Like so many great artists, Néstor Almendros did not follow a straight path to his genius. Born in Barcelona in 1930, he became disgusted with Franco's Spain by age eighteen and followed his father to Cuba, then went to film school in Rome, tried and failed to work in New York, left for France, was ready to give up at thirty-four, and got an absurdly lucky break: He happened to be on set the day the director of photography quit a short project with Eric Rohmer. From there Almendros became one of the world's greatest cinematographers, carefully composing each frame and using natural light like a painter on over fifty films, including, in order, Two English Girls, Chloé in the Afternoon, The Story of Adele H., The Marquise of O., Days of Heaven for which he won an Oscar, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Blue Lagoon, The Last Métro for which he won a Cesar, Sophie's Choice, Pauline at the Beach, Places in the Heart, Heartburn, Imagine: John Lennon, and Billy Bathgate.
For anyone seriously interested in cinema, his book A Man with a Camera is essential reading. Not only does he clarify how the director of photography differs from the cameraman but he devotes a brief chapter to each of forty films. He describes the challenges and innovations of working with directors (again and again it's Rohmer, Truffaut, or Robert Benton) to decide which colors they want the costume and set designers to use and how Almendros will light and shoot each scene. They usually start with fine art. Their initial inspiration for Kramer vs. Kramer, set on the Upper East Side of the 1970s, was Piero della Francesca, with a little Hockney and, for the child's bedroom, Magritte. For The Blue Lagoon, he concentrated on Gauguin. For the Meryl Streep - Robert DeNiro psycho-thriller Still of the Night, he looked to old Fritz Lang movies and Edward Hopper. Remarkably generous with the secrets of his working trade, his autobiography completely ignores his private life. And yet, even though he was closeted, when he had the opportunity to direct his own movie in 1984, he chose to make a documentary about Cuba's persecution of gay men, Mauvaise conduite [Improper Conduct], which won the audience award at Frameline. He also shot ads for Calvin Klein and Armani. He died of aids in 1992 at age sixty-one. Human Rights Watch gives an annual film award named in his honor.