Harris Savides dies at 55; cinematographer on ‘Zodiac’ and ‘Milk’

Harris Savides and director Sofia Coppola work on the set of "Somewhere."
(Franco Biciocchi / Associated Press)

Harris Savides, who was widely considered one of the most influential contemporary cinematographers, earning acclaim for his canny visual sensibility on such films as “Zodiac” and “Milk,” died Wednesday. He was 55.

The Skouras Agency confirmed the New York-based cinematographer’s death but released no other details.

“If you were looking for a cinematographer with both sizzle and substance, you couldn’t find a more adept visual stylist than Harris Savides,” Patrick Goldstein wrote in The Times in 2007.


Filmmaker Gus Van Sant, with whom Savides made six films, told The Times on Thursday: “He was always innovating.”

Van Sant considered him a “constant collaborator,” making such movies with Savides as “Finding Forrester” (2000) “Elephant” (2003), “Last Days” (2005) and “Milk” (2008).

Savides was often praised for a photographic style that captured a hazy, soft naturalism and was reminiscent of the imagery of the 1970s.

In 2007, he shot a trio of striking films, Ridley Scott’s “American Gangster,” David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding.”

It was a tribute to Savides’ visual technique that “Gangster” and “Zodiac” were set in exactly the same time period but couldn’t look more different, Goldstein wrote.

For “Zodiac” Savides drew from unadorned photos of ‘70s Americana while “Gangster” was inspired by the gritty stylization of such 1970s crime movies as “The French Connection.”


“His interests are much more in how the story needs to be told,” Fincher told Variety in 2008. “He is now less of a photographer — he’s forgotten more than most people know about technique — and a coauthor of a film’s mis-en-scene.”

Used to working with auteurs, Savides was “adept at crawling into a director’s personal style and enhancing it from the inside,” Back Stage magazine said last year.

The cinematographer downplayed any notion that he had a style of his own that he brought to each project. “Directors tell me what they want and I’ll try to figure it out. I don’t want to ever come to the table with my preconceived notions,” he said in 2008 in Interview magazine. “You shouldn’t see the photography in the film.”

Born Sept. 28, 1957, in New York City, Savides earned a degree in film and still photography from the city’s School of Visual Arts.

He started out in fashion photography but didn’t like the lack of control, he later said, so started making commercials and music videos with directors such as Martin Scorsese and Wong Kar-Wai. He also worked on director Mark Romanek’s stylish 1997 video for the Fiona Apple song “Criminal.”

Savides’ other feature film credits include James Gray’s “The Yards,” Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth,” and Woody Allen’s “Whatever Works” (2009).

More recently, he shot two films that captured life and light in Los Angeles, Baumbach’s “Greenberg” and Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere” (2010). He also worked on “The Bling Ring,” scheduled to be released next year.

“I don’t want to repeat myself,” Savides told Variety in 2009. “I have a real issue with that. You shouldn’t be seeing me. You should be seeing the film.”

Information on survivors was not immediately available.