Sven Nykvist, 83; Cinematographer Won Oscars for Work With Bergman

Times Staff Writer

Sven Nykvist, the Oscar-winning cinematographer and filmmaker whose naturalistic, straightforward camera work distinguished the movies of directors Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen, died Wednesday. He was 83.

Nykvist had battled a long illness and was being treated for aphasia, a form of dementia, at a nursing home in Sweden, his son, Carl-Gustaf Nykvist, told the Associated Press.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Sep. 24, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday September 24, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Sven Nykvist: An obituary for cinematographer Sven Nykvist in Thursday’s California section said he was being treated for aphasia, a form of dementia. Aphasia is a brain disorder that limits an individual’s ability to communicate, not a form of dementia.

The Swedish-born Nykvist was most closely associated with Bergman and won best cinematography Oscars for the director’s “Cries and Whispers” in 1973 and “Fanny and Alexander” in 1982. In addition, Nykvist wrote and directed several of his own features and documentaries.

In a career that spanned six decades and included more than 100 motion pictures, Nykvist helped change the look of film. Early on, his camerawork provided a contrast to the gaudy extravaganzas that characterized Hollywood productions in the early ‘50s, the era in which his creative partnership with Bergman began. And film critics, peers and colleagues say Nykvist’s work has had a lasting influence on his field.


His stripped-down photography and low-tech illumination techniques magnified the actors’ psychological reactions to devastating effect, with Rembrandt-like highlights on faces and contrasting interplay between light and shadow.

“He’s been an inspiration for introducing a natural, simple style of lighting to film,” said Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom, who worked with Nykvist on “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” (1993) and “Something to Talk About” (1995). “His camera helped to tell stories that were true to the world and real characters that helped create something alive. And he wasn’t afraid of simplicity.”

In a 1973 review of Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “The incomparable cinematographer Sven Nykvist achieves the look of the paintings of the Norwegian Edvard Munch, as if the neurotic and the unconscious had become real enough to be photographed.”

Nykvist was born Dec. 3, 1922, in Moheda, Sweden. His father was a minister, and both parents were missionaries who spent long periods doing fieldwork in Africa when he was a boy, leaving Nykvist to be raised by strict relatives in Sweden. He was seldom allowed to see films. But Nykvist’s father stoked his ardor for photography by giving lengthy slideshows about his work in Africa.


After completing military service, Nykvist landed his first job in the film industry as a focus puller on a movie set, working closely with directors and cinematographers. At 22, when the director of photography on a film became sick, Nykvist got his first shot behind the camera but got off to an inauspicious start. Following the director’s orders, Nykvist severely underexposed all the film.

He first collaborated with Bergman in 1953 on “Sawdust and Tinsel.” And their run together extended to 22 films -- many of them considered classics.

According to Variety’s chief film critic Todd McCarthy, who interviewed Nykvist for “Visions of Light,” a documentary he wrote and directed about the art of cinematography, one of Nykvist’s virtues was his “innate sensitivity and tone of image in black and white.”

“For Sven, it was a matter of simplifying,” McCarthy said, “using an innate sense of taste and editing things out.”

Nykvist was nominated for another cinematography Oscar in 1988 for his work on the adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” And Nykvist landed a best foreign film Oscar nomination in 1991 for his feature directorial effort, the spiritual odyssey “The Ox.”

Like many who worked with him, writer-director Nora Ephron, who hired the cinematographer for her 1993 romantic comedy “Sleepless in Seattle” and again the next year on the Christmas comedy “Mixed Nuts,” held Nykvist’s professionalism, on-set good humor and speed in high regard.

“In addition to being one of the greatest cinematographers, he was also one of the fastest,” she said, “because he worked with Bergman and they never had any money.”

On the set of “Sleepless in Seattle,” she asked the cinematographer how long it would take to light a scene. “And Sven said, ‘Twelve minutes,’ ” Ephron recalled. “Sometimes he said six. He was an inspiration and a rebuke because he knew the easiest way to do everything.”


Cinematographer Robert Richardson worked as an apprentice to Nykvist on the 1982 drama, “Cannery Row,” and went on to win best cinematography Oscars for his work on “JFK” and “The Aviator.” Richardson called the Swede, “one of the most influential cinematographers of his generation.”

“He maintained a style that appeared to be effortless. His work was extremely subtle,” Richardson said. “But it altered the perspective toward lighting. It blurred a line between documentaries and features that you see often today. It was all in the way he shaped light.”

“His work was fundamental to cinematography,” Richardson added. “It’s a tremendous creative loss.”

Until he stopped working in 1999, Nykvist collaborated with a who’s who of highly regarded directors. One of them was Allen, who admired Bergman’s films. Nykvist shot Allen’s “Another Woman,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “Celebrity” and the director’s segment of “New York Stories,” titled “Oedipus Wrecks.” Directors including Roman Polanski, Norman Jewison, John Huston and Louis Malle also sought Nykvist’s services.

For his part, after Bergman retired from directing in 1984, the director reflected fondly on his symbiotic creative relationship with Nykvist in his 1988 autobiography, “The Magic Lantern.”

“Sometimes I probably do mourn the fact that I no longer make films,” Bergman wrote. “Most of all I miss working with Sven Nykvist, perhaps because we are both utterly captivated by the problems of light, the gentle, dangerous, dreamlike, living, dead, clear, misty, hot, violent, bare, sudden, dark, springlike, falling, straight, slanting, sensual, subdue, limited, poisonous, calming, pale light. Light.”

Ulrika, Nykvist’s wife, died in 1982. He is survived by his son, daughter-in-law, Helena Berlin; and grandchildren, Marilde Nykvist and Sonia Sondell.



Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.