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The cinematography of James Wong Howe

posted by Tim Carmody   Jan 19, 2018

Did you know that the Google Arts and Culture app does more than just match your selfies to better identify you on Google Image Search to fun portraits in museums that highlight the overwhelming representation of white men in museal collections? It’s true. For instance, there’s this fun little article on the life and career of cinematographer James Wong Howe:

James Wong Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Guangzhou, China on August 28, 1899. Howe’s father brought his young family to the US - what he described as the ‘mountain of gold’ - when Howe was 5 years old.

His first home was Pascoe, Washington, where his father opened a general store and became the first Chinese merchant in the town. As a child, Howe faced vicious racism. His first schoolteacher quit as she didn’t want to teach a person of Chinese descent. His second teacher changed his name to be more anglicised, which is how he became ‘James Wong Howe’.

James Wong Howe.png

Wong Howe pioneered the wide-angle lens, low key lighting (which earned him the nickname “Low Key Howe”), and deep focus. He was also one of the first cameramen to ever use a hand-held camera. But he also had some unusual approaches to the new technology of film….

Other ingenious techniques that Howe used included: shooting a boxing scene by rollerskating around the action; using the reflection of tin cans to light a scene up a hill without electric lights; shooting scenes while being pushed around in a wheelchair; and weighing down birds to make them land where he needed them to.

Howe photographed over a hundred films from the silent era to the seventies, including 1933’s The Power and the Glory (basically one of a few films that have a claim to have been Citizen Kane before Citizen Kane), The Thin Man, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Body and Soul (the boxing movie he wore roller skates for), Picnic, and Funny Lady. He won the Oscar for cinematography for The Rose Tattoo and the gorgeous, unforgettable Hud.

Howe was 63 when he photographed this movie. It’s relentlessly inventive without being showy. It looks like a Scorsese movie. Come to think of it—a lot of Howe’s movies look like Scorsese movies.

It’s worth poking around that Arts & Culture app. A lot of the stories could be better sourced and written, but they’re overwhelmingly stories worth telling. Plus, you already downloaded the stupid thing onto your phone. Might as well try to learn something.