Sven Nykvist

Active - 1945 - 2000  |   Born - Dec 3, 1922 in Moheda, Kronobergs län  |   Died - Sep 20, 2006   |   Genres - Drama

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Biography by Nathan Southern

Justly reputed by everyone (across the board) as the most gifted cinematographer of the 20th century, Sven Nykvist was one of a handful of practitioners of that craft who raised working with cinematic light (as a director of photography and a camera operator) to the level of an art form, on par with Rembrandt, Monet, and Van Gogh. His legacy is inextricable from that of his lifelong collaborator, Ingmar Bergman, under whose aegis Nykvist instantly built his reputation. (It can hardly be deemed accidental that reviews of masterworks such as Through a Glass Darkly [1961], Winter Light [1962], Persona [1966], and Fanny and Alexander [1982] invariably begin by praising those films' gradations of luminescence.) One thus cannot overestimate Nykvist's contribution to cinema or his impact on our way of looking at the world.

For the first decade of his career, Nykvist paired up with directors including Rolf Husberg on Barnen Från Frostmofjället (1945), Lennart Wallen on Lata Lena Ocla Bla Ogde Per (1947), and Schamyl Bauman on Maj på Malö (1948), as well as the legendary Alf Sjöberg, on Barabbas (1953). During the '50s, he also directed a feature about his missionary family's interaction with a witch doctor, shot in the Belgian Congo, called Under the Southern Cross (1956), and made a documentary about Albert Schweitzer.

Though the majority of Nykvist's cinematographic work up through the early '50s wasn't screened outside of Sweden, the tide turned in 1953, when Bergman -- only 35 at the time and already on his 13th film, Sawdust and Tinsel -- transitioned from the cinematographer Hilding Bladh to Nykvist. (Bladh purportedly demanded that Nykvist shoot the film's challenging interior images as a demonstration of his proficiency.) Fortuitously, Ingmar Bergman (only four years older than Nykvist) had the same aesthetic inclinations, which presaged a long working relationship between the men; however, their full collaborative relationship didn't officially begin for another six years or so, until the director's The Virgin Spring (1959). In the mean time, Nykvist shot many additional Swedish films and continued to hone his craft.

The results of the Nykvist-Bergman partnership are infamous; to put it mildly, Nykvist managed to capture every psychological nuance of the director's work on a visual plane -- something that has rarely been accomplished before or since in a director-cinematographer relationship. In addition to the aforementioned titles, their joint credits include: The Silence (1963), The Hour of the Wolf (1968), Shame (1968), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), The Serpent's Egg (1977), and Autumn Sonata (1978). All but The Serpent's Egg were widely hailed as masterpieces. Nykvist arguably delivered his greatest impact with Cries and Whispers, with its expressionistic color scheme and frequent fade-outs to a solid red plane. Variety captured the essence of that film when it observed, "Sven Nykvist's Eastmancolor camera, working on period sets dominated by warm reds, complement the stark emotional undertones." Indeed, that picture netted Nykvist an Academy Award for Best Cinematography, as did Fanny and Alexander.

In between Bergman projects, Nykvist collaborated with such five-star European filmmakers as Mai Zetterling (Loving Couples), Louis Malle (Black Moon, Pretty Baby), and Roman Polanski (The Tenant). Pretty Baby marked Nykvist's first American credit (though not his first English-language film); producer Malle purportedly had trouble securing a permit for Nykvist, and though the two worked fluidly together, Nykvist encountered some difficulties on-set, including trouble with the unions (which objected to his desire to operate the camera) and the crew's frustration regarding his methods of working with natural light (in that case, to emulate the paintings of Vuillard).

As Bergman's filmic activity died in the '80s and '90s, Nykvist segued into far more conventional Hollywood fare, such as Bob Fosse's Star 80 (1983), Norman Jewison's Agnes of God (1985), and Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle (1993). He made a particularly outstanding contribution to Phil Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). Nykvist debuted as a feature film director in 1991 with The Ox (starring Bergman mainstays Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow), the story of a poor 19th century Swedish farming family; it opened to mixed reviews. In 1995, he lensed Ullmann's well-received directorial debut, Kristin Lavransdatter, a medieval period drama set in Norway. Peter Yates' Curtain Call (1999) marked Nykvist's swan song; soon after, he contracted aphasia, a form of dementia, and moved into a nursing home in his early eighties, which prevented him from shooting Bergman's final film, Saraband (2003).

Sven Nykvist died of causes related to his condition on September 20, 2006. In an obituary, The New York Times' Stephen Holden eloquently summarized Nykvist's central gift by stating: "In [Nykvist's] films, especially those with Mr. Bergman, light assumed a metaphysical dimension that went beyond mood. It distilled and deepened the feelings of torment and spiritual separation that afflicted Bergman characters. But in scenes of tranquillity filmed outdoors, the light might also evoke glimpses of transcendence."

The outstanding documentary Light Keeps Me Company (2000), directed by the master's son, Carl-Gustaf Nykvist, provides an exemplary overview of Sven Nykvist's career, with clips from many of his finest films.

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  • Växte upp på internat då hans föräldrar var missionärer i Afrika och träffade bara sällan sina föräldrar fram till tioårsåldern.
  • Var likt fadern intresserad av fotografering, kom att gå i fotoskola och fick som 19-åring arbete som b-fotograf på produktionsbolaget Sandrews.
  • Debuterade som chefsfotograf 1945 i filmen Barnen från Frostmofjället.
  • Var en av tre fotografer i Ingmar Bergmans drama Gycklarnas afton (1953); från 1960 och filmen Jungfrukällan permanentades deras samarbete.
  • Belönades med en Oscar för bästa foto vid två tillfällen, för Bergmans dramer Viskningar och rop (1973) och Fanny och Alexander (1982).
  • Samarbetade även med andra namnkunniga regissörer, som Louis Malle, Woody Allen och Roman Polanski.