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James Wong Howe
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James Wong Howe Profile

"I believe that the best cameraman is one who recognizes the source, the story, as the basis of his work," said Academy Award®-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe (1899-1976). With that simple philosophy, Howe became a Hollywood legend for his mastery of low-key lighting, deep-focus photography and the evocative imagery that so excitingly served his films' storytelling purposes.

Born Wong Tung Jim in Canton (now Guangzhou), China, Howe came to the U.S. at age five. Raised in the Northwest, he settled in Los Angeles as a teenager and entered films in 1917, quickly moving from cutting-room helper to assistant photographer. He became director of photography in 1922; among his notable silent films was MGM's Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928), starring Lon Chaney and Loretta Young.

A magician of deep shadows and sparkling light, Howe quickly developed a reputation for shooting female stars in a glowing fashion that emphasized their beauty and allure. He won his first of nine Oscar® nominations for Warner Bros.' Algiers (1938), in which his idealized photography of Hedy Lamarr was so ravishing that studio head Jack Warner signed him to a long-term contract. Nicknamed "Low Key Howe" for his lighting effects, he helped establish the studio's signature style in striking black-and-white cinematography. His other Oscar® nominations during this period include those for Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) and Kings Row (1942).

In the 1950s, while continuing to work his magic with black-and-white images, Howe also turned his expressive gifts to color. In Picnic (1955), shooting partly on location in Kansas and partly on Hollywood sound stages, he created an exquisite visualization of small-town life and captured the sexual magnetism of stars William Holden and Kim Novak. Howe's final film credit was Funny Lady (1975), in which he gave star Barbra Streisand the full glamour treatment. Howe was ill during the shooting of this film, and fellow cinematographer John Alonzo (Chinatown, 1974) reportedly subbed for him in some sequences.

by Roger Fristoe

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