When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
I grew up in Communist Poland, and most of the movies playing in theaters were Soviet social-realist dramas that nobody wanted to see because we lived it in our everyday lives. At the time, the only American movies distributed in Poland were Westerns, and when I was 7, the local cinema showed Winchester ’73 (1950), starring Jimmy Stewart. It played for six months, and it made such a strong impression on me that I sneaked in to see it once a week. I must have seen it at least 20 times.
Which cinematographers do you most admire?
Without question, Conrad Hall, ASC. Also, ASC members Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe for their artistry in black-and-white cinematography.
What sparked your interest in photography?
I got it backwards. In my teens, I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker, and I found out that in order to apply to a film school, one had to submit a photographic portfolio, so I picked up my father’s still camera — a Russian camera, a Zenith. Once I started looking at the world inside the rectangle, I was hooked. My first inspiration was a photo album by Irving Penn.
Where did you train and/or study?
At the Danish Film School in Copenhagen.
Who were your teachers or mentors?
The man who taught me the most about light and lighting was a Danish gaffer named Ove Hansen. He was a guileless and unassuming man; you’d never hear him mention Caravaggio or Vermeer, but he had an infectious passion for light. Gunnar Fisher, who shot Ingmar Bergman’s early films, was also an influence.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
The iconic black-and-white movies — Touch of Evil (1958) and Andrei Rublev (1966) among them — were particularly important to me in developing my craft. I felt black-and-white was truly a cinematographer’s medium; knowing how to interpret, manipulate and translate colors into shades of gray was essential to creating the look of the film, whereas in color cinematography, the look is to a greater extent a collaboration with the production designer. Also, studying Eisenstein’s drawings and storyboards was very important to my understanding of the art of visual storytelling.
How did you get your first break in the business?
While at film school, I teamed up with a fellow student, a director named Jon Carlsen. After we graduated, we collaborated on several short films, which led to an opportunity to shoot my first feature.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
When my collaboration with the director becomes intuitive, and he doesn’t need to explain his intentions in detail anymore.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Just after film school, I was hired to be one of three cameramen on an industrial about the construction of high-voltage power lines. In order to film the workers hanging the wires, they needed someone to climb to the top of a tower just above the insulators and jump into a cart that was suspended on the wires 150' above the ground. There were no safety lines, and no other cameraman wanted to meet the challenge. Seeing this as my chance at a break, I volunteered. When I reached the top, I was petrified with fear but somehow managed to get the job done. When I finally came down, I kissed the ground and felt very proud of myself — until the next day. It turned out that all the footage had vignetting because the bellows matte box was extended too far, and I hadn’t noticed it the entire time I was shooting. Needless to say, it was my last day on the job.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I think it was Sven Nykvist, ASC who once said, ‘Take chances, but when you do, lower the ASA setting on your light meter.’ To this day, no matter how great the latitude of the film stock is, I always calibrate my meter to a lower setting than what the manufacturer recommends.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
The book Color: A Natural History of the Palette, by Victoria Finlay, is a fascinating account of how colors are represented in the physical world and how pigments originated. All of us cinematographers who communicate with production designers through color swatches or pick theatrical gels with our gaffers have experienced how difficult it is to convey our intended use of color. Color is a compelling read, and even though it doesn’t directly deal with photography, I found it very inspiring and highly relevant for practitioners of our craft.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres you would like to try?
Perhaps because of the movie I saw 20 times as a child, I’ve had a lifelong fascination with Westerns.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would be a Sanskrit scholar.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Francis Kenny, Jacek Laskus and Jerzy Zielinski.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
I was a nervous wreck when the ASC Membership Committee viewed my reel. When Owen Roizman, ASC said, ‘Your reel speaks for itself,’ it meant more than any award or accolade I’d ever received. It’s not a coincidence that the three cinematographers whose work I admire the most bore the insignia of this honorary society.