Wonderful piece by Dennis Zhou highlighting the fascinating life and work of cinematographer James Wong How in the recent edition of The New York Review of Books. His versatility and many innovations (pioneering deep focus and double-exposure techniques – to name a couple) place Wong How at the intersection of artist and engineer.
The fact that a Chinese cameraman—Wong Howe was only naturalized in his forties, after the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943—had such a large hand in shaping the fantasies of the American public was surely lost on audiences who did not look for the cinematographer’s credit. Part of this omission can be attributed to a lack of understanding about the role of the cameraman, who exerted a control equal and often superior to that of the director in defining the look of Golden Age films. Yet another factor was Wong Howe’s versatility. Unlike other cinematographers of the era, such as John Alton, Wong Howe was never associated with one genre, as adept at noir and westerns as at musicals and comedies. He adapted his style to suit the needs of different directors and scripts, to the point where an undiscerning viewer might deem it more assimilative than personal.
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