While women have made great strides in several areas of filmmaking, including producing and directing, cinematography stands out as one of the last male creative bastions in motion pictures. Now that barrier seems to be slowly breaking down too.
During the past several years, a handful of distinctive female directors of photography have emerged, including Nancy Schreiber ("Visions of Light," "Chain of Desire"), Ellen Kunes ("Swoon," "Unzipped") and Lisa Rinzler, whose most recent effort is Albert and Allen Hughes' "Dead Presidents."
The New Jersey-born Rinzler, who declines to give her age, had ambitions to be a painter. "Light wasn't the only thing that interested me," she says. "I wanted to get emotion into my painting." She studied art at the Pratt Institute in New York, then "woke up one morning and decided I wanted to be a cinematographer--it was that simple."
After studying film at New York University, Rinzler worked her way up through the ranks, starting as an electrician and then working for several years as an assistant cinematographer.
Rinzler says she doesn't like "to focus too much on the female thing," though she notes that there were some "ugly" experiences along the way in this overwhelmingly male profession.
"But you have to persevere if you want something enough," she says. "Somebody has to go against the odds."
And the odds were definitely against her. After getting to a point "where I was spending too much time looking through the wrong end of the lens," she decided to shoot anything she could. "A ton" of short films and music videos later, Rinzler landed her first feature, an experience she'd like to forget for a director whose name she doesn't care to mention.
Two female directors helped Rinzler get her initial feature credits as a director of photography: Nancy Savoca on the character piece "True Love" and Tamra Davis, for whom Rinzler shot "Gun Crazy." Then, back to back, she worked on the Hughes brothers' first two films, "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents."
The in-your-face sensibility of the Hughes brothers would seem to present challenges to even the most seasoned cinematographer.
"The Hughes brothers are very direct," Rinzler says. "They're astute as filmmakers and have a strong point of view. They don't mess around."
That said, she notes that the requirements of the job were similar to her other experiences--to visually convey the emotional content of each scene:
"It's not at all cut-and-dry. We look at a lot of films and photography books together. I'm totally comfortable around them as people and as filmmakers."
The most challenging aspect of "Dead Presidents" was to create distinctive visual styles for each of the three periods covered in the film. Without diminishing her contribution to the collaborative process, however, she adds, "It starts and stops ultimately with the directors. They're at the helm. It's not a communist effort. All our names are not on the same card."
Rinzler has just completed actor Steve Buscemi's directorial bow, "Trees Lounge," which she describes visually as "the other side of the world from 'Dead Presidents.' " And though she co-directed a short film last year, she is not itching to direct:
"I feel like I'm just now beginning to get to a level of cinematography that is exciting for me, and I don't want to give that up. I want to shoot as much as I can to get to the next level--and at the same time stay fresh and continue experimenting."