Cinematography has conquered the human face.

Ingmar Bergman

Where and when I fell in love with light itself I don’t remember; in the cradle, perhaps, as the sun fell softly past my mother’s smile. Possibly the red pulse behind my closed eyelids as a toddler had something to do with it. The candle-caressed complexion of my first love is of course cherished and unforgettable. But I was a man, really, by the time I discovered the timeless beauty and mystery of the dance of light and shadow that is the cinema. The film was called Winter Light. Its director of course was Ingmar Bergman.

Sven Nykvist was Bergman’s cameraman. Together, over more than 30 years, they made twenty films; from Sawdust and Tinsel, Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence to The Virgin Spring, Persona, Cries and Whispers, and Fanny and Alexander.

Few in the audience recognize the true importance of the cinematographer, or the Director of Photography, in the creation of a motion picture. We may have a hazy notion that he or she is responsible for the technical side of how the film looks. He is, one supposes, the man who decides what film stock to use, which lens to incorporate, where to put the camera, and how many lamps it will take to light the set. In fact, of course, the director and cinematographer may opt to make these decisions and thousands of others separately or together. Different artists will obviously work in different ways.

But Nykvist and Bergman were inseparable. “Sven and I saw things alike,” says Bergman, now retired from filmmaking, though still active in the theatre. “Our feeling for light was the same. If, on any occasion I happen to miss working within my profession as a film director, it’s not the directing, it’s the wonderful experience of working with Sven.”

The camera department makes or breaks a film during production. The Director of Photography is responsible for the look of the movie, yes (as is of course the Production Designer), but the cinematographer (or D.P.) is also the commander of a small army of artists and technicians. Camera assistants, grips who are responsible for moving the camera, the lighting department, and all the electricians on the set ultimately take their orders from one man. For Ingmar Bergman, and for Woody Allen, Philip Kaufman, Lasse Hallstrom, Richard Attenborough, Roman Polanski, Louis Malle and Andrei Tarkovsky, that man was often Sven Nykvist.

He was born Sven Vilhelm to missionaries Natanael and Gerda Nykvist on December 3, 1922 in the Swedish province of Småland. As a child he spent much time in the company of other missionary children whose parents had been sent to the Belgian Congo for four years at a time. After their term of service, Nykvist’s parents would return to Sven and his siblings in Sweden for a period of one year, whereupon once again they’d go back to Africa. Nykvist’s first memory, he tells us, is of his parents returning to the jungle, “to our black children.”

Not surprisingly, the cinema was considered “a sin” by his parents, and young Sven became entranced with literature, particularly the story of Siddartha, the young man—born a Brahmin—who spent his whole life searching for truth and the God within himself.

Nykvist dropped out of college in the middle of exams and looked for work in film. He got his first assistant cameraman job in 1941 with Sigurd Wallen directing A Poor Millionaire. By 1945 he was Director of Photography on Rolf Husberg’s The Children. He never looked back.

1952 was a landmark in Nykvist’s career. He met Ulla Soderlind, who was to become his wife and the mother of his two sons. It was also the year of Sawdust and Tinsel, his first film with Ingmar Bergman. Though his marriage ended 16 years after it began, a product more than anything else of his gypsy filmmaking lifestyle, Nykvist’s union with Bergman continued through 1983, the year he won his second Academy Award for photographing Fanny and Alexander. He also won an Oscar for Bergman’s brilliant Cries and Whispers, released in 1972.

More than anything else, it is his 20 film collaboration with Bergman for which Sven Nykvist will be remembered.

He counted Winter Light (1963) as a turning point in his feeling for lighting. The second installment of a trilogy in which Bergman explores the alienation of God from Man (the others being Through a Glass Darkly and The Silence), the black-and-white cinematography of Winter Light is nothing short of miraculous.

“(The motion picture camera) is an incredible instrument for registering the human soul as reflected in the human face,” says Bergman. “Sven had a deep, intuitive feeling for the human face.”

Modestly, and in tribute to their partnership, Nykvist insisted “There is no doubt that it was Ingmar Bergman who taught me respect for light—real, true, living light.”

“It wasn't Sven and a camera,” said Erland Josephson, the familiar star of many of Bergman’s films, as well as Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. “They were one, a centaur of photography, horse and rider in one body.”

“I remember a sense of light and movement as though everything had been a kind of dance,” reminisced actress Pernilla August of her work with Bergman and Nykvist.

The two men created an immense body of brilliant art during their thirty-plus years together, often with the same actors, again and again. Ingrid Thulin, who, with Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullman, Erland Josephson, and Bibi Andersson could be said to practically comprise a Bergman-Nykvist stock company, spoke fondly of the two Swedes:

When you two get old it'll be like this: you'll be allowed your camera, but without any film in it. And I'll ring Liv, Harriet, and Bibi and some of the others and I'll say to them, ‘Sven and Ingmar can't stop filming. Couldn't you come over and stand in front of the camera? There's no film in it, but they can get on with their fun.’

We laughed a lot at that. It sounded such a pleasant future. But it was not to be.
It was during the production of Private Conversations (1996), a film directed by Liv Ullman starring Pernilla August and Max von Sydow, that friends and co-workers first noticed that their great cinematographer was having difficulty communicating. The man who had been so fluid in his work began to slur his words. He tired easily and became frustrated with his gradually worsening inability to express himself on the set.

Though he continued to work through 1999’s Curtain Call, a light romance directed by Peter Yates and starring Maggie Smith and Michael Caine, Sven Nykvist’s career has ended.

He suffers from Progressive Aphasia, a rare kind of dementia, a part of a group called fronto-temporala dementia, according to Lars-Olov Wahlund, a senior medical consultant in the case. There is no cure, and the prognosis is dire.

Cinema’s grand poet of light is slipping gradually into a silence he will share with friends and loved ones till the end of his days.

For me, light has become a passion dominating my life,
and given my life new meaning, not just as a cinematographer.

Light gives me a feeling of spiritual atmosphere.

Light is with you.

You do not have to feel you are alone.

—Sven Nykvist

Addendum: Mr. Nykvist died on September 20, 2006, at the age of 83.

Sven Nykvist's Filmography

Curtain Call (1999)
Celebrity (1998)
Enskilda samtal (1996) (TV)
... aka Private Confessions (1999) (TV) (USA)
... aka Private Conversations (1996) (TV)
Kristin Lavransdatter (1995)
... aka Kransen (1995)
... aka Kristin Lavrans Tochter (1995) (Germany)
... aka Kristin Lavransdotter (1995)
Something to Talk About (1995)
... aka Grace Under Pressure (1995)
Mixed Nuts (1994)
... aka Lifesavers (1994)
Only You (1994)
... aka Him (1994)
... aka Just in Time (1994)
With Honors (1994)
What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
Sleepless in Seattle (1993)
Chaplin (1992)
... aka Charlot (1992) (Italy)
Oxen (1991)
... aka Ox, The (1991)
Buster's Bedroom (1990)
Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
New York Stories (1989) (segment "Oedipus Wrecks")
Another Woman (1988)
Ved vejen (1988)
... aka Katinka (1988)
... aka Vid vägen (1988) (Sweden)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)
Offret (1986)
... aka Sacrifice, Le (1986) (France)
... aka Sacrifice, The (1986)
Nobody's Child (1986) (TV)
Dream Lover (1986)
Agnes of God (1985)
Efter repetitionen (1984) (TV)
... aka After the Rehearsal (1984) (TV) (USA)
Un amour de Swann (1984)
... aka Liebe von Swann, Eine (1984) (West Germany)
... aka Love of Swann, A (1984)
... aka Swann in Love (1984)
Star 80 (1983)
Tragédie de Carmen, La (1983)
... aka Tragödie der Carmen, Die (1983) (West Germany)
Fanny och Alexander (1982)
... aka Fanny and Alexander (1983) (USA)
... aka Fanny et Alexandre (1983) (France)
... aka Fanny und Alexander (1982) (West Germany)
Cannery Row (1982)
... aka John Steinbeck's Cannery Row (1982)
The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)
... aka Wenn der Postmann zweimal klingelt (1981) (West Germany)
Willie and Phil (1980)
Aus dem Leben der Marionetten (1980)
... aka From the Life of the Marionettes (1980)
Marmeladupproret (1980)
... aka Marmalade Revolution (1980) (USA)
Hurricane (1979)
... aka Forbidden Paradise (1979) (TV title)
Starting Over (1979)
King of the Gypsies (1978)
Höstsonaten (1978)
... aka Autumn Sonata (1978) (USA)
... aka Herbstsonate (1978) (West Germany)
... aka Sonate d'automne (1978) (France)
Pretty Baby (1978)
En och en (1978)
... aka One and One (1978)
Serpent's Egg, The (1977)
... aka Schlangenei, Das (1977) (West Germany)
Locataire, Le (1976)
... aka Tenant, The (1976) (USA)
Ansikte mot ansikte (1976)
... aka Face to Face (1976) (USA)
Black Moon (1975)
... aka Luna nera (1975) (Italy)
Monismanien 1995 (1975)
Ransom (1975)
... aka Terrorists, The (1975) (USA)
Trollflöjten (1975)
... aka Magic Flute, The (1975) (USA)
Dove, The (1974) Blaue Hotel, Das (1973) (TV)
Scener ur ett äktenskap (1973)
... aka Scenes from a Marriage (1974) (USA)
Viskningar och rop (1972)
... aka Cries and Whispers (1972) (USA)
Strohfeuer (1972) (TV)
... aka Free Woman, A (1972) (TV) (USA: US version)
... aka Summer Lightning (1972) (TV) (International: informal title English title)
Siddhartha (1972)
Lockfågeln (1971)
... aka Decoy, The (1971)
Beröringen (1971)
... aka Touch, The (1971) (USA)
Last Run, The (1971)
Erste Liebe (1970)
... aka First Love (1970) (USA)
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1970)
... aka En dag i Ivan Denisovitsj' liv (1970) (Norway)
An-Magritt (1969)
Fårödokument 1969 (1969) (TV)
... aka Faro Document (1969) (TV)
Passion, En (1969)
... aka The Passion of Anna (1970) (USA)
... aka Passion, A (1969) (UK)
Riten (1969) (TV)
... aka Rite, The (1969) (TV)
... aka Ritual, The (1969) (TV)
Skammen (1968)
... aka Shame (1968) (USA)
Vargtimmen (1968)
... aka Hour of the Wolf (1968) (USA)
Roseanna (1967)
Bränt barn (1967)
... aka Sinning Urge, The (1967)
Persona (1966)
... aka Persona (1966) (USA)
Lianbron (1965)
Älskande par (1964)
... aka Loving Couples (1964) (USA)
Klänningen (1964)
... aka Dress, The (1964) (International: English title)
Att älska (1964)
... aka To Love (1964) (USA)
För att inte tala om alla dessa kvinnor (1964)
... aka All These Women (1964) (USA)
... aka Now About These Women (1964) (International: English title)
Liebe will gelernt sein (1963)
Prins hatt under jorden (1963)
Tystnaden (1963)
... aka The Silence (1964) (USA)
Nattvardsgästerna (1963)
... aka Winter Light (1963) (USA)
Schneewittchen und die sieben Gaukler (1962)
... aka Snow White and the Seven Jugglers (1962)
(International: English title)
Matter of Morals, A (1961)
... aka Sista stegen, De (1961) (Sweden)
Mörderspiel (1961)
... aka Jeu de l'assassin (1961) (France)
... aka Murder Party (1961) (USA)
Lita på mej, älskling! (1961)
Såsom i en spegel (1961)
... aka Through a Glass Darkly (1961) (USA)
Ehe des Herrn Mississippi, Die (1961)
... aka Marriage of Mr. Mississippi, The (1961)
(International: English title)
Domaren (1960)
... aka Judge, The (1960) (International: English title)
Lampenfieber (1960)
Jungfrukällan (1960)
... aka The Virgin Spring (1960)
Får jag låna din fru? (1959)
... aka Lend Me Your Wife (1959) (International: English title)
Engel, der seine Harfe versetzte, Der (1959)
Laila (1958)
... aka Laila (1958) (Sweden)
... aka Laila - Liebe unter der Mitternachtssonne (1958) (West Germany)
... aka Lila (1958)
... aka Make Way for Lila (1958) (USA)
Damen i svart (1958)
... aka Lady in Black, The (1958)
Gäst i eget hus (1957)
... aka Guest at One's Own Home (1957) (International: English title)
Synnöve Solbakken (1957)
... aka Girl of Solbakken, A (1957) (International: English title)
Drömmares vandring, En (1957)
Blånande hav (1956)
Tappre soldaten Jönsson, Den (1956)
Flickan i frack (1956)
... aka Girl in Tails (1956) (International: English title)
Gorilla (1956)
Nattbarn (1956)
Kungligt äventyr, Ett (1956)
... aka Laughing in the Sunshine (1956)
Underbara lögnen, Den (1955)
... aka True and the False, The (1955)
Sista ringen (1955)
Älskling på vågen (1955)
Salka Valka (1954)
Karin Månsdotter (1954)
Storm över Tjurö (1954)
Gycklarnas afton (1953)
... aka Naked Night, The (1956) (USA)
... aka Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) (UK)
... aka Sunset of a Clown (1953)
Vägen till Klockrike (1953)
... aka Road to Klockrike, The (1953)
Barabbas (1953)
Under södra korset (1952)
När syrenerna blomma (1952)
Loffe blir polis (1950)
Rågens rike (1950)
Hin och smålänningen (1949)
Bohus bataljon (1949)
Lång-Lasse i Delsbo (1949)
Sjösalavår (1949)
Lata Lena och blåögda Per (1947)
... aka Lazy Lena and Blue Eyed Per (1947) (International: English title)
Maj på Malö (1947)
Saltstänk och krutgubbar (1946)
... aka Gay Old Time (1946) (International: English title)
13 stolar (1945)
... aka Thirteen Chairs (1945) (International: informal literal title English title)
Barnen från Frostmofjället (1945)
... aka Children, The (1945)
Gomorron Bill! (1945)
I mörkaste Småland (1943)

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries

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