In the earliest days of cinema, before the dominance of the narrative mode, movies were made almost wholly by cameramen. Le Repas de bébé ( Feeding the Baby or Baby's Dinner , 1895) by Auguste (1862–1954) and Louis Lumière (1864–1948) is a stunning example of composition with movement. As early as the second shot of The Great Train Robbery (1903), filmed for Edison by Edwin S. Porter (1869–1941), one can see, in the depiction of the train moving past a water tower where the desperadoes are hiding, the influence of the finely trained cameraman's eye, sensitive to subtle modulations of light and shadow and adept at composing a well-balanced and beautiful cinematographic frame. This is an exquisite example of black-and-white photography of motion, with a sumptuous range of mid-tone grays, a rich and textured black, and pearly highlights in the sunny spots. Later, Porter was teamed with director J. Searle Dawley (1877–1949) at the Edison studio, and at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, Billy Bitzer (1872–1944) was teamed with D. W. Griffith (1875–1948), who began directing around 1908. Both Porter and Bitzer claimed that they had alone been responsible for all of the camera work, negative processing, site selection, and actor directing.

After the age of the director had begun, the cinematographer (in the United Kingdom, the "lighting cameraman" and often, in the United States, the "director of photography" or "D.O.P.") came to have exclusive responsibility for the representation of narrative scenes on film. Beyond the actual powering of first the hand-cranked and later the electric camera, this responsibility included designing lighting for each shot; selecting the film stock and camera equipment; operating and maintaining this equipment (later in conjunction with the camera department of the studio), selecting exposure settings and camera movements, and printing the exposed film. When the division of labor at Hollywood studios increased during the 1930s, cinematographers were working with loaders and camera operators, grips and gaffers, juicers, spotmen, and focus pullers. The teaming of cinematographers and directors evident during this era continues to this day, as evinced in such longtime pairings as: cinematographer Bert Glennon (1893–1967) with director John Ford (1894–1973), Joseph Walker (1892–1985) with Frank Capra (1897–1991), Russell Metty (1906–1978) with Douglas Sirk (1900–1987), Robert Burks (1910–1968) with Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980), Sven Nykvist (b. 1922) with Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918), Allen Daviau (b. 1942) and then Janusz Kaminski (b. 1959) with Steven Spielberg (b. 1946), and Ernest Dickerson (b. 1951) with Spike Lee (b. 1957). Such teaming provides opportunities for directors to involve themselves intensively with the cinematographer's style and craft; and many directors, including Hitchcock and Jerry Lewis (b. 1926), operated on the set with a thorough knowledge of lenses, filters, camera movements, and lighting. Some directors were themselves once cinematographers, including Josef von Sternberg (1894–1969), Nicholas Roeg (b. 1928), Haskell Wexler (b. 1926), Robert Rodriguez (b. 1968), Ernest Dickerson, and Jan de Bont (b. 1943), for example.

The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC, the three letters that have followed the cinematographer's name in screen credits since Mary Pickford [1893–1979] had them inscribed after Charles Rosher's [1885–1974]

Gregg Toland's deep focus cinematography in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941).
name in her films) was formed in 1919 through a union of the Cinema Camera Club (from New York) and the Static Club (from Los Angeles). The British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) was formed in 1949 by Bert Easey and fifty-four colleagues, and the Canadian Society of Cinematographers (CSC) was founded in 1957.

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