Remembering Vilmos Zsigmond: “Painter of Light”

By on January 6, 2016

On the first day of this brand new year we learned of the passing of Vilmos Zsigmond, who had a decade-spanning career as a celebrated cinematographer, working with directors like Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Brian De Palma, Michael Cimino, John Boorman and many others.

This new 3-minute supercut by award-winning filmmaker Brad Jones highlights just a small portion of the most famous and breathtakingly iconic images captured by Zsigmond over his lengthy career.

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Zsigmond helped define cinema’s American New Wave in the 1970s through iconic collaborations and a preference for natural light. He first gained renown for his collaboration with Robert Altman on classics McCabe & Mrs Miller and The Long Goodbye, Michael Cimino’s classic The Deer Hunter, and he also worked with Brian De Palma on a number of films including Blow Out.

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Zsigmond — born in Szeged, Hungary — left his native country at the age of twenty-six, after lensing the 1956 Russian invasion of his homeland along with fellow student and cinematographer, Laszlo Kovacs. They were both detained at the Austrian border but then released, taking their footage with them, and some of it was later incorporated into his documentary Hungary Aflame, along with a 1961 documentary for “Twentieth Century” which aired on the CBS network. It also appears in the documentary No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo and Vilmos, which was released in 2009.

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In June 2015, Anthony Bourdain wrote about Zsigmond’s early days when his CNN show “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” traveled to Budapest, Hungary. In the following excerpt, Bourdain says that his friend was responsible for “some of the most strikingly beautiful, iconic images in the history of film”:

“So all of us were super-geeked about the gentleman who agreed to take us back to Hungary, the country of his birth, and walk us through some of the locations that figured heavily in the past. His name is Vilmos Zsigmond, and he is the cinematographer responsible for some of the most strikingly beautiful, iconic images in the history of film.

His work on Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller changed the craft forever. He also shot such films as The Deer Hunter, Deliverance, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Long Goodbye, and many, many others.

In 1956, he was fresh out of film school when the Hungarian people rose up, and to everyone’s amazement, seemed to sweep their Soviet occupiers right out of their country. For a few short days, it seemed too good to be true. And it was. The Soviets returned in force, rolling tank columns into Budapest and brutally crushing any resistance. With a camera “liberated” from their film school, young Vilmos and his close friend and fellow film student, Laszlo Kovacs (later to also become a legendary cinematographer), at great peril, filmed all of it.

They took to the streets and shot everything they could. The uprising, the street fighting, reprisals against the despised secret police — and the overwhelming response by the Soviets. With the film cans under their arms, determined to show the world what had happened, they snuck across the border into Austria — and began the long journey that ended up, strangely enough, in Hollywood.”

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After coming to Hollywood, Zsigmond initially found work as a still photographer and lab technician, assisting in the cinemaphotography of 1962’s Wild Guitar, although his first credit as cinematographer was on The Sadist, in 1963. He worked on other exploitation films and horror fare — including Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, Horror of the Blood Monsters, Five Bloody Graves — and low-budget comedies like Tales of a Salesman (1965) and The Monitors (1969), before he finally got his big break with Altman’s stylistically-daring “McCabe” (1971), and for the next couple of decades he went on to become one of the most sought-after cinematographers in Hollywood, picking up his first Oscar nomination for Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1979), which he considered one of his finest achievements.

One of our favorite films that has been frequently overlooked in obituaries about Zigmond is Peter Fonda’s 1971 revisionsist western The Hired Hand, with incredible soundtrack music was done by Bruce Langhorne.

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Roger Ebert, in 1972, called Fonda’s film a “languorously spiritual Western about a young man who grows up into responsibility,” and his review also highlighted Zsigmond’s “shimmering photographic images, slow dissolves, sunstruck double-exposures and camera work that seems lyrical for a Western.”

R.I.P. Vilmos Zsigmond, and also Haskell Wexler.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.