Polish-American cinematographer and film director born 1959 in Ziębice near Wrocław, Poland. Four-time Academy Award-nominee and two-time winner for Spielberg pictures Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.
Janusz Kamiński left Poland as a young man, deciding to stay abroad for good after he had heard the news of the wave of strikes in Poland while on holiday in Greece. Having obtained political asylum and spent a few months in Vienna, he left for the United States in early 1981. He took up a job in Chicago and enrolled at the Film and Fine Arts Department of Columbia College. In 1987 he moved to Los Angeles to take a one-year cinematography course at the American Film Institute. His film career started in late 1980s and early 1990s with work for Roger Corman, the producer of grade-B thrillers. His big break came with Diane Keaton's 1991 TV film Wildflower. Kamiński's photography attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg and so started Kamiński's association with Spielberg. Kamiński's Polish background may have been a factor in Spielberg's choice as he was planning to shoot his Schindler's List in Poland. Anyway, Kamiński's road to international fame lay open - and would lead him from success to success.
Though he is now known primarily as Spielberg's cinematographer, Kamiński has worked for other directors, too, and was the director of photography on Julian Schnabel's acclaimed picture The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. In recent years Kamiński tried his hand twice at filmmaking and one of his two films was produced in Poland. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
Kamiński's long list of cinematography awards is topped by two Academy Awards - for Schindler's List in 1994 and for Saving Private Ryan in 1999 - and four nominations for Academy Awards - for Spielberg's Amistad in 1998, Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and The Butterfly ten years later, Steven Spielberg's War Horse in 2012 and the director's Lincoln in 2013. In 2002 he won the Hollywood Film Festival Outstanding Achievement Award. In 2007 and 2008, respectively, he received the Golden Frog at the Camerimage - International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography and the Independent Spirit Award which is awarded to independent filmmakers in the USA. He is also a two-times winner of the BAFTA Film Award for cinematography: for Schindler's List in 1994 and for Saving Private Ryan in 1999. His photography for The Diving Bell and The Butterfly earned him the Los Angeles Film Critics and New York Film Critics Awards. In 2012 his work on the Spielberg picture War Horse earned him an Oscar nomination and the Critics Choice Award for Cinematography. As Kamiński explained his approach to his craft in an interview with Barbara Hollender for Rzeczpospolita (23.11.2007), "The cinematographer needs to understand the script and translate words into images. Regrettably, many of us often fail to resist the desire to produce beautiful shots. It's a mistake. The cinema is like life. It's not always beautiful. That's why you need to have real world images under you eyelids to re-create reality in the studio".
Kamiński adherence to this principle is evident in his photography for Schindler's List, the film which earned him his first Oscar. He looked for true images of those times in a album of photographs by Roman Wiśniak, a photographer of Jewish settlements in 1920-1939. It was this quest for truthfulness which made Kamiński suggest to Spielberg that the film be made in black and white (after Bartosz Michalak, "Polskie Oskary", Warszawa 2000, Prószyński i s-ka). Michalak quotes Kamiński:
Schindler's List was deliberately made with a modest use of technology. We aimed for achieving a kind of roughness or rawness. ... I approached this film as if I had been working on it fifty years ago, with scant light and without a tripod. How would I have worked on it? Naturally, I would have made many shots hand held and equally many with a camera on the ground. Of course we did not make it that way - it wasn't our intention. But the presence of certain inaccuracies in the camera movement and the reduced sharpness of images lends an air of greater realism.
In an interview with Paweł Gula (Film 28/1993), Kamiński emphasises that his aim was to achieve a documentary-like quality for the images. This is why a number of photographs were taken hand-held. Equally, he had to incorporate Spielberg's must-do ideas, such as the red colouring of a girl's coat to get out a symbolic meaning out of the scene showing the girl forcing her way through the black-and-white crowd at which the Germans were shooting. Spielberg attests to his talent in an interview with Spielberg in an interview with Jola Czaderska-Hayek, for online film news site stopoklatka.pl.
Janusz is definitely the best of all the cinematographers I have worked with. ... When I met him I realized that there was a true artist standing in front of me. Using the right kind of lighting he creates pictures like Chagall's one day and like Goya's or Monet's another day. I thought: 'I need to keep that guy close. And it has been like that ever since.
Kamiński faced a totally different challenge - that of computerized special effects - when he took over from Dean Cundey as cinematographer of The Lost World, a sequel of Spielberg's Jurassic Park. He had to be very flexible in adjusting to an imposed cinematographic style. As he avers in an interview with Bartosz Michalak, "A number of producing and technological ideas had already been discovered when the first film was made. We knew what technology to use, how to incorporate certain images. This made us work fast".
Spielberg and Kamiński teamed up again a few years later to make Amistad, a film about the 1839 rebellion of African slaves transported in a ship by that name. "In the case of Amistad I knew as soon as I had read the script that I could not use 'pretty' photography. I didn't want that film to fall into the stereotypical type of shooting which is used for stories taking place in past centuries", he shared in the interview with Michalak.
He went for a style of filming in which the light would support the gory and emotional tale of the script, and he and Spielberg looked for helpful clues in Goya's paintings. It was also the first time Kamiński used the ENR, a photographic system made popular by Vittorio Storaro, in which a special chemical process brings out greater contrast, increases the areas of shadow, lightens up the lit areas and makes colours more pastel. The achieved effect earned Kamiński an Academy Award nomination, but he lost to Russel Carpenter, the director of photography for Titanic.
A year later, the next film of the Spielberg-Kamiński team, Saving Private Ryan, had more luck. This time they made a war film in colour so that - to quote Kamiński from the same book - you could see a very important thing: the blood on the uniform. The colours were not full, though, but, to use Kamiński's term, "vanishing". He looked for inspiration in Robert Capa's war photographs, finding in them both realism and the metaphor. Kamiński explains,
There are eight surviving photographs, eight phenomenal photographs taken during the Allied invasion of Normandy. He did a whole roll, but some strange accident occurred during the developing and only eight were rescued. The lighting had made a double image appear on each of them, blurring the silhouettes of the soldiers. Now my primary job was to create images that would show the escaping souls of these soldiers. So that you could see they were still alive, but would soon die.
Visually, Saving Private Ryan was styled as a naturalistic frontline report, with a lot of cruelty, the camera lens sprinkled with blood like it would be on the front, and death looking real. According to Zygmunt Kałużyński and Tomasz Raczek (Wprost 15/1994), despite the naturalism of Kamiński's photography the film had a high dose of artificiality which was due to the way it was narrated and to its pompous music, and which made it no more than a well-designed marketing product.
Spielberg the director or producer has had Kamiński as director of photography on several of his films, including Munich, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can and, more recently, Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. Now Kamiński's is planning to work on Spielberg's picture about Abraham Lincoln and one about hippies sued for their refusal to do military service in Vietnam.
Kamiński enjoys a reputation for embracing experiments and, according to Julian Schnabel, it is well deserved. As Schnabel explained in an interview with Barbara Hollender for the Rzeczpospolita daily (26.02.2008), "I was looking for a cinematographer who would not be afraid of experimenting. A few refused, while Kaminski just asked, 'When do we start?'. He is a cinematographer of an extraordinary courage".
Kamiński was again close to winning an Academy Award for cinematography on Schnabel's picture The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which tells a true story of the former editor-in-chief of Elle magazine, Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered a crippling stroke and for many months communicated with those around him by blinking his left eye. Kamiński's camera adopted the point of view of paralyzed Bauby, making the viewers see the world the way he did. The shots are blurred and Bauby, his field of vision limited, sees people fragmentarily, for instance without heads. In an interview with Michał Burszta for www.filmweb.pl (30.11.2007), he explained,
I want to do films which will have an audience. I am not interested in the so-called festival films, which will be seen by three hundred people. Besides, before I start filming, I like to know that the picture will have a distributor. This is not to say that I despise independent cinema. After all, I have just made a film with Julian Schnabel. It is niche cinema, but I know that the picture - because of the subject or the actors - will appeal to the viewers.
Kamiński debuted as director in 2000, with The Lost Souls, a film that was influenced by the "road films" of the 1970s - Serpico, Easy Rider. He explains in an interview with Artur Kosiński for Cinema Polska (1/2000), "They were excellent films, leaving a number of things not quite explained. I am fascinated by the cinema which makes you think instead of providing answers". For Kamiński, The Lost Souls was to be his way of approaching a mystery, and he hired Mauro Fiore as the cinematographer. "I wanted to show the murky reality which exists parallel to the one we know. Hence the use of chiaroscuro, an almost complete lack of colour, the characters going out from the shadow into a blinding light, interiors in immediate danger of disintegration ..." he shares in an interview with Agnieszka Topornicka for Film (1/2001).
The formula of a horror film proved, however, ill-fitting Kamiński's goal of talking about mystery and making people think. The subject-matter was as old as the world: the Satan is to come to the Earth and become man; naturally, this needs to be prevented at all cost. Critics tended to see The Lost Souls as one big artistic mistake. Krzysztof Kłopotowski surmised in Film (1/2001), "Although the plot is well constructed and moves on swiftly, the film is of a very dubious quality. This is because Kamiński is a non-believing prophet, one who does not believe in his own prophesies, but preaches them to entertain us, to make money and to make himself more socially popular".
Hania, a Polish production made six years later, with Kamiński as the cinematographer, also proved a flop. Here, too, the director attempted to say something about mystery, this time serving the viewers a sweet dish in the formula of a family film and a Christmas story.Bartosz Żurawiecki wrote in Film (12/2007),
Kamiński was given a saccharine script about a Warsaw couple who invite an orphaned boy into their home for Christmas. The child, who turns out a messenger from heaven, changes the couple's life. In America this shamelessly kitsch little story would immediately get to Christmas programmes of commercial television channels.
Kamiński has since reverted back to creating world-class images for Hollywood blockbuster dramas, such as Spielberg's 2012 historical epic Lincoln, which garnered 12 nominations from the 2013 American Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences and 10 nominations from the 2013 British Academy of Film and Television Awards. He was also honoured with his fifth nomination from the American Society of Cinematographers for Outstanding Achievement in January 2013.
Janusz Kamiński is the hero of Krzysztof Bukowski's documentary Janusz Kamiński - szkic do portretu artysty (1999).
Author: Ewa Nawój, August 2008. Edited and updated by Agnieszka Le Nart and Marta jazowska, February 2013.