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2020 Summer Reading Challenge: Painting with Light (1949, 2013) John Alton

Painting with Light (1949, 2013) John Alton

Introduction by Todd McCarthy

With a new foreword by John Bailey

University of California Press

Paperback, 191 pages

Includes table of contents, foreword (Bailey), preface from the author, introduction (McCarthy), filmography, many photos and illustrations

ISBN 9780520275843

I always look forward to Raquel Stecher’s Classic Film Summer Reading Challenge over at her blog, Out of the Past. I enjoy thinking about which books I might read about classic era Hollywood stars and directors, movie history, “making of” stories about famous titles, and so much more. Yet it is rare to find books by or about cinematographers. Even if you found one, chances are it would be filled with technical details that only other cinematographers would find interesting (or even understand). Such is not the case with Painting with Light by master cinematographer John Alton (1901-1996).


Painting with Light was first published in 1949, a time not too far after the release of several of Alton’s finest film noir titles showcasing his work, such as T-Men (1947), Canon City, Raw Deal, He Walked by Night, and Hollow Triumph (all 1948). No other cinematographer from this era had yet published such a treatise that discussed how cinematography works, showing the average moviegoer the tools of the trade and how they could use them (perhaps not to make movies, but in order to take better photos).

That was the problem. Alton’s fellow cinematographers felt he had betrayed them for revealing their trade secrets. It also didn’t help that Alton had resigned from the American Society of Cinematographers. Twice. Alton won his only Oscar in 1951 for Best Color Cinematography for An American in Paris (shared with Alfred Gilks), but, ironically, never won anything for his black-and-white pictures, which are still revered and studied today, especially by film noir buffs.

While most cinematographers from Hollywood’s classic era held onto very long careers, Alton retired from the business in 1960 at age 59. In one of the book's opening sections by Todd McCarthy titled “Through a Lens Darkly: The Life and Films of John Alton,” Alton is quoted as saying, “The only mistake I made was quitting when I was 59.” McCarthy’s brief look at Alton’s life (before the book proper) is fascinating, detailing several other reasons why Alton probably became disgruntled with Hollywood, but these same pages also display Alton’s drive and vision. Perhaps, like me, you’ll come away wishing we had a full-fledged biography of Alton.

What follows is Alton’s complete book from 1949. The reader will need to understand that many of the tools and techniques Alton discusses in the remainder of the book were the best available at the time of publication. Yet also understand that while those tools and techniques have changed and advanced significantly, the fundamentals and essentials are the same as they were in 1949. Proper lighting is proper lighting. Poor lighting is poor lighting. The concepts that worked then can work today. Only the tools and technology are different.

With that in mind, Alton begins with something I’ve never seen anywhere else: a list of the personnel on a movie crew, what they do, and the tools they use. This section focuses primarily on movie photography and illumination, but other related aspects (make-up, wardrobe, etc.) are also discussed.

Alton also covers location lighting, special situations (moonlight, fog, rain, artificial snow, etc.), process photography, the close-up, interiors, shooting on ships and boats, in cars… Everything you could want to know about how movies were shot in classic Hollywood is all here. It’s all accessible, and it’s all fascinating.

In the book’s final chapter, “The World is a Huge Television Studio and We Are All Photographers,” Alton gets a bit philosophical as he brilliantly lays out his thoughts, not so much on cinematography, but on the creative process itself, of learning how to think with humanity in mind, reaching for a higher level. Alton lived that philosophy throughout his entire career, yet was often working for people who couldn’t appreciate his values. Yet many did. (When Dore Schary took over production at MGM, the first people he hired were Anthony Mann and John Alton.) We’re still talking about Alton today, and not just film noir fans. And we’re still reading his book. If you haven’t yet read it and you’re a fan of Hollywood’s classic era, you’ll want to pick up this book.

As mentioned before, this review is part of the 2020 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge. You can (and should!) sign up here and be a part of the challenge, telling others about the classic film books you're reading, and getting suggestions for your own reading. Enjoy!

Photos: Note that not all of the photos on this post are from the book. University of California Press, Britannica, Neil Oseman, IEC

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Jul 17, 2020

Thanks, Raquel! I'd certainly love to read up on Howe as well. Come to think of it, I'd love to read about Nicholas Musuraca, Russell Metty, Burnett Guffey, Sol Polito... So many great names keep recurring every time I watch classic films. Thanks again!


Raquel Stecher
Raquel Stecher
Jul 16, 2020

Thank you for the shout out! After researching James Wong Howe I really want to learn more about cinematographers and their craft. This book sounds interesting. Thanks for the great review!

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