Why Have There Been No Great Women Cinematographers (According to Hollywood)?

From Beau Travail (1999), dir. Clair Denis, DP: Agnès Godard (courtesy of Youtube)

In Claire Denis’s Beau Travail, soldiers train in the desert. The sky, bleached white, encases their moving bodies. The camera, intimate and up-close, is handheld. As the actors move on the screen, their training becomes a kind of dance — a signature of Denis’s collaborations with cinematographer Agnès Godard. The camera, more than just an observer, integrates the viewer into the scene. “It’s like you are dancing,” explained Godard to KQED when discussing some of these handheld shoots, “you forget everything, the weight of the camera, technical difficulties and everything.” Released over thirty years ago, Beau Travail is considered one of the greatest films of all time, in large part due to the intimate, dreamy atmosphere of Godard’s photography. 

Yet surprisingly, the American Society of Cinematographers, which was founded in 1919, only admitted their first female Director of Photography in 1980. The organization meant to advance and protect the art of cinematography remains one of the most exclusive and important societies in Hollywood in terms of prestige and influence. Since 1980, women have remained underrepresented in the Society, representing less than 5% of the membership. In 2018,  cinematographer Rachel Morrison was nominated for an Oscar for her work on Dee Rees’s Mudbound, the sole only woman acknowledged in the category that year. For this year’s awards, yet again, there’s not a single woman DP in contention. 

Further North, far from Hollywood, in collaboration with the Panorama Film Journal, the Cinémathèque Québécoise is paying homage to some of the notable women who have stepped behind the camera and “painted with light.” Beau Travail is one of the films highlighted in the nearly month-long retrospective, along with movies like Fruitvale Station (DOP: Rachel Morrison), Thou Wast Mild and Lovely (DOP: Ashley Connor), and Sarah préfère la course (DOP: Jessica Lee Gagné), making it clear that there is no shortage of talented women working. 

So why isn’t their work recognized? The answer to that question is bound up in external pressures and issues of how we understand and evaluate “good” cinematography. Two years ago, for The Guardian, Pamela Hutchinson explored, in-depth, why female cinematographers get overlooked. In a densely researched historical overview, she examined the birth of the film industry, revealing that while there were many women working as a camerapersons, the industry as a whole found it difficult to imagine a woman in the role due, mainly, to the physical demands of the work as films became more complex, multi-camera operations. “If you find it hard to imagine a woman lifting a camera, perhaps you can’t imagine her lifting an Oscar, either,” she writes.

The perception of the job of the cinematographer as physically demanding is closely tied to the kinds of films generally rewarded in the category. Cinematography, a way of using technical means to record images through light, often ends up being measured by metrics of challenge rather than artistry. In much the same way that transformative acting performances are more likely to take the top prize, cinematography awards typically go to films that evince an element of risk or showmanship. The work of Emmanuel Lubezki — rewarded three years in a row for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant — is a perfect example. While likely unconscious, these technical feats might also relate to gendered ideas of what “great” cinematography entails. 

So what is great cinematography anyway? As with nearly all films and awards ceremonies, it isn’t a matter of “good” or “bad”; it’s mostly about the perception of the work and the value of its photography. Beauty is still of the utmost importance along with a certain amount of technical showmanship. Consequently, films like 1917 shot by Roger Deakins, tend to enjoy an advantage. The movie, shot in a faux one take, can be easily interpreted as technically challenging. Clearly, the misunderstanding of the work of cinematographers allows it to be underestimated and undervalued. 

In the words of director Bong Joon-Ho, the Oscars are a “local event.” They have and will continue to reward films from their milieu. Many of the pressures of campaigning for prizes also come down to grassroots efforts on behalf of local distributors, many of whom can only afford to back one film per awards season. Campaigning remains an essential factor in determining which films are awarded and why. And when it comes to voting, it’s best understood as a reflection, for better and worse, of how the industry wants to be seen. 

The awards for both the BAFTA’s and American Society of Cinematographers, run along very similar lines — with only slight variations, most English-speaking organizations reward and nominate the same films as the Oscars. This homogeneity reflects the biases of the organizations and the financial power of distributors able to assemble an expensive awards campaign (an average Oscar campaign costs between 3 to 5 million dollars, some climb as high as 20 million, according to the Wall Street Journal).

From Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), dir. Céline Sciamma, DP: Claire Mathon (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

Funnily enough, two of the best-shot films of 2019, Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Atlantics, have the same cinematographer: Claire Mathon. Mathon’s photography captures, on the one hand, the lush romanticism of an 18th-century lesbian romance on the Brittany coast and, on the other, a dreamy romance set in contemporary Dakar, gripped with anxiety as a shipload of young people disappears. 

In a recent interview for Film Comment, Mathon reflects on a scene from Portrait of a Lady on Fire and why they decided against using a Steadicam in a specific scene: “… it quickly became unthinkable to us that I wouldn’t frame those shots myself, since they were not only meant to embody the characters’ gazes but also Céline’s and mine.” 

Mathon, as much as director Céline Sciamma, determines where we look and what we see. The role of the cinematographer, regardless of gender, has worked in close collaboration with the director. It’s clear that while the Academy continues to fail to reward their work, the industry has been infinitely more vibrant for their contributions. 

From Atlantics (2019), dir. Mati Diop, DP: Claire Mathon (courtesy Netflix)

Panorama-Cinéma: Directors of Photography continues at the Cinémathèque Québécoise (335, De Maisonneuve Blvd East, Montreal, Canada) through February 7. The series is presented by Panorama-Cinema

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