Billy Bitzer: His Story - The Autobiography of D.W. Griffith's Master Cameraman
By G.W. Bitzer, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1973
The Original Ace Cameraman
I came comparatively late to silent films. And by that I mean I held them at arms length during my childhood exploration of classic films and cartoons, so by the time I was 20, I had very little experience with them beyond knowing that Buster Keaton was a genius and that Birth of a Nation was problematic.
Then I discovered (at 20) that the New Orleans public library had a surprisingly eclectic biography section, which is where I checked out Billy Bitzer: His Story and caught a clue. Bitzer was one of the first motion picture cameramen...ever, having started out as an electrician and documentary photographer for the American Mutoscope Company, a New Jersey operation that made "flip book" style motion pictures in the 1890s. Mutoscope would eventually become the famous Biograph Studios, and Bitzer, who originally shot newsreels and street scenes, would become a close associate and lead camera operator for D.W. Griffith.
In these early days, the cameraman was the entire crew, which allowed the operator to tinker and experiment while cranking out multiple films a week. Eventually, Bitzer would incorporate many cameras, lights, and assistants in the operation, thereby establishing camera work for motion pictures as an art form.
Here is a list of Bitzer's innovations in cinematography (swiped whole-cloth from his Wikipedia entry):
In addition to these achievements, Bitzer was the first cameraman to cover a war (the Spanish-American one), to use the "freeze frame" technique, and to create special effects using random household objects and makeshift contraptions. His creativity and willingness to tinker around until he achieved a desired effect was legendary. A number of his assistants went on to be great directors and cinematographers in their own right, among them Karl Brown, Tod Browning, and Erich von Stroheim.
After nearly two decades pioneering the craft, Bitzer left Hollywood and feature film-making in 1929, because the emerging technologies and techniques made his, ironically, old-fashioned. Once one of the highest paid cinematographers in the business, he earned $20 a week at the Museum of Modern Art in New York restoring old films and cameras. A job, incidentally, I would give my eye teeth to (1) have and (2) know how to do. In that order.
Ill health brought him back to California in 1943, but Billy Bitzer did not recouperate. He died just one year later of heart failure at the age of 72. The autobiography he began writing in the 1940s was published 30 years later. You have to thank someone at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux for that.