Cinematographer Sven Nykvist dies

Sven Nykvist

Oscar-winning cinematographer Sven Nykvist, who often worked with director Ingmar Bergman, has died aged 83. Nykvist won Academy Awards for Bergman films Cries and Whispers in 1973 and Fanny and Alexander in 1982. He also worked on several films with Woody Allen and was the cinematographer on 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Other film work included The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Chaplin and Sleepless in Seattle.

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  1. —Stephen Pizzello:

    Spanning three decades, the collaboration between director Ingmar Bergman and cinematographer Sven Nykvist ranks as one of the greatest teamings in cinematic history. The two men’s names are irrevocably linked in the minds of the world’s film scholars, who credit the Swedish duo with expanding (or, more accurately, exploding) the parameters of the medium. The magnitude of their achievements cannot be understated; the pair’s work together helped to redefine motion pictures as an art form, opening up limitless vistas of visual creativity, intellectual insight and raw emotional impact.

    Sven and Woody

    Bergman began his artistic career in Swedish theater circles, and made his debut as a motion picture director with the 1945 feature Crisis. Nykvist, a native of Stockholm who had studied at the city’s Municipal School for Photographers, first worked with Bergman in 1953 on Sawdust and Tinsel (a.k.a. The Naked Night), sharing cinematographic duties with Gšran Strindberg and Hilding Bladh (who had trained both Nykvist and Strindberg). Nykvist’s partnership with the great director began in earnest on the classic 1959 film The Virgin Spring, and subsequently produced such masterworks as Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963), Persona (1966), The Hour of the Wolf (1968), The Passion of Anna (1970), Cries and Whispers (1972), The Magic Flute (1973), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), Face to Face (1976), Autumn Sonata (1978), The Serpent’s Egg (1978) and Fanny and Alexander (1983). The cinematographer earned Academy Awards for both Cries and Whispers and Fanny and Alexander.

    A consummate film artist, Bergman held high standards for his cameramen. As he noted in the seminal text Bergman on Bergman, “For me, two things about a cameraman are fundamental. The first is that he shall be technically absolutely perfect, and at the same time first-class on lighting. The second [is] that he must be first-class at operating his own camera. I don’t want any camera operators on my films. The cameraman and I come to an agreement about what is to be included in the image. We also go through everything to do with lighting and atmosphere in advance. And then the cameraman does everything in the way we’ve agreed on.”

    Bergman went on to note that his collaboration with Nykvist rose from the ashes of his long partnership with cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, who shot many of the director’s acclaimed early films, including Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), The Seventh Seal (1956) and Wild Strawberries (1957). Bergman’s comments on this break are telling, revealing that talent alone cannot always ensure a durable bond: “Little by little, Gunnar Fischer’s ideas and mine parted company, and this meant that the solidarity, the feeling of personal contact and interplay between us, which was so necessary to me, became slack — largely, perhaps, because I became more and more domineering, more and more tyrannical, and more and more aware that I was humiliating him. Sven Nykvist is a much tougher personality. I’ve never had any reason to be nasty to him.”

    Further analyzing his relationship with Nykvist, Bergman noted that the two eventually reached an almost telepathic state of synchronicity. “We’ve developed a private language, so to speak. We hardly need to say a word. Before the filming begins we go through the film very carefully, to see how we imagine the lighting, check the lighting conditions, and then solve all lighting problems together.

    “The light in the images is something I hardly think can ever be attributed to just one of us,” the director added. “Perhaps I can put it like this: the impulse comes from me, and the enormously careful, subtle and technically clever execution is all Sven Nykvist’s work.”

    Nykvist, for his part, has consistently credited Bergman with opening his eyes to the full emotional range of lighting. As he told American Cinematographer in 1972, “I owe a great debt to Ingmar, for he gave me my passion for light. Without him I would have remained just another technical cameraman with no great awareness of the infinite possibilities of lighting. Today, I hate purely technical camerawork. I have a great sense that every picture I work on is different and demands a different approach. And I believe that the audience, supposedly indifferent to lighting subtleties, and responsive only to acting and story, will appreciate our work. People must do more than see a motion picture. They must have a feeling for it, and my experience has told me that they appreciate and are held spellbound by a certain mood that is created for them by the proper utilization of light. That is the key to it all. That is what photography is all about.”

    Throughout their careers, both Bergman and Nykvist have consistently championed the virtues of simplicity. In Bergman on Bergman, the director told his interviewers that he admired his cameraman’s ability to see past the logistical aspects of film production and pinpoint the narrative core of a story. “More often than not, it’s the people who know nothing or very little who use the most elaborate apparatus,” he said. “It’s their ignorance that complicates the whole procedure. Take a cameraman like Sven Nykvist, a technically clever cameraman, one of the cleverest in the world. All he needs to work is three lamps and a little greaseproof paper. One part of knowing what to do is simply the ability to eliminate a mass of irrelevant technical complications, to be able to peel away a mass of superficial apparatus.”

    Indeed, after being named as the recipient of the ASC’s International Award in 1996, Nykvist recalled the stripped-down pleasures of his early work with Bergman, who in those days was making films for $100,000 with crews of 8 to 10 people and a handful of actors. “That was a very nice way to work,” the cameraman related. “Everyone did everything. Everyone helped everyone else. It was like a family.”

    In his 1972 interview with AC, Nykvist confirmed that the intervening years of experience hadn’t changed his fundamental principles on the set. “I see a great many films and I have come to the conclusion that a large number of pictures today are overlit. Technical perfection in terms of camera and lenses seems to have been matched by a desire to fill the screen with lots of perfectly placed and calculated light. I just don’t go along with this, and I have Ingmar Bergman to thank for letting me experiment with a kind of cinematography which, by utilizing true light where possible, seems to me to do greater justice to the medium.

    “Of course, Bergman is unique,” Nykvist conceded. “I have had the privilege of working with him since 1953 and, through him, have learned to better understand the ultimate possibilities of cinematography. Because he had worked in the theatre, he was intensely interested in light and its uses and how it can be applied to creating a given atmosphere. Bergman has been making pictures for many years, and he knows everything about the camera as a technical instrument. He has a mind and an imagination that takes in not only the limits of poetic imagery, but — equally — the scientific aspects of filmmaking. He has done away with Ônice’ photography and has shown us how to find truth in camera movement and in lighting.”

  2. The Times, London-

    SVEN NYKVIST was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest cinematographers. He brought a naturalistic approach to filming and worked regularly with Ingmar Bergman.

    Their rapport was both professional and personal, for both had ministers as fathers and grew up in repressive Lutheran households, and their backgrounds inevitably informed their work as film-makers.

    Nykvist was in constant demand by leading directors in Europe and Hollywood; he collaborated repeatedly with Woody Allen, a devotee of Bergman, and also worked with Roman Polanski, Louis Malle, Andrei Tarkovsy, Norman Jewison and Bob Fosse.

    He photographed the biopic Chaplin (1992) for Richard Attenborough and the classic romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (1993) for Nora Ephron.

    Often he tried to make his lighting as naturalistic as possible, but on other occasions it contributed significantly to the atmosphere. He won Oscars for two of his films with Bergman — Cries and Whispers (1972), which he shot in an atypically stylised manner, with heavy use of reds, and Fanny and Alexander (1982), an uncharacteristically lavish period drama that drew on Bergman’s own childhood.

    For all his success Nykvist became a film-maker almost by accident — his interest developed as an unlikely by-product of his parents’ missionary work in Africa and his own early involvement in athletics.

    He was born Sven Vilhelm Nykvist in Alvesta in southern Sweden in 1922, though his parents spent much of their time in the Congo and the young Nykvist was left behind with an aunt. “One of my very early memories is of looking at images from Africa captured on a wind-up film camera,” he said. “They showed African men building a church with my father, and they captivated me.”

    His aunt gave him his first camera, and his initial interest was in photography rather than film. He was also a keen athlete as a teenager and saved his earnings from a paper round to buy an 8mm film camera specifically to film and analyse high-jump techniques. That experience aroused his interest in film, even though his parents regarded cinema as sinful.

    He studied photography at college in Stockholm and, despite parental disapproval, went to the cinema regularly; eventually he decided to seek work in the industry. He began as an assistant cameraman in Sweden and worked as an assistant cameraman and an interpreter as the Cinecittà studios in Rome.

    By the time he made his first film with Bergman, Nykvist was fairly well established as a cinematographer back in Sweden, with a decade of experience behind him. He got the chance to work on Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) after another cinematographer dropped out.

    It was to be another six years before they worked together again, on The Virgin Spring, a medieval drama that won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. They would go on to make more than 20 feature films and television dramas together over three decades.

    Bergman’s work with Nykvist marked a move away from the more austere, expressionist style of cinematographer Gunnar Fischer, with whom he worked on The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries (both 1957).

    Their other films together include Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1962), The Silence (1963), The Touch (1971), Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and Autumn Sonata (1978). Initially Nykvist and Bergman continued to work in monochrome and shared a suspicion of colour, though eventually they came to embrace it.

    While Nykvist’s work was praised for its almost documentary realism, it was certainly not without art. For example, one of the most memorable moments in Persona, a drama about schizophrenia and identity, was that in which the faces of the actresses Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson seem to blend into each other.

    Nykvist continued to work with other directors too. One of his first Hollywood productions was the thriller The Last Run (1971), which was directed by Richard Fleischer and starred George C. Scott, though it was shot in Europe. A few years later he accompanied the French director Louis Malle to the US to make Pretty Baby (1978), a period drama set in a southern whorehouse and starring Susan Sarandon and Brooke Shields.

    He captured the raw eroticism of Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in the 1981 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice and had to match footage of Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche to archive film of the 1968 Prague uprising for The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). With Woody Allen he made Another Woman (1988), Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), New York Stories (1989) and Celebrity (1998).

    In 1991 Nykvist wrote and directed The Ox, starring the Bergman regulars Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, and it was nominated for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

    His wife predeceased him and he is survived by his son.

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