One of the many limitations of an early education in auteurist-based cinephilia is that you tend to look exclusively for directorial signatures. Or you tend to look at just about everything noteworthy in a given film as an indication of the directorial signature. Yes, the art is collaborative, and yes, Orson Welles put cinematographer Gregg Toland on the same title card as his on Citizen Kane, but unless we'd also read Bazin's rhapsodies on the deep focus in The Little Foxes, we weren't necessarily identifying a Toland style. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond was reportedly proud of the fact that no one film he shot looked the same as another, but that's not to say that he didn't have a signature, a style, a vision.
It was My Close Personal Friend Ron Goldberg™ who first pointed out to me what he considered a classic Zsigmond effect, in Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. There are several shots in the scene a little under 45 minutes in, in the Mission Control Receiving Center, when Bob Balaban's character blows everybody's minds by revealing that the signals they've been getting from outer space are coordinates. Zsigmond shoots the high-ceilinged, gray-walled, largely blue-lit room so that the backgrounds are always a little out of focus; in the shot where Balaban's character is picking up the readouts coming out of the printer he's the only actor in perfect focus. The white-haired actor in the blue suit in front of him is also a little blurry, and a little blue light glints off his white hair. These manipulations of focus and lighting marked Zsigmond, to my mind, as a kind of stealth Impressionist. There was never a skimping on filling the frame with the visual information to get the point of the shot across, but there were also pockets of evocative beauty in the frames; in this scene they offset the workaday realism of the speculations and the calculations of the befuddles scientist and kept the film's other foot where it always wants to be, in a realm of wonder.
When MCPFRG™ hipped me to this, it was pretty early in our relationship, late 1978 I guess, and we soon embarked on a several-year-long-project of getting high and seeing lots of movies in Manhattan rep houses, and I determined to pay more attention to cinematography. So when I saw McCabe & Mrs. Miller for the first time shortly thereafter, Zsigmond's impressionism, or Impressionism I guess, walloped me again, despite it being in an entirely different register than that of Close Encounters. And it worked wonders in the context of director Robert Altman's gritty, cold, frontier pessimism and fatalism as it did in that of Spielberg's wish-upon-a-star vision. It also works a treat in Altman's The Long Goodbye, and in a lesser-known Altman that's raggedy and brittle and doesn't quite pull off its conceit, but which I love anyway because of when I saw it, who's in it, and how it looks. That is, 1972's Images, from which I took the top image and from which the next three still captures are derived (the other actors besides York and Harrison are Rene Auberjonois and Hugh Millais).
Like Lee Garmes, like Gregg Toland, like John Alton, like Raoul Coutard, like his friend and fellow emigre László Kovács, like Gordon Willis, Michael Chapman, Michael Ballhaus, and many others, Zsigmond's way of shooting (and exposing) film derived directly from a way of looking at the world, and processing what he saw, not from the pursuit of a contrived ideal. He was one of cinema's great artists, for sure.