All articles and pages may contain affiliate links. You can read our disclosure policy here.
James Wong Howe, A.S.C. (August 28, 1899 – July 12, 1976) was a Chinese American cinematographer who worked on over 130 films. He was a master at the use of shadow and was one of the first to use deep-focus cinematography, in which both foreground and distant planes remain in focus.
Although the innovation of deep focus cinematography is usually associated with Gregg Toland, Howe used it in his first sound film, Transatlantic, ten years before Toland used the technique on Citizen Kane. For deep focus, the cinematographer narrows the aperture of the camera lens, and floods the set with light, so that elements in both the foreground and background remain in sharp focus. The technique requires highly sensitive film and was difficult to achieve with early film stocks; Toland, Howe, and Arthur Edeson were among the earliest cinematographers to successfully use it.
His father Wong Howe moved to America that year to work on the Northern Pacific Railway and in 1904 sent for his family. The Howes settled in Pasco, Washington, where they owned a general store. A Brownie camera, said to have been bought at Pasco Drug when he was a child, sparked an early interest in photography. After his father’s death, the teenaged Howe moved to Oregon to live with his uncle and briefly considered (1915–16) a career as a bantamweight boxer. After compiling a record of 5 wins, 2 losses and a draw, Howe moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in hopes of attending aviation school but ran out of money and went south to Los Angeles. Once there, Howe took several odd jobs, including work as a commercial photographer’s delivery boy and as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After a chance encounter with a former boxing colleague who was photographing a Mack Sennett short on the streets of Los Angeles, Howe approached cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff and landed a low-level job in the film lab at Famous Players-Lasky Studios. Soon thereafter he was called to the set of The Little American to act as an extra clapper boy, which brought him into contact with silent film director Cecil B. DeMille. Amused by the sight of the diminutive Asian holding the slate with a large cigar in his mouth, DeMille kept Howe on and launched his career as a camera assistant. To earn additional money, Howe took publicity stills for Hollywood stars.
One of those still photographs launched Howe’s career as a cinematographer when he stumbled across a means of making silent film star Mary Miles Minter’s eyes look darker by photographing her while she was looking at a dark surface (see Howe’s technical innovations for more details). Minter requested that Howe be first cameraman, that is director of photography, on her next feature, and Howe shot Minter’s closeups for Drums of Fate by placing black velvet in a large frame around the camera. Throughout his career, Howe retained a reputation for making actresses look their best through lighting alone and seldom resorted to using gauze or other diffusion over the lens to soften their features. Howe worked steadily as a cinematographer from 1923 until the end of the era of silent film.
In 1928, Howe was in China shooting backgrounds for a movie he hoped to direct. The project he was working on was never completed (although some of the footage was used in Shanghai Express), and when he returned to Hollywood, he discovered that the “talkies” had largely supplanted silent productions. With no experience in that medium, Howe could not find work.
Finally, director/producer Howard Hawks, whom he had met on The Little American, hired him for The Criminal Code and then director William K. Howard selected him to be the cinematographer on Transatlantic.
Howe’s innovative work on Transatlantic reestablished him as one of the leading cinematographers in Hollywood, and he worked continuously through the 1930s and 1940s, generally on several movies a year.
Howe was nominated for an Academy Award in 1944 in the “Best Cinematography: Black-and-White” category for his work on the movie Air Force, which nomination he shared with Elmer Dyer, A.S.C., and Charles A. Marshall.
After the end of World War II, Howe’s long-term contract with Warner Bros. lapsed, and he went to China to work on a documentary about rickshaw boys. When he returned Howe found himself gray-listed. While never a Communist, Howe was named in testimony as a sympathizer. Howe and his wife Sanora Babb, who had been a member of the Communist Party, moved to Mexico for a time, Howe again had trouble finding employment until writer/director Samuel Fuller hired him to shoot The Baron of Arizona.
Again reestablished, Howe’s camerawork continued to be highly regarded. In 1949, he shot tests and was hired for a never made comeback film starring Greta Garbo (screen adaptation of Balzac’s La Duchesse de Langeais). In 1956, Howe won his first Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo. The film’s director, Daniel Mann, had originally been a stage director and later stated that he gave Howe control over almost all decisions about the filming other than those regarding the actors and dialogue. In 1957’s Sweet Smell of Success, Howe worked with director Alexander Mackendrick to give the black-and-white film a sharp-edged look reminiscent of New York tabloid photography such as that taken by Arthur “Weegee” Fellig.
Howe’s best-known work was almost entirely in black and white. His two Academy Awards both came during the period when Best Cinematography Oscars were awarded separately for color and black-and-white films. However, he successfully made the transition to color films and earned his first Academy Award nomination for a color film in 1958 for The Old Man and the Sea. He won his second Academy Award for 1963’s Hud. His cinematography remained inventive during his later career. For instance, his use of fish-eye and wide-angle lenses in Seconds (1966) helped give an eerie tension to director John Frankenheimer’s science fiction movie. After working on The Molly Maguires (1970), Howe’s health began to fail and he entered semi-retirement. In 1974, he was well enough to be selected as a replacement cinematographer for Funny Lady. He collapsed during the filming; American Society of Cinematographers president Ernest Laszlo filled in for Howe while he was recovering in the hospital. Funny Lady earned Howe his tenth and final Oscar nomination. Three documentaries were made about Howe during the last two decades of his life.
Howe was judged to be one of history’s ten most influential cinematographers in a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers Guild.
Our Five Favorite Movies from Cinematographer James Wong Howe
(click film poster for more information)