New Site Pays Tribute to Doc Pioneer Leo Hurwitz

He went on to make singularly important contributions to the development of other film and television techniques through the 1990s, helping to invent multi-camera TV and what came to be called cinéma vérité.

At top, pioneering documentarian Leo Hurwitz in 1974.

Tom Hurwitz, ASC made use of his Covid-19 down time to finish a personal project he had been working on for years — a website dedicated to the life and career of his father, Leo Hurwitz. The elder Hurwitz was among a handful of key figures who pioneered the social documentary beginning in the 1930s. He went on to make singularly important contributions to the development of other film and television techniques through the 1990s, helping to invent multi-camera TV and what came to be called cinéma vérité. His story, and that of his peers, including Paul Strand and Ralph Steiner, is inextricably linked with the political history of the 20th Century, with echoes in today’s fraught climate. 

Among the many landmarks in Leo Hurwitz’s astonishing career were crucial contributions to Pare Lorentz’s iconic The Plow That Broke the Plains: 

In partnership with Paul Strand, he made Heart of Spain and Native Land. He directed the anti-racist film Strange Victory, as well as The Young Fighter, made in 1953 with early portable synced camera and sound equipment. In 1961, he directed the television pool coverage of the entire six-month trial of Adolf Eichmann. 

Tom Hurwitz, ASC

The website includes virtually all of Leo Hurwitz’s available work, as well as video interviews that range beyond the films, text interviews and articles, photographs and news about forthcoming screenings of his work and that of his colleagues. 

Part of Tom’s motivation for the endeavor is explained on the site: “…the work of these artists, thinkers and technicians was obscured by a kind of iron curtain of political repression that descended over the institutions of the United States during the early Cold War and the 1950s. The fear of political difference, of anything left-wing that pervaded the country during those years has denied us, who care about the documentary, the memory of our ancestors. The job of this website is to help remedy that loss.” 

I asked Tom about the influence of his father on his own work today. 

“My father was a terrific teacher, and I’m also a teacher, so I think of him all the time when I’m teaching,” he says. “As a filmmaker, I think I have very different things to say than he said. But his ideas about film structure and how to build meaning within the documentary format taught me a tremendous amount. 

“My father was a loner,” Tom continues. “He was very much an individual. That didn’t mean he didn’t like to work with people. But he didn’t enjoy working with big institutions. I don’t have that problem very much. He didn’t do many shoots when I was young because of the blacklist. At that time, much of his work was doctoring other people’s films. So, most of his work was in the cutting room, and I remember playing on the cutting room floor as a boy.

“But, occasionally, I went filming with him, and there’s a story that is seminal for my life,” he says. “When I was about 12, my father was making a film. A friend of his who was also a still photographer by the name Charles Pratt had wanted to make a film about New York, and he pushed my father to help him with it. They developed the idea of making a film about the edges of the city. It’s a very beautiful, poetic film that’s on the website, called Here at the Water’s Edge. At the time I’m not sure there were many films like it at all. 

“One day, we got out at a location, and Charlie was busy with something, and I asked if I could hold the camera. I hadn’t held it up to that point. It was a Arriflex S, with a big magazine and a turret with three lenses. I found a way to hold it steady and I looked through the eyepiece. Cinematographers of a certain age will recall that the ground glass on that camera was very rough, and there was an 85 filter because they were shooting color. I didn’t expect to see this grainy, orange image, and it was interesting to me. 

“I finally found a way to see what I was seeing, so to speak, and it filled me with excitement. I tilted the camera down to my feet, and what must have happened was that my finger hit the lever that released one of the lenses. The image I was looking at got smaller and smaller, and then it had light around the sides of it, and then it got all white, and then the lens hit my shoe. 

“They were really nice to me, I have to say,” Tom recalls. “Nobody screamed. The lens did have to go into the shop to be repaired. One might think that I would have been so burned by that experience that I would never pick up a camera again. But in fact, it planted a little seed inside of me that never stopped growing. From then on, I really wanted to be a cinematographer.”

If you visit the website, please consider making a donation. At the upper right, under “MORE,” there’s an option to contribute via PayPal to the Leo Hurwitz Artistic Works Trust, and the donation in its entirety will go towards maintaining the website. 

“I invite all the members of the ASC and anybody who’s interested in documentary and in the history of our industry to visit the website,” says Tom. “It’s all there, and I think you’ll find it fascinating.”


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