but Howe displays an unerring eye for composition as well as capturing a feeling of claustrophobia in Sweet Smell of Success and the isolation of open spaces in Hud. The two films show the extraordinary range James Wong Howe possessed, along with his respect for making the photography serve the story rather than letting his aesthetics overpower it. It also helps that they’re both great, great films.
Even as he approached the age of 70 and the end of his career, James Wong Howe was constantly innovating.
Seconds, directed by John Frankenheimer in 1966, was Howe’s last black-and-white film. In this clip from the opening sequence, he utilized an extreme wide-angle (fish-eye) lens to create an immediate sense of disorientation on the part of the main character. Throughout his time behind the camera, James Wong Howe experimented with how to capture the moving image in an arresting way.