Jack Cardiff, legendary British cinematographer, passed away today at the age of 94.
His painterly eye brought color film into its own, expressing human depth and emotion and passion through his radiant, imaginative swirl of a palette. Martin Scorsese once said that Cardiff is “synonymous with Technicolor,” and I think it can be rightly said that, when it comes to color cinematography, he wrote the book.
Cardiff’s prolific career began back in the silent days when he appeared as an actor through the 1920s—not surprising as his parents were of the English music hall and his childhood was mostly spent traveling from theatre to theatre. During his youth, Cardiff was exposed to painting and was fascinated by the use of paint and color and texture. Perhaps this is why, by the end of the 20s, Cardiff had wandered from acting and plunged full speed ahead into movie production. By 18 he was an assistant at British International Pictures and by the 30s, he was a respected camera operator at Denham Studios. The progression from clapper boy to production runner to camera operator to cinematographer was quick: by 1935, Cardiff had shot Britain’s first Technicolor film, Wings of the Morning and, after doing 2nd unit work for an Archers production, the legendary Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger put him on board for their ambitious 1947 feature Black Narcissus. The Himalayan drama was shot entirely at London’s Pinewood studios and earned Cardif an Academy Award. Cinematographer Herb Lightman is quoted as saying that Cardiff’s work on Narcissus demonstrated “hitherto unrealised possibilities for the kinetic use of colour on the screen.” 1948’s The Red Shoes was his final Archers project, and it remains a cinematic benchmark for sheer artistic creativity. (Interestingly enough, Cardiff did not receive the Oscar for Red Shoes, arousing suspicion of the Academy’s reluctance to give the honor to a foreigner two years in a row.) Cardiff’s work with the Archers was pioneering in its use of colour and his input was a large part of what made their success internationally and differentiated them from the far less flamboyant British film industry of the time. “I was the sort of person to suggest a lot of crazy ideas, “ Michael Powell once said, “and Jack took them seriously.”
Then there were the legends. The African Queen, the Prince and the Showgirl and The Barefoot Contessa had Cardiff lighting the likes of Bogart, Monroe and Gardner. Marilyn Monroe and Cardiff became good friends on the set of Showgirl, (he was a confidant of Monroe’s amidst the notorious battles between her and director co-star Laurence Olivier), and she once gave him a signed picture of herself, inscribed with the words “Dear Jack, if only I could be the way you have created me.” His leading ladies often posed for him for professional portraits, some of which have even been exhibited.
The New York Times wrote reverently of Cardiff’s legend back in 2002 when he received his honorary Oscar, calling him “Cinema’s Vermeer.” “The most interesting lesson in painting is clean-looking light and dramatic emphasis,” Cardiff said in the article, “whether it stands out in a countryside or in a bowl of fruit. Economy and simplicity – that was Caravaggio. Drama and organization – that was Turner. This is what I think about when lighting a scene.”**
Thankfully, his images will live on as long as the masters whom he championed so well.
**Special Thank you to the Powell and Pressburger Pages for their exhaustive sources!
Here’s a look back at some of the man’s most important work: