A while back, I asked Peter Anderson about his “origin story” – how he became a cinematographer. He was generous with his recollections, which resonated with me since we both grew up in small-to-medium sized towns in Wisconsin. I’ll share one or two of Peter’s stories here, but there are many more. Hopefully we’ll get to them all sooner or later.
Peter was born in Eau Claire, Wisconsin in June 1942. His parents valued education -- his father was an elementary school principal and his mother was a kindergarten teacher. Peter recalls that the long, cold winters helped train children to entertain themselves. His curiosity about photography and filmmaking became apparent at a very young age. A television episode of Mr. Wizard piqued his interest.
“I didn’t watch a lot of television but I was ill, staying home, and for his demonstration that day on his television program Mr. Wizard demonstrated how to process black and white prints,” Peter recalls. “I found that fascinating. So after I made a few bucks, went down to Davis Photo Art and bought a Kodak Tri-chem chemical pack and some Kodak Velour photographic printing paper and a little contact frame. Then I went and got some of my dad’s negatives – he was not a photographer, but he shot family snapshots – and set up a little contact darkroom in our basement with red bulbs and so on, and proceeded to make prints. The processing chemicals destroyed my mother’s bread pans, which I used as processing trays.”
Peter’s interest grew. At about age 8 or 9, his Christmas gift was an enlarger found at an estate sale. “Later, by junior high, I loved taking pictures, but I got tired of borrowing cameras,” he says. “On a trip to Minneapolis, I went to a pawnshop and I found a beat up Folmer-Graflex 5x7 view camera. It had been through a lot, so I used tire repair kits to repair the bellows. I refinished the whole camera, all the wood and so on. I took the lens apart myself and cleaned the inside and lubricated the shutter, which didn’t have much range – 1/30th of a second and 1/60th of a second. I got a couple of 5 x 7 film holders and built a little sliding back so I could actually expose two pictures on one sheet of film, because 5x7 film was expensive when I was in junior high. I shot a lot of pictures with it.
“In the upper Midwest, there is beautiful light in the summertime, about five or six months of it, and then it starts to get limited come October and into the winter months,” he continues. “So I started borrowing lights from friends and acquired two old Smith-Victor lamps. One day in the wintertime, I was shooting a portrait of my dad in my bedroom. In one picture, he’s got the damnedest expression, because in order to soften the light I had draped a handkerchief in front of the bulb – and it caught on fire just as I was snapping the shot.”
Needless to say, Peter quickly learned better ways to soften his light.
Fast-forward to 1963 for another great story of Peter’s. By then he had moved to California and was studying at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, while simultaneously working in a theater and camera store while also operating his own photography studio to help pay the expenses. His darkroom facilities were located above the Vagabond Theater in Los Angeles in a space formerly occupied by a classified government agency.
“One day, I was at Leo Carrillo Beach shooting an Art Center assignment,” Peter recalls. “A Ford Mustang convertible prototype was there, and Hal Mohr, ASC was shooting a commercial of it with a Mitchell Mark II Camera. At that time, I didn’t know who Hal Mohr was. I had never seen had a Mitchell Mark II 35mm camera. I had pictures of one, but I had never seen it in real life.
“So I shoot my class assignment and, boom, I’m a like a magnet over the hill. I’m shooting pictures of Hal filming. I’m helping him carry cases. I’m doing umpteen things. I gave him my card from the Pan Pacific Camera store where I was working weekends, and incredibly, Hal and I become friends. He comes into the camera store on weekends. He’s got one of the earliest Pentax 3-degree spot meters. He’s having a hard time seeing it. I’m helping him take it apart to put mini lights in it to illuminate the gauge while not changing the exposure. I’m ordering special stocks, and actually doing processing tests, et cetera.”
Heady stuff for a kid only recently arrived from Eau Claire. “I gave Hal a set of stills from his Mustang commercial, processed in my own custom-mixed developers and looking very much like old masters, heavily saturated double silver prints,” Peter says. “He loved them. So in 1964, I started getting invited to the ASC Clubhouse. Hal introduced me to Charlie Clarke. So, when I had any time, I was up there. Charlie had the ASC collection in cases in the clubhouse lobby and I’d help him clean the lenses, light meters and cameras. Hal also asked me to photograph events at the Clubhouse, and some of these photos were then published in American Cinematographer. Hal also started inviting me out on his shoots.”
Eventually, Peter asked Hal how he could join the ASC organization. “Hal, who was at the time the president of the ASC, said, ‘Peter, the good news is we love you here. The bad news is you’ll probably never be a member here because you’re not actually related to any of the members here. But as long as I’m here, you’re welcome.’”
Of course, there was even better news waiting for Peter down the road. He went on to become a distinguished cinematographer and he is now a longstanding member of the ASC, and thus is still welcome at the ASC Clubhouse.
He is also an avid collector, and the proud owner of two rare Cinephone 35 mm cameras that were formerly owned by his mentor Hal Mohr. And Peter now owns his own Mitchell Mark II, which he has used on filming such shows as Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactia, Something Wicked, Ishtar, Valerie’s Home, Look Who’s Talking, Turbulence, et cetera.
Hopefully Peter will share more of his stories in future editions of Parallax View.