Nestor Almendros: 1930-1992: Cinematographer Biography
The naturalistic look of modern dramatic films, from European art-house creations to mainstream Hollywood products, is in part the creation of cinematographer Nestor Almendros. A master in the use of natural lighting and in the visual composition of a scene in such a way as to reveal the emotions and motivations of a film's characters, Almendros helped some of the most celebrated directors in modern cinema to realize their ideas. Almendros's own life story was hardly less dramatic than those of many of the characters he recorded on film; his art was forged on the run from two of the twentieth century's most notorious totalitarian systems.
Almendros was born in Barcelona, Spain on October 30, 1930, and grew up during the Spanish Civil War. The family opposed the takeover of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, and their situation deteriorated. Almendros's father left for Cuba in 1940, but Almendros himself did not follow until 1948. In the interim, the teenaged Almendros sought refuge from Spain's increasingly bleak political situation by becoming a cinema buff. He developed a particular appreciation for silent films and their almost entirely visual language.
Enrolling at Havana University shortly after arriving in Cuba, Almendros did not graduate until 1956. But he spent his time associating with young filmmakers and learning the cinematic trade. His first film was an eight-millimeter short subject made in 1950 in collaboration with Tomas Gutiérrez Alea, later a major Cuban director. Almendros came to the United States for further study at the City College of New York in 1956, staying on to teach Spanish at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, for two years. He also took a cinematography course at a film school in Rome, the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, but he chafed at the well-worn visual styles he encountered there.
Almendros's return to Cuba coincided with the ascent to power of Communist strongman Fidel Castro, and for several years Almendros tried to serve loyally as a cinematic soldier of the fledgling Communist state. The socialist-realist films on which Almendros worked actually influenced his later style; working on shoestring budgets, he often had to improvise set lighting by using natural light in innovative ways. He remained in Cuba until 1962, when he voted for François Truffaut's French New Wave classic The 400 Blows in a critics' poll of the best films of the previous year—choosing it over the Castro-approved Russian entry. When official disfavor resulted, Almendros saw the handwriting on the wall and moved to France.
With no contacts and not even a permit allowing him to do work of any kind in France, Almendros endured several difficult years in the early 1960s. He immersed himself, however, in the films of the French New Wave, whose natural style and focus on the everyday complemented the photographic style Almendros himself had developed. In 1964 he met one of the leading New Wave directors, Eric Rohmer, and happened to be on the set one day while Rohmer's Paris Seen By … was being shot. When the film's contracted cinematographer walked off after a dispute, Almendros, as quoted in the London Independent, said, "I am a cameraman!" He was hired for the day and then, after acquitting himself well, for the remainder of the shooting. Due to his lack of a French work permit, his name was not included in the film's credits.
Soon, however, Almendros had become the favored cinematographer of both Rohmer and director François Truffaut, whose L'enfant sauvage (1969), a film about a child found in a forest, was shot by Almendros in black-and-white images that evoked the power of silent cinema. Almendros worked in France through much of the 1970s, doing much to define the style of such art-house classics as Rohmer's Claire's Knee (1971) and Truffaut's The Story of Adèle H. (1975). As a result, his name became well known to a generation of young American directors who encountered these French classics during their student years.
At first, as they had in France, bureaucratic regulations hampered Almendros's American career; union regulations effectively shut him out of work for several years. But in 1979 he won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on the immigrant saga Days of Heaven, with Richard Gere in the lead role. One of the directors most impressed by Almendros's European work was Robert Benton, who put Almendros behind the camera for the runaway hit Kramer vs. Kramer. That film brought Almendros another Academy Award nomination, and was the first of four films he made that featured actress Meryl Streep in the lead female role. Almendros won a New York Film Critics' Circle award for his work on Sophie's Choice (1981).
Almendros has been recognized in the film industry for his use of natural light sources; he experimented with new types of color film that expanded his range of available lighting conditions, and he told the New York Times that "when I started, I found that my job consisted principally in de-lighting sets, that is, removing all the fake, conventional movie lighting that had been set up by lighting technicians.… They believed in a very glossy kind of photography, that faces should never be in a shadow …" Yet he also wrote in his autobiography, A Man with a Camera, that "the main qualities a director of photography needs are plastic sensitivity and a solid cultural background. So-called cinematographic technique is only of secondary importance." Indeed, it was Almendros's insight into character and emotional state that has defined much of his best work.
Almendros directed few films of his own, but he was noted in the 1980s for two documentaries he made that explored the repressiveness of the Castro regime in Cuba: Improper Conduct (1985) detailed the persecution of Cuban homosexuals under Castro, and it was followed in 1988 by another indictment of Cuban human-rights violations, Nobody Listened. Almendros continued a fast pace of activity through the 1980s; by the time of his death he had worked on over forty films. Benton's Places in the Heart (1984), starring Sally Field as a Depression-era farmer, was his own favorite.
The last film he worked on was the same director's Billy Bathgate. Almendros was stricken with lymphoma and died on March 4, 1992, in New York City.
Paris vu par …, 1964.
La collectioneuse, 1967.
L'enfant sauvage, 1969.
L'histoire d'Adèle H., 1975.
Days of Heaven, 1978.
Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979.
Sophie's Choice, 1982.
Places in the Heart, 1984.
Mauvaise conduite (Improper Conduct, documentary, director), 1984.
Nadie escuchaba (Nobody Listened, documentary, director), 1988.
Billy Bathgate, 1990.
A Man with a Camera, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1984.
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale, 1996.
International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 4: Writers and Production Artists, St. James, 1996.
Film Comment, January-February 1994, p. 15.
The Guardian (London, England), July 15, 1993, p. 5.
The Independent (London, England), March 6, 1992, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1992, p. A18.
National Review, June 1, 1984, p. 20.
New York Times, March 5, 1992, p. B15.
People, October 22, 1984, p. 13.
Time, March 16, 1992, p. 49.
Times (London, England), March 6, 1992, Features section.
—James M. Manheim
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