Here’s a list of films that, for those who’ve seen them, instantly bring to mind striking images: McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blow Out, The Deer Hunter. Each bears the name of a different director, but they all share the same cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, who died January 1st at the age of 85, Variety and other sources are now reporting.
Zsigmond’s IMDb listing stretches from ’60s B-movies like The Nasty Rabbit and Psycho A Go-Go to many episodes of The Mindy Project and several yet-to-be-released films. But it’s a list that might have looked much different if Zsigmond and his fellow cinematographer and lifelong friend Lázlo Kovács hadn’t defected from Hungary after filming, then fleeing, the Russian invasion of 1956. Like Kovács, who died in 2007, Zsigmond never stopped working upon arriving in Hollywood. And, also like Kovács, he helped define the way films looked in the 1970s.
Kovács had his breakthrough with Easy Rider in 1969. Zsigmond arrived a few years later when Robert Altman tapped him to shoot McCabe and Mrs. Miller, his revisionist Western starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. It’s hard to understate how much the look Zsigmond arrived at for the film played into its overall effectiveness. It’s dominated by the sepia tones of an old photograph but still feels present and alive, capturing an understated tragedy as it unfolds in a time and place that’s long since been forgotten.
Zsigmond brought that same attention to detail, and gift for atmosphere, to the other films he shot for the era’s major directors. He memorably worked with Altman again on The Long Goodbye and Images. He first worked with Brian De Palma on Obsession and would team up with him again several more times over the years, earning an Oscar nomination for his work on 2006’s The Black Dahlia. For Steven Spielberg, he shot Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the latter one of his most accomplished films, though this was, by all reports, not a smooth collaboration. For John Boorman, he lensed Deliverance and for Michael Cimino, both The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate. (Say what you will about that latter film, it’s a master class in gorgeous cinematography. It’s also worth noting that Zsigmond had the distinction of working on two notorious flops, Heaven’s Gate and De Palma’s Bonfire of the Vanities.) Later pairings with notable directors include a string of films for Richard Donner and Woody Allen and Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl.
Zsigmond’s death follows a week after that of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, another creator of indelible images without whom the way we look at movies would be much different. Film is a collaborative medium though, inevitably, much of the credit goes to director. But without key personnel and, often especially, without a skilled artist who knows how to use the camera as a paintbrush, it’s a lesser art. Zsigmond always tried to push it further and had the good fortune to work with many directors who understood how far he could take their visions. Sometimes, it seems, that was even further than they knew it could go.