On December 27, 2015, cinematographer Haskell Wexler died in his sleep at his home in Santa Monica, California at the age of 93. Over his long and storied career, he became one of the most influential cinematographers in American film, having revolutionized techniques that were featured in films such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, In the Heat of the Night, and even as director with Medium Cool. He was a gifted creator who claimed to make time stand still with striking images in films that are still revered to this day. His legacy lives on in his work, and the generation of film makers that he inspired as a result. There isn't likely to be another cinematographer like him, as he changed the world for the better.
Wexler was born on February 6, 1922 in Chicago, Illinois. Following his time in college at the University of California, Berkeley, he joined The United States Merchant Marines during World War II. Following his time in the service, he decided to become a filmmaker. His early work was mostly done in the documentary medium, where he worked on such projects as The Living City - which was nominated for an Academy Award. By 1947, he became an assistant cameraman, working on low budget projects like the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriett. One of his most frequent collaborators was Saul Landau, of whom he did 10 documentaries with, including Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang, which won an Emmy. He would also form the Wexler-Hall company with partner Conrad Hall during this time.
His first venture into major motion pictures was with director Elia Kazan on 1963's America, America. Kazan would receive a Best Director nomination for the film. Wexler had no trouble getting work after this. It also didn't take him long to become a major influence in Hollywood. He received his first Oscar win for Best Cinematography in 1966 with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?, a domestic dispute drama directed by Mike Nichols that became one of the few films to be nominated in every eligible categories.
During his win, he expressed the gift of brevity in his acceptance speech. The award was presented by Omar Sharif and Ann-Margaret with assistance from host Bob Hope. During his speech, he said "I hope that we can use our art for peace and for love." While more of a coincidence than personal achievement, Wexler's win was also the last time that the Best Cinematography would be presenting an award in two categories: Color and Black and White (the latter of which he received).
The following year was possibly his first major contribution to cinema. In the Norman Jewison film In the Heat of the Night, he was noted with revolutionizing cinematography for African actors. Before this achievement, many actors' skin color would not show up properly on film. With major emphasis on lighting Sidney Poitier in his defining role, Wexler helped to make the appearance more natural and balanced. While that film went on to win Best Picture, he would not win for his groundbreaking cinematography. Wexler would also work on another Best Picture winner called One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in 1975.
In 1976, he collaborated with director Hal Ashby on Bound for Glory. The film itself was a biography on musician Woody Guthrie. By coincidence, Wexler had briefly met the singer while in the marines.` Despite popular notion that Rocky was the first film to use Steadicam, Bound for Glory, and Wexler specifically, deserves credit for it. He would help to create a camera whose visual presence (incorporated into a crane shot) would be smooth. This is where he would win his second Best Cinematography Oscar. He would continue to work with Ashby on films like Coming Home.
Wexler's work as a director was also noteworthy. In 1969, he made his debut with Medium Cool. It was a film set in Chicago that incorporated realistic shooting and natural settings in a style called cinema verite. As a result, many consider this a highly influential film, and it is one that has since gone on to be studied in film schools. In 2001, a documentary about the film aired on the BBC. Wexler would continue to shuffle between the two for the rest of his career, even working on documentaries from time to time.
The value of cinematography is one that is often not recognized for its hard and impressive work. If done right, the beauty will look easy to capture. However, the legacy of Wexler has long been established as one of the great cinematographers in film history. Beyond making entertaining, sometimes revolutionary, films, he changed the way that cameras captured race and movement.He made it all into a more realistic art that influenced a generation to continue exploring the best ways to capture a shot. If he's not the best, he's among the few who will be remembered and studied as long as people film with cameras. His work remains astounding and beautiful, and it will be hard to think of anyone doing as ever a distinct job as he did.