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Women Take Their Place Behind the Camera

  • John Thomas

Women were a major presence throughout last month's Academy Awards ceremony, from the host, comedienne Ellen Degeneres, to film industry executive Sherri Lansing, who received the Jean Hersholt award for her contributions to the film industry. Women artists shared the honors in the makeup and set design and costuming categories. But never has a director of photography walked up those steps to accept an Oscar wearing high heels and an evening gown.

Alexis Krasilovsky has noticed the lack of women cinematographers. So the Cinema/Television professor at California State University, Northridge set out to find them. And she did, all over the world. "You might not think there's a camerawoman in Afghanistan, but there are several," she marvels. "And they risk their lives to go out and shoot. But they shoot and they have a career and that's how they make their living."

Krasilovsky interviewed 50 female Directors of Photography for a documentary called Women Behind the Camera. She reports, "There are more camerawomen in Hollywood than you might think. The numbers quadrupled from 1985 to 97." But last year, the numbers went up only one percent, which Krasilovsky says is not good enough. "A professor at San Diego State University determined that in 2005, two percent of the people who were working as cinematographers on the top 250 films in Hollywood were female." Since there's rarely more than one Director of Photography on a feature film, that comes out to only five camerawomen working on the top 250 big budget movies.

A feature film cinematographer manages every aspect of the visual look of a movie, including the lighting, choice of lenses and camera movement. There are thousands of women enrolled in college and university film schools in the U.S., and camerawomen are promoted by organizations such as Women in Film.

But a film degree may not be enough to change the situation. Krasilovsky says cinematography is still an "old boys' network." "Guys are used to working with guys. A lot of directors, they want someone who has a track record if it's their first film out. And so if they're gonna get someone who's tried and true, it's most likely to be a cameraman who has that track record."

Women cinematographers are developing track records, though. One of them is Hilda Mercado. The Mexican-born Director of Photography graduated from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles and has worked on dozens of films and TV shows. "At the beginning, what I got was an element of surprise," she recalls. "[They'd say,] 'Oh, you are a cinematographer, that's right, and you are a woman. That's wonderful.' I get that a lot."

That response doesn't surprise Alexis Krasilovsky. "I think [it's] the older generation of women who have encountered outright sabotage, discrimination, sexual harassment. I think there's less of that for the younger generation."

That's been the case for Hilda Mercado, during most of her career. "I only had one time that a person tried to discourage me." She says, overall, everyone she's dealt with has been very supportive.

Professor Krasilovsky says she hopes her new documentary film, Women Behind the Camera, will go a long way toward raising the motion picture industry's awareness of the talented camerawomen in Hollywood. "You can't tell me that there are no camerawomen out there," she insists. "It's just that they haven't been given enough of a chance."

With the chance to show what they can do... maybe the next Oscar for photography will be won by a cinematographer in high heels and an evening gown.