This is part 3. You can read part 1 and part 2.

Ace Cinematographer

One such, for instance, was a big-head close-up of a player reading the inscription on a loving-cup. Ordinarily, such a scene would be shown by intercutting the close-up of the man reading the inscription with an insert of the inscription itself, thereafter cutting back again to the close-up. As we shot it, the whole thing was compressed into a single composition. The man’s head filled one side of the frame; the loving-cup, the other. In this instance, the head was less 16 inches from the camera, while the cup was necessarily at arm’s length — a distance of several feet. Yet we were able to keep man’s face fully defined, while at the same time the loving cup was in such sharp focus that the audience was able to read the inscription from it. Also, beyond this foreground were a group of men from 12 to 18 feet focal distance. These men were equally sharp.

Realism for “CITIZEN KANE”, Gregg Toland A. S. C., American Cinematographer, p.54, February 1941.

Unquestionably, CITIZEN KANE brought the role of cinematographer under spotlight. Not only its opening credits specifically listed Toland’s name along with Welles’, but also all the brouhaha media campaign after the film’s release was focused on this ace cinematographer. Toland himself wrote a couple of articles in photography magazines and professional journals. “How I broke the rules in CITIZEN KANE” was the title of an article Toland published in Popular Photography Magazine. It seems the media portrayed him as a genius of cinematography, a bold inventor who dared into the realm nobody had dared, and a revolutionary who broke every rule of Hollywood, the land of soft focus and beautified black and white photography soaked in champagne, and brought hard-hitting ‘realism’ to the screen.


However, whenever you hear the loud proclamation about ‘revolutionary’ something, you had better listen to the mumbles in a small voice.

Today, it would seem that the pendulum has very nearly reached the opposite extreme in its swing; certainly, it would seem difficult for any films to go much farther in the direction of crisp definition and realism than Toland’s “Grape of Wrath” and “Citizen Kane”.

How Desirable Is Extreme Focal Depth? by Charles G. Clarke A.S.C., American Cinematographer, p.14, January 1942

“The pendulum” Clarke was referring to is the recurring cycle of aesthetic trend in photography. Clarke reminded the reader that there had been a time when “the almost unnaturally perfect detail of an anastigmat stopped down to f:64 was enticing.” From the turn of century to 1930’s, the art of still photography was split between two schools, “pictorialists” and “Group f/64”. From the end of 19th century, photographers sought “artistic” characteristics of photography, often manipulating the images by trick exposures or darkroom maneuvers. They were sometimes referred to “pictorialists”, because of their inclination toward picturesque sensibilities. Often Alfred Stieglitz is considered to be the most celebrated pictorialist, though his works encompass so much broader range that such a categorization seems trivial.

Objective and activity of Group f/64 were much more sharply defined: “The name of this Group is derived from a diaphragm number of the photographic lens. It signifies to a large extent the qualities of clearness and definition of the photographic image which is an important element in the work of members of this Group” reads the manifesto. ‘Pure photography’, as they called it, must possess “no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form”. The group’s name uses the large f-stop number as a symbol for the extreme depth of field. Ansel Adams, one of the founding members of the Group f/64, sometimes used a pin-hole camera and exposed the plate for many hours to create a crisp, sharp, “deep-focused” image.

Close-up of leaves In Glacier National Park (1942)
Close-up of leaves In Glacier National Park (1942), Ansel Adams (Wikimedia Commons)

The “pendulum”, according to Clarke, also affected visual aesthetics of cinematography and, more importantly, language of filmmaking. First, the aim of cinematography was “to get some sort of a picture on the screen”. More details up on the screen simply meant better cinematography. But before long, cinematographers faced the challenge of making “the tender and romantic moments of their picture emotionally moving”. Then, the “pendulum” began to swing to the other direction.

This argument depicts fairly well how fads can saturate the industry then recede while the other extreme fills in. But such a static analysis may be too simplistic since the technology evolves and when the next round of the fad comes, it surely is a different ball game.

Fellow cinematographer, James Wong Howe’s observation is quite fascinating.

Even before Gregg Toland, A. S. C., came along with his ‘Citizen Kane’, there was a marked tendency in every studio toward crisper definition and greater depth, sometimes accompanied by increased contrast. Better lenses–coated and otherwise– have played their part; so have the snappier contrast of modern emulsions and the improved definition obtainable from fine-grain positive. But to my mind, the biggest factor in this transition has been the change in the public taste. This is directly traceable to the growth in popularity of miniature-camera photography, and to the big picture-magazines like ‘Life’, ‘Look’ and the rest, and such modern photographic magazines as ‘U.S. Camera’, ‘Popular Photography’ and the others. The public has seen the stark realism of the newspicture reporters, and the pictorial strength of the work of the modern miniature-camera photo-illustrators and pictorialists.

Aces of the Camera VII: James Wong Howe by Walter Blanchard, America Cinematographer, p.322, July 1941

In fact, it seems the wide-spread popularity of photography among general public may be the key. Toland’s technique was frequently discussed in amateur magazines and popular photography journals, with much more emphasis on “how you can achieve CITIZEN KANE effect”. It means there were many informed enthusiasts among the KANE audience, who knew how technically difficult it had been to achieve some of the effects they were seeing up on the screen. As has been discussed widely, large part of the visual wonder in CITIZEN KANE was not ‘one-shot deep-focus’, but rather a product of multiple exposures, matte paintings, optical printing and other special effects. But it might be much more fashionable to advertise the film as cinematographic wonder than to admit much of the amazing visuals are in fact unrealistic, deceiving trickery.


One of the lesser known facts about Toland’s technique is that his technique was far from perfect, and he admitted. And everybody else in the business knew it.

Similarly, we’ve all of us lately discussed the co-called “pan-focus” technique Gregg Toland employed on “Citizen Kane”. Gregg has admitted he developed it slowly, over a period of several years, using a bit of here in one picture, another bit there, in another, as conditions warranted. And he himself admits, I believe, that the technique isn’t by any means completely stabilized yet: there are still quite a few questions as to the how, when and where to use it that can only be stabilized by further experience.

The Experimental “B’s”, by Phil Tannura, A.S.C., American Cinematographer, p.420, September 1941.

In the context of this observation, the critical assessment of deep-focus in THE LITTLE FOXES (William Wyler, 1941) can be interpreted as reevaluation of the technique as filmmaking tools, rather than a condescending remark on the part of a jealous fellow cinematographer:

As might be expected, Toland makes extensive use of the so-called “pan-focus” technique which has received so much publicity since the release of “Citizen Kane”. In the main, it is effective, too, though there are some scenes which clearly display weakness of this technique which show how carefully its use must be pre-planned, lest it harm as well as help a picture.

Review on THE LITTLE FOXES, American Cinematographer, p.425, September 1941.

Here, the criticism is not on the technique itself; it is about how you use it. You can’t use it because you feel like using it. It must be integrated into the narrative of the film.

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