A Tribute To The Vision Of James Wong Howe

Posted by Ramzi Abed - in Uncategorized - Comments Off

A View From Behind The Meter

Classic Visions Were Created

I have always loved the work of James Wong Howe and, thankfully, while I was attending USC studying Cinema, he came to lecture on the art of the camera. He was a quiet gentle man filled with rich stories of his experiences with the film industry of his time and I would like to share two of the stories with you.

James Wong Howe was a very young not well educated Chinese laborer working in the Hollywood studios during the early nineteen twenties. As a sideline he snapped publicity photos of the stars and sent them to the performers hoping that maybe he could sell one or two. One morning he was summoned to Mary Minters dressing room (A huge star at the time.) after photographing her the week before. She held up one of his photographs and stated flatly, that if he could make her eyes look like the photo she was holding, in motion pictures, she would order the studio to hire him as her next cameraman. When James returned to his photo lab he discovered that the single photograph that she was enamored with was the only one of its kind in all the shots he had taken of her during that shooting day. The film stock he was shooting on, as well as everyone else, was ortho-chromatic and this emulsion had difficulty discerning the blue color of eyes. Therefore, usually Mary’s eyes were pale and lifeless in all her previous commercial imagery.


Find Your Process

James went back to the same spot and re-shot numerous models, but couldn’t duplicate the look until some stage hands walking behind him and carrying a large 12’ x 12’ black curtain created the same look in the model’s eyes. The eyes apparently reflected the black of the material behind the camera. From that point on he photographed blue eyed stars through a hole in a large black velvet curtain and was seen as a magician. Minter was seen as a star that ‘imported a Chinese cameraman that mysteriously worked behind a black velvet curtain.’ And from that point on he was always in demand and worked on 130 films during his career.

Understand The Physics Of Light

James’ understanding of the physics of light and his ability to recognize the significance that light has on the viewers emotions was clearly one of his unique abilities. The capability to improvise was also a key element to his talent and a story he told about shooting a scene on the Howard Hawks film Air Force was a great example of that skill. Hawks had scheduled a series of B 17 Bombers to land on a training airfield in central California for a large production sequence. The crew had set up lights along the edge of the runway and prepared a large trailer mounted generator to power the entire operation. The cameras were in place and a short time before the expected arrival of the planes it was discovered that the generator was inoperable. Hawks turned to James and said “you’re the director of photography think of something…” James raced to the runway, found a crate of railroad flares, and began having his crew light them along the edges of the runway. When the bombers landed they flew through the smoke and glare of the flares, giving the appearance that the airfield had just been bombed by the enemy, and the bombers were landing amid the chaos. When Hawks looked at the dailies the next day he was thrilled with the result and suggested that they might shoot the rest of the film without generators. James took what appeared to be a disaster and turned it into an iconic image the cinema graphic art which still holds up today.


Use what you have available to you and use it with skill was something he clearly exemplified. Sometimes one creates by accident, and sometimes one has to improvise but, ultimately, it all adds up to how we use those accidents and improvisations in the promotion of our art form that defines our identities. James Wong Howe was a unique individual in this art form and don’t we all wish we could achieve that distinction?
-Michael Rogers, Lighting Consultant, Birns & Sawyer

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