THE RISE OF THE FEMALE DP
There was a time when being a woman cinematographer was an anomaly, more akin to being a woman astronaut, than being an actual working, breathing, qualified artist. To think this was only a short 30 years ago, with gains made only in the last 15 to 20 years, is astonishing, especially considering the age of cinematography.
While no one ever said it was easy to land a job as a cinematographer, never mind make a career out of it, the odds are stacked against most, but even more so for women. The harsh reality is for many years the questioned lingered, "Could a woman shoot a movie and lead a crew?" This question was brought up when cinematographer, Claudia Rashke reflected on the start of her career in an interview for the documentary RBG. As we ponder this thought, we may also be shaking our collective heads and wondering who were/are these people who would question this possibility and how was there a collective group who supported this ridiculous rhetoric? Consider woman pioneers like Marie Curie, Hedy Lamarr, Amelia Earhart, Lucille Ball, Sally Ride, Natalie Kalmus, Annie Leibowitz, and Stephanie Kwolek - the list goes on of amazing women who changed the world of science, business and entertainment and in some cases all of the above. Considering that, even though the art of cinematography may measure financial losses and gains, it is still collaborative and collective artistry, meaning no one person bears all the weight of a successful film shoot, how could such short-sightedness prevail?
But to dwell on the past leaves one stranded and stagnated, for no great accomplishment was ever had dwelling in the past. And so moving forward and celebrating those previously mentioned pioneering woman, how fantastic to celebrate and recognize those pioneers of cinematography who lay the groundwork and inspiration for future filmmakers around the world.
Brianne Murphy ASC
Brianne Murphy ASC was the first female Director of Photography for a major studio film - Fatso in 1982 – and she was also the first woman member of the ASC in 1980, 61 years after the organization was founded. Her tenacity and struggle were real, as real as anyone's with aspirations of such great heights, with the added disadvantage of being a woman. Brianne began her career as an actor, charming her way onto the set of On The Waterfront, which gained her insight into the filmmaking process and the use of filmmaking equipment. She also trained as a trick rider in the rodeo and crashed the Ringling Brothers circus as a clown for a night, which was captured by newsreel cameras and thrust Murphy into the spotlight. These previous gigs opened up the opportunity for a job as a still photographer with the circus, which then led her to Hollywood. She then parlayed those opportunities into jobs as script supervisor, hair, make-up, wardrobe and still photographer, later earning the role of production manager and second unit cinematographer which then led to opportunities as a first unit cinematographer on Little House on the Prairie, Trapper John, M.D., Highway to Heaven, Father Murphy and In the Heat of the Night.
She was also the first woman rated as a cinematographer by local 659 in the early eighties, less than a decade after being rejected by the same organization, now known as IATSE Local 600. But even with these accomplishments, Murphy abbreviated her name and talked in a deep voice to improve her chances of landing a high-profile job. Sadly, Brianne left us all too soon at the age of 70, never comfortable with the role of pioneer, stating, 'I'm not the type to lead movements. I just wanted to make movies badly enough to pay the price of being kicked around, disappointed and unemployed."
In Brianne's footsteps walked women inspired by her directly or indirectly; these are the working pioneers of today, who stand shoulder to shoulder, artistry to artistry, with any cinematographers. Amy Vincent, Ellen Kuras, Maryse Alberti, Nancy Schreiber, and Sandi Sissel - all award-winning accomplished, noble, and generous artisans, their careers built on tenacity, vision, and hope. Each of their stories is different and yet collectively similar in hard work, dedication, and inspiration. All are currently very busy and working back to back jobs. Over a few months, we tracked some down and learned about their path, dreams, hopes, and philosophies.
Sandi Sissel ASC
Sandi Sissel ASC (Master and Commander 2nd unit, Salaam Bombay, Camp Nowhere), a native of Paris, Texas, daughter of a still photographer and journalist who spent countless hours in the darkroom with her father, recalls, "from the age of five onward I ran around with a camera strapped around my neck." Beginning her career as an A.C. in NYC during the late sixties after graduating with an M.A. in filmmaking from the University of Wisconsin, she worked with notable cinema verite cinematographers and shot an additional camera. It was due to a class-action suit in 1974 that Sissel was offered a union card by the Cinematographers Guild and almost immediately landed a job with NBC News traveling the globe and getting what she states, "proved to be my greatest education.
Fourteen years later Sissel earned her most significant recognition to date with the film Salaam Bombay garnering the Camera D'Or at Cannes and then an Oscar nomination. This accomplishment was followed by her first Emmy win for Drug Wars: The Camerena Story, directed by Michael Mann. Reflecting on her career and influences, Sandi states, "As a young cinematographer in NYC I was lucky enough to have both Joan Churchill and Judy Irola as mentors. They were living proof that women could be cinematographers. We remain very close to this day." She also credits the legendary Haskell Wexler, Robby Muller, Conrad Hall and long time gaffer Bruce McCleery, as mentors and major influencers of her narrative career. On maintaining a stable job, Sandi encourages filmmakers to maintain relationships with their collaborators and points out her tenure at NYU as head of Cinematography at NYU's Graduate Film program, being an ASC member since 1994 and having friendships with some of the world's best cinematographers. She points out how important her family is, her three sons, her current life in Tasmania and how inspired she is by the next group of filmmakers following behind whom she continues to mentor.Sandi Sissel ASC in close up
Maryse Alberti ASC
Another iconic pioneer in cinematography is Maryse Alberti ASC, whose latest project is Hillbilly Elegy for Ron Howard. However, through her agent and publicist, we cobbled a glimpse into this media-shy artist's ascension to the status of award-winning cinematographer. Much like Murphy, Alberti had a curious start to her career, arriving in the USA from her native country of France to see Jimi Hendrix only to learn he had died three years earlier. She traveled the country for another three years before settling in NYC and landing a job as an au pair, and her first 'film industry' job was as a still photographer for adult films. In 1982, after many years on film sets, she landed her first job as an A.C. for a small punk-noir film, Vortex, lensed by cinematographer Steven Fierberg ASC, who would train her in the art of filmmaking. In 1990 Alberti won her first award for cinematography for the documentary Stephanie Black's H-2 Worker, following up with Todd Haynes's controversial pseudo-documentary feature film, Poison in 1991, filling her time between with a series of documentaries, short films, and indie features.
Maryse finally landed her first big-budget film, Todd Haynes Velvet Goldmine, in 1998, afterward returning to documentary and short film fare and it would be another ten years before she helmed The Wrestler for acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky. Again, she returned to documentaries, adding T.V. into the mix, and another seven years transpired before she landed her next major studio feature with the film Creed, Ryan Coogler's follow up to Fruitvale Station. Alberti continues to stay busy, always keeping a solid foot in her first love documentaries while answering to the call of feature films which speak to her creatively and, like Murphy before her, continues to work hard and enjoy the rewards of hard work and perseverance. In an interview for the L.A. Times, Alberti was asked if being a woman in a field of work that mainly consists of men has hindered her career and success; she mentions that at the beginning of her career crew members would tease her for being a petite woman working a physically demanding job. In response, Alberti replied, "The little lady doesn't carry the big lights. She points, and the big guys carry the lights."
Over the next few months, we are going to examine the lives and careers of more female cinematographers, exploring the challenges that they overcame and the accolades they have received.
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