ASC Close up with Ernest Dickerson:
When you were a child, what film made the strongest impression on you?
The earliest film I can remember seeing was about a giant octopus that attacks San Francisco. I must have been 4 years old. Later, I found out it was It Came From Beneath the Sea. The look of the ocean at night, with the moonlight sparkling on black water, stayed with me. Of course, now I know it was black-and-white day for night and the octopus was animated by Ray Harryhausen, but those images come back to me every time I look at the ocean in the moonlight.
Which cinematographers, past or present, do you most admire?
Gregg Toland, ASC; James Wong Howe, ASC; Jack Cardiff, ASC; Oswald Morris, BSC; Freddie Young, BSC; Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC; Gordon Willis, ASC; Conrad Hall, ASC; Robby Müller, BVK; Néstor Alméndros, ASC; Vittorio Storaro, ASC, AIC; Kazuo Miyagawa; Chris Doyle, HKSC; Cesar Charlone, ABC; and new, young, up-and-coming cinematographers like Matthew Libatique, ASC.
What sparked your interest in photography?
When I was young, I always wondered why some movies looked the way they did. That there was a photographic process involved never occurred to me, because I didn’t know what photography was. When I was about 14, my uncle, El Hajj Daoud Haroon, became artist in residence at Wesleyan University. He’s a jazz musician, but while there, he took photography classes. He used to produce some of the most beautiful black-and-white prints. That was the first spark. But later, when I was about 16, that same uncle and I were watching one of those movies whose look tantalized me: David Lean’s Oliver Twist, shot by Guy Green, BSC. My uncle casually mentioned how beautiful he thought the photography was. That’s when it clicked that I was watching something that had been photographed. Around that same time, I saw In Cold Blood. I was stunned by the look of it and saw that it was photographed by someone named Conrad Hall. Not long after that, I read a New York Times article on Conrad and his work on Electra Glide in Blue. I became fascinated by the idea of directors of photography and what they did.
Where did you train and/or study?
I did my undergraduate work at Howard University, with a major in architecture and a minor in color photographic illustration. Then I took a master’s in filmmaking at New York University, majoring in cinematography. Between those two experiences, I worked as a medical photographer at Howard University Medical School for three years.
Who were your early teachers or mentors?
I guess my chief mentor was my uncle. He also helped me buy my first still camera and taught me how to use it. Also, professors Haile Gerima and Roland Mitchell, who taught film and cinematography at Howard University, encouraged my first serious thoughts about becoming a filmmaker.
What are some of your key artistic influences?
Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Gordon Parks, Robert Frank, W. Eugene Smith, Ernst Haas and Peter Turner.
How did you get your first break in the business?
After graduating from NYU, I was wondering how to get one. One day, out of the blue, I got a phone call from John Sayles’ producer. He was preparing a new film and had just seen my work in Spike Lee’s graduate thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. John was looking for a cinematographer for his movie, which eventually became The Brother From Another Planet.
What has been your most satisfying moment on a project?
My most satisfying moment on any project is when I find out something I’ve done has really connected with an audience, and they respond.
Have you made any memorable blunders?
Yes, realizing several days into a project that it was a mistake to have taken it in the first place. It was painful to learn that I cared more about the film and took it more seriously than the producers did.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I’ve learned so much from reading American Cinematographer, and the best professional advice I ever received was from an interview with Gordon Willis. In it, he stressed the importance of always having a point of view when approaching a scene. It’s the first question I ask myself when I’m designing my coverage: what is the point of view, or whose? Once I’ve answered this question, everything falls into place with much more ease.
What recent books, films or artworks have inspired you?
I love revisiting classic films. Recently I saw the new DVD of The Long Voyage Home, directed by John Ford and photographed by the great Gregg Toland. Toland’s luminous, high-contrast, black-and-white work beautifully visualized the loneliness and rootlessness of living and working at sea.
Do you have any favorite genres, or genres that you would like to try?
I’m attracted to projects that have an element of mystery. But I love a good script that allows good visual storytelling.
If you weren’t a cinematographer, what might you be doing instead?
I would probably be a professional scuba diver.
Which ASC cinematographers recommended you for membership?
Néstor Alméndros, Vilmos Zsigmond and John Bailey.
How has ASC membership impacted your life and career?
Knowledge should be shared. Membership in the ASC has allowed me to talk to and learn so much from my fellow cinematographers. I hope that in some small way, I’ve been able to give some of that back.