A good story about Vilmos Zsigmond comes from his youth. Shortly after he finished film school, a protest movement swelled into a rebellion. He and a friend borrowed a movie camera, got hold of some negative, and filmed what was happening, sometimes hiding the camera in a paper bag with a hole cut for the lens. This wasn’t Berkeley in the 60s but Budapest in 1956; the rebellion was met by Soviet tanks and troops. Zsigmond and his friend escaped from Hungary and made their way to America, where their footage ended up on TV and they ended up in Los Angeles. Zsigmond’s companion on that trek was László Kovács; the two of them became groundbreaking cinematographers, shooting works as varied as Easy Rider (Kovács) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Zsigmond).
Kovács died in 2007, and Zsigmond died a week ago. Fortunately, an enterprising documentarian created a joint portrait of them a few years back, which relates the above story and traces the rest of their careers. The film, called No Subtitles Needed: Laszlo & Vilmos, is a captivating tale of friendship and artistry crossing two continents and many decades. It’s available for rental from Netflix.
The American Society of Cinematographers website takes note of Zsigmond’s passing here, with a recap of his work, the trailer for No Subtitles Needed, and a few links. More evocative testimonials can probably be found elsewhere.
Given current contention over immigration in the U.S. and Europe, it’s worth pointing out that tales such as Kovács and Zsigmond’s aren’t purely American and can find their final setting almost anywhere. A recent Economist article mentioned that Sweden’s minister for upper secondary education arrived in that country with her parents 22 years ago from Bosnia. Immigrants are like children: you don’t know what they will become.