The fine art of Black and White
Edward Steichen and Stanley Cortez
“You’ve got to be brave. Get out there and do it. Gamble!”
Cinematographer Stanley Cortez, 1976 (to a group of film students)
Cortez’ words could have come straight from the lips of his first great mentor, Edward Steichen.
Cortez was barely out of his teens when he worked as a set designer for the 20th century’s greatest portrait photographer, Edward Steichen. His stint for Steichen was not long — but his visual sensibility was profoundly impacted. Although he would decide by 1930 that he wanted to devote his life to the movies, his visions in black and white would continue to reflect those produced in Steichen’s studio.
By the turn of the century Steichen was a darling in the new world of art photography. A disciple of Alfred Steiglitz, and a frequent contributor to the ground breaking magazine, Camera Work, Steichen was a celebrated artiste and enfant terrible — he once proudly inserted his photos in the snobbishly old school Paris artist exhibition.
But by 1922 Edward Steichen was disillusioned with the art world. That year would mark the beginning of a new “commercial” photographic career as Conde Nast’s Director of Photography. There in the pages of Vanity Fair and Vogue Steichen would dramatically influence advertising, Hollywood and ironically fine art for decades to come.
At Conde Nast Steichen photographed the most influential, celebrated and notorious figures of the early 20th century. What made his photographs remarkable was his ability to translate personality onto film. Steichen was a genius at shooting people. Part of this ability came from his fearlessness in trying out new lighting effects, sets and angles in order to convey story and mood.
Steichen preferred working on sets where he had complete control. He was an experimenter, but his perfectionist nature required a studio. During WWI he was an aerial photographer where he learned to shoot from a variety of angles — he loved to experiment with these new perspectives on assignments. Sharp, bright light contrasted with deep dramatic shadows served to help his work leap off the printed page.
Many of the hallmarks of Steichen’s work during this period became key ingredients of Cortez’ film work: carefully composed lighting, dramatic angles, experimental techniques and a commitment to perfection. His heightened style would contribute significantly to the mood or personality of a film. He worked to expand the boundaries of black and white with faster film stock. New lighter hand-held cameras allowed cameramen to move while filming and to set up in what would previously have been inaccessible positions. Notably, his underwater shoot of Shelly Winters in The Night of the Hunter, a tour de force of experimental camera work, retains all vestiges of its haunting horror.
Cortez’ perfectionism would not allow any frame to be unimportant –one of the reasons why The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter, The Three Faces of Eve, and Shock Corridor remain masterpieces in cinematography.
Cortez was also able to give otherwise mediocre works a certain interest by means of experimental techniques. He first came to the attention of Orson Welles via his camera work for 1940’s The Black Cat. Even though Welles would later relieve him of his duties on The Magnificent Ambersons due to his “criminally slow pace”, he was rehired by Welles to work on Touch of Evil–another stand out in cinematography.
It is no coincidence the Stanley Cortez came to be known for his mastery of the black and white soundstage. He absorbed many of Edward Steichen lessons well. Most of the camera stills and photos below were taken 20-30 years apart, but they still retain similar sensibilities.