Vilmos Zsigmond, the legendary cinematographer who brought an unmistakable gift for gorgeous imagery to some of the greatest motion pictures ever made, died on January 1, 2016, according to Variety. He was 85 years old.
Born in Hungary in 1930, Zsigmond left the country at the age of 26 along with fellow future cinematography great László Kovács (Ghostbusters). His early years in the U.S. were spent working as a still photographer and lab technician and filming exploitation features such as The Sadist, Psycho a Go-Go, and Five Bloody Graves.
In 1971, he was hired to shoot Robert Altman’s unconventional western McCabe & Mrs. Miller and earned great praise for the aged, hazy look that he and Altman decided on for the film, which was accomplished by “flashing” the film negative before it was exposed and using filters on the cameras. Zsigmond and the director would employ the same effect for their next collaboration, 1973’s classic Raymond Chandler adaptation The Long Goodbye.
From those two films on, Zsigmond would ply his trade for some of the top filmmakers in the industry. He shot Deliverance for John Boorman, The Sugarland Express and Close Encounters of the Third Kind for Steven Spielberg, The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate for Michael Cimino, Maverick (in which he also made a cameo appearance in front of the camera) and Assassins for Richard Donner, The Witches of Eastwick for George Miller, The Two Jakes for Jack Nicholson, The Crossing Guard for Sean Penn, and many more.
Zsigmond also enjoyed a four-film collaboration with Brian DePalma, the best of which being 1981’s political conspiracy thriller Blow Out, and worked on several features directed by Woody Allen in recent years.
Although Zsigmond reportedly clashed with Spielberg during the making of Close Encounters, the film brought the cinematographer his first and only Academy Award win. He was also nominated for his work on The Deer Hunter, The River, and The Black Dahlia.
His television achievements include the acclaimed miniseries The Mists of Avalon, based on Marion Zimmer Bradley’s bestselling novel, and Stalin. He received Emmy nominations for both films and won for Stalin. Zsigmond made only one film as director – 1992’s The Long Shadow, starring Michael York and Liv Ullmann. He was a member of the American Society of Cinematographers and the group honored him with a lifetime achievement award in 1999.
Other great films photographed by Zsigmond include Winter Kills and Real Genius. Most recently he filmed 24 episodes of the Fox comedy series The Mindy Project and had several movie projects lined up, determined to work literally until the day he died. Sadly, those films will be made without the unique visionary eye of one of cinema history’s best cinematographers.
Vilmos Zsigmond made a monumental impact on the world of motion pictures and the millions of moviegoers around the world who gazed in wonder at his astounding visuals on the big screen and the television screen. There will be another quite like him.
Below I’ve included a gallery of images from some of the films shot by Zsigmond.
R.I.P. Vilmos Zsigmond
June 16, 1930 – January 1, 2016