How James Wong Howe revolutionised film as we know it

From the early black and white movies of the 1920s through the rise of Hollywood into the 1970s, one man was instrumental in the evolution of film on screen – James Wong Howe (黃宗霑). 

How James Wong Howe revolutionised film as we know it

Today, 28 August, would have been James Wong Howe’s 118th birthday. His impact has lasted so long, many films shot today are based on techniques he pioneered and Google has created a Doodle honouring his life and this revolutionary career.

Revered as a master cinematographer, James Wong Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Canton (now Guangzhou) in China before journeying to America to join his father in Washington at the age of five. 

 After abandoning early dreams of being a boxer, James Wong Howe moved to LA as an assistant to a commercial photographer and discovered a love for movies on sets in Chinatown. He is best known for his innovative work with lighting, particularly during the silent black and white movies of the 1920s and 1930s, being able to create lighter regions and darker shadows through backdrops – a technique he learned as a photographer. 

James Wong Howe was one of the first to use so-called “deep-focus cinematography”, in which both the foreground and background are in focus, for example. He also used his backgrounds as more than just sets; using them as extensions of an actor’s state of mind. 

He is additionally credited as pioneering the use of wide-angle lenses, including the fish-eye lens in 1966 film Seconds, and strapping cameras to cameramen in various guises, such as on roller skates or to the waists of actors to give a more immersive experience. He made early use of the crab dolly, a camera dolly with four wheels and a movable arm supporting the camera, and was a master at camera tracking and distortion. 

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Throughout his career, James Wong Howe won two Oscars, in 1956 for The Rose Tattoo and again in 1964 for Hud. He was nominated a further eight times between 1939 and 1976 (the year of his death to cancer), every time for best cinematography. In 2002, Howe’s work was given a retrospective at the Seattle International Film Festival, and again in San Francisco in 2004.

In contrast to the successful career, Howe and his family faced racial discrimination. He became a US citizen only after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

“Despite the barriers he faced, Howe retired with two Oscar awards as one of the most celebrated cinematographers of his time,” said Google in a blog post.

“Perhaps the greatest honour that can be bestowed on James Wong Howe is that this master craftsman, a genius of lighting, refutes the auteur theory, which holds that the director solely is “author” of a film. No one could reasonably make that claim on any picture on which Howe was the director of photography,” added journalist Jon C. Hopwood. 

Happy Birthday, James Wong Howe.

Images: Google

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