Over three decades, the American Society of Cinematographers has given its coveted Presidents Award to a long list of distinguished artists, including Douglas Trumbull (“Blade Runner”), Albert Maysles (“Gimme Shelter”), Richard Edlund (“Star Wars” episodes IV, V, and VI), and Francis Kenny (“Justified”).
Never has the honor gone to a woman — until this year. On Feb. 4, at the 31st annual ASC Awards, DP Nancy Schreiber will take home the trophy. Indeed, Schreiber will become only the second woman to receive any ASC prize at all. (The first ASC award recipient, DP Tami Reiker, won Movie of the Week or Pilot in 2004, for the first season of HBO’s “Carnivàle.”)
Over the years, female cinematographers have made it clear that they dislike the gender qualifier, preferring to be thought of as simply DPs, like their male counterparts. But given the small number of women in the profession, if the issue is not brought up, it remains the elephant in the room.
“If I had paid attention to [sexism] being an issue, I would not be where I am today,” says Schreiber. “You can’t focus on obstacles. It would have been ludicrous to have those types of thoughts in my head — self-defeatist, really.”
Schreiber, a Detroit native, received a degree in psychology and art history from the University of Michigan, then moved to New York, where she got a job on a film after answering an ad for a production assistant in the Village Voice.
She worked as a gaffer on the Oscar-nominated 1975 documentary “The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir,” co-directed by Shirley MacLaine and Claudia Weill. Her cinematography credits, dating back to 1979, include narrative films (“Loverboy”), television series (“Better Things”), commercials, music videos, and documentaries.
Schreiber’s work on 1992’s “Chain of Desire” earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination. She got an Emmy nom in 1996 for shooting the documentary “The Celluloid Closet.” And at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, she took home the cinematography award for the thriller “November.”
If the ASC hasn’t nominated many women for its various awards, it’s because there haven’t been many women working behind the camera. Recent years have seen progress on that front, says Schreiber, as the organization, on whose board of governors she served, has made “leaps and bounds this past decade in supporting women. We doubled our female membership, and that’s hopefully making us more visible to the industry at large.”
Most ASC special awards recognize a cinematographer’s body of work, but the Presidents Award honors a member’s contribution to the next generation of DPs. Schreiber has been a longtime mentor to younger camera crew members, and has worked with Film Independent’s Project Involve — a program designed to enhance the careers of women and people of color. She has taught advanced cinematography at the American Film Institute, and is a guest lecturer at film schools around the world.
“When I found out about the award, I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I’ve tried to give back as much as possible to the ASC over the years, and when I got a message from the office, I thought, ‘What do they want me to do now?’ When our president, Kees Van Oostrum, told me I was being honored with the Presidents Award, I was beside myself.”
For women cinematographers, ASC awards, like jobs, have been tough to come by. Three-time Emmy nominee Anette Haellmigk has received two ASC nominations for her work on “Game of Thrones,” but Ellen Kuras, Oscar-nommed for the doc “The Betrayal — Nerakhoon” and one of the first women inducted into the ASC — has yet to receive an ASC nom or honor.
“If this award does anything,” says Schreiber, “it will open some doors to the younger generation of women, to show that they can succeed, that they can work in all areas of the film and television industry.”
Schreiber points out that advances are being made. And indeed many women have recently broken through, including Reed Morano (“Vinyl,” “Frozen River”), Rachel Morrison (“Black Panther,” “Cake”), Anna Foerster (“White House Down”), and Charlotte Bruus Christensen (“Fences”).