Wide range of Koenekamp's work underscores his versatility

Select Filmography
“Flight of the Intruder” John Milius (1991)
“The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” W.D. Richter (1984)
“Wrong Is Right” Richard Brooks (1982)
“The Amityville Horror” Stuart Rosenberg (1979)
“The Champ” Franco Zeffirelli (1979)
“Islands in the Stream” Franklin Schaffner (1977)
“The Domino Principle” Stanley Kramer (1977)
“Fun With Dick and Jane” Ted Kotcheff (1977)
“White Line Fever” Jonathan Kaplan (1975)
“The Towering Inferno” John Guillermin, Irwin Allen (1974)
“Uptown Saturday Night” Sidney Poitier (1974)
“Papillon” Franklin Schaffner (1973)
“Billy Jack” Tom Laughlin (1971)
“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” Russ Meyer (1970)
“Patton” Franklin Schaffner (1970)
“The Great Train Robbery” Hy Averback (1969)

Fred Koenekamp says he’s 6 feet, 2 inches, but he appears taller than his height, and younger than his years.

With a thick mane of hair swept back in the Elvis style, and sporting the build of a retired stuntman, the 82-year-old veteran is a gentle giant of the screen trade — one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet, with nary a discouraging word about anyone he’s ever worked with.

It’s not as if Koenekamp hasn’t encountered his share of headstrong, at-times fractious egos. But Koenekamp’s unassuming touch must have brought out the best in actors like George C. Scott, Steve McQueen and Kirk Douglas — with whom Koenekamp worked repeatedly and whose rugged masculinity makes today’s leading men appear boyish in comparison.

On McQueen: “a real down-to-earth guy.” Of Scott: “The most professional man I ever worked with.” No meltdowns? No power trips? “None whatsoever,” assures Koenekamp. If there were, Koenekamp is too much of a gentleman to say.

The latest recipient of the American Society of Cinematographer’s lifetime achievement award, Koenekamp appears somewhat of an anomaly in the company of some of his honored predecessors of the last 10 years. Not a groundbreaking stylist in the manner of Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis; not part of the guerrilla school of filmmaking associated with Laszlo Kovacs and Haskell Wexler; not the lofty aesthete that is Vittorio Storaro or Sven Nykvist.

Koenekamp’s gift is his tremendous range and the ability to create wondrous visuals out of the most adverse conditions. If the assumption is that any good d.p. must bring these qualities to the table, then perhaps some context is in order.

Koenekamp might be the last of a breed of d.p.s who straddled the period between the classic studio era and the New Hollywood. You could say filmmaking is in Koenekamp’s blood. His father, Hans, was a cameraman for the prolific producer Mack Sennett and shot films with Chaplin, Gloria Swanson and the Keystone Kops.

Schooled in Lotusland

Instead of attending film school, largely a novelty at the time, Koenekamp learned his trade the old-fashioned way — in the trenches. He started out as a loader at Technicolor, then paid his dues as an assistant cameraman at RKO before spending 14 years at MGM. His stint at the Tiffany studio gave him a chance to work with some of the masters, including lensers Robert Surtees on “Raintree County” (1957) and John Alton on “The Brothers Karamazov” (1958).

The sheer volume of features being churned out by the majors at that time required d.p.’s to be extremely versatile. So by the time Koenekamp made the leap to director of photography on the TV series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and later in features, he was as adept at low-budget action (“Billy Jack”) as he was with large-scale epics (“Patton,” “The Towering Inferno”).

“Fred Koenekamp is a great example of a pro whose range is limitless,” says fellow d.p. Allen Daviau, whose own fine work ranges from the dramatic (“Bugsy”) to the fantastic (“Van Helsing”).

” ‘The Towering Inferno’ was a tremendous piece of engineering,” adds Daviau. “Koenekamp hails from the era of the great studio cameramen like John Seitz over at Paramount. Any type of film that came up (Seitz) could do it justice. He would do comedies for Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder and then turn around and do ‘Lost Weekend’ or ‘Sunset Blvd.’ Koenekamp, in kind, showed how flexible a cinematographer could be.”

Adds ASC president Richard Crudo: “What stands out about Fred’s work is what stands out about so many cinematographers of that generation, and that’s the width and the breadth of material they embraced. They had a lot more opportunity in their career to do so many different things, and they did them so well.”

If Koenekamp’s name doesn’t often come up in the pantheon of the great d.p.s of the ’70s and ’80s, then the ASC, in essence, has done its job in honoring him.

“There are lots of people who don’t know who he is,” says d.p. Nancy Schreiber about the now-retired Koenekamp. “I knew him from ‘The Towering Inferno’ and ‘Patton,’ but of course he kept working when the youth culture took over Hollywood.”

“The younger cinematographers are all looking at the work of Janusz Kaminski and Roger Deakins and Robert Richardson,” adds Wally Phister, a rising star in his own right for his work with Christopher Nolan (“Memento,” the just-wrapped “Batman Begins”) “And they don’t realize the contribution of Fred Koenekamp’s films and how the people of his generation handled the epic American film.

“When I think of ‘Patton’ I think of the composition of George C. Scott at the bottom of the frame — this huge American flag towering over him. So much of that work was about composition and the grand scale of it. But at the same time it’s epic filmmaking that supported the greatest of performances.”

A matter of trust

Actors must have responded to Koenekamp’s sensitivity and resourcefulness, because a good number of them — including Scott, Douglas, Sidney Poitier and Tom Laughlin — turned to him when playing double duty as director and star. Often in this situation, the d.p. becomes the de facto helmer.

“The d.p. has to be the philosopher, the psychologist, the conflict resolution manager,” explains Schreiber, who just wrapped “Flakes” in New Orleans for director Michael Lehmann (“Heathers”).

“You have to kind of get into his back pocket so to speak and know what he is thinking and what he wants,” adds Koenekamp of working with directors and actors, especially when they’re playing dual roles. “Of course, as far as I am concerned, that is the rule of being a good cameraman.”

But Daviau also points to the somewhat intangible gift of adding stature to a star’s screen presence, something many movie viewers take for granted. As ASC awards committee chairman Owen Roizman has pointed out, it could be as simple as the play of shadow across an actor’s face.

There’s an iconic quality to the way Koenekamp shot Scott in “Patton.” Even “Islands in the Stream,” wherein Scott’s rueful performance suggests something modest, becomes the most Hemingwayesque of all screen adaptations due to the actor’s image and strength.

“The cinematographer has to get the actor’s trust by showing that they understand what the actor is trying to do,” says Daviau, “and the cinematography in turn is underlining that. And Koenekamp certainly achieved that with George C. Scott.”

Koenekamp might have mastered the wide frame and the use of available light, but he was also capable of pure cinematic poetry. His lensing of Franco Zeffirelli’s remake of “The Champ” is as rich and warmly lit as any film you’re likely to see.

“While Fred came out of that school (of studio cameramen),” says Daviau, “he nonetheless could turn around and do something small and quite lovely.”

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