Henri Alekan born
Henri Alekan, a master of light and shadow who was one of the last great black-and-white cinematographers, was born in Paris on this day in 1909. Educated in Paris and Nice, he was a bank clerk and a puppeteer before studying photography at the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers and the Institut d'Optique. His most formative education, however, came during the 1930s when he worked as an assistant cameraman and spent five years (between 1936 and 1940) apprenticed to the legendary D.P. Eugen Schufftan (most famous for films like Metropolis and, much later, The Hustler). While still very early in career, Alekan was involved in laying major foundations of the French film, as a co-founder of the French Film Academy (with Henri Langlois and Georges Franju), the Cinémathèque Française (again with Langlois), and the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques, France’s film school. In 1946, he shot two seminal movies, René Clément’s real-life WW2 drama La Bataille du Rail and Jean Cocteau’s sumptuous La Belle et la Bête, and in 1953 was Oscar-nominated for his work on William Wyler’s Roman Holiday, a job he fortuitously got when the original cameraman quit the movie. After working prolifically in the French film industry throughout the 1950s, Alekan found less work in the next two decades but experienced a resurgence in his career in the 1980s, thanks in no small part to Wim Wenders. A director with a penchant for black-and-white cinematography, Wenders hired Alekan as his D.P. on The State of Things in 1982 and, most memorably, on Wings of Desire (1987), on which Alekan did some of his very best work. (You can read Wenders’ tribute to Alekan, extracted from an issue of Projections, in the Faber & Faber section of FilmInFocus.) Alekan died of leukemia in 2001 at the age of 92.