Rest In Power: Judy Irola, Trailblazing Feminist Cinematographer

Judy Irola’s mission—besides teaching the artistic and technical aspects of camera and lighting—was to help women pursue careers behind the camera.

“What’s important is my vision—how I look at the image. It’s an artistic rendering. Women can do it just as well [as men] or better,” said cinematographer Judy Irola, who died on Sunday, Feb. 21 of COVID-19 complications. (Douglas Kirkland)

Judy Irola was the third woman to be invited into the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), one of Hollywood’s most exclusive clubs. Founded a year before women won the right to vote in 1920, it would be 60 more years before the ASC would admit a female member, Brianne Murphy—the first woman director of photography on a major studio film.

Fourteen years after that, it admitted its second, Sandi Sissel (Salam Bombay).  When Sissel entered the club house as a full-fledged member, she “was met at the front steps by a raging cane-stomping Stanley Cortez” (cinematographer on The Magnificent Ambersons, The Night of the Hunter, The Three Faces of Eve), who told her she didn’t belong there.

Judy Irola followed Sissel into the ASC’s hallowed halls the following year.  “We became best friends,” Sissel told Ms. “She had a wicked sense of humor, was head strong, self assurred and a very strong feminist.”

The first feature Judy shot was the much-lauded Northern Lights, which won the Camera d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival. Shot in the bleak North Dakota landscape, Irola’s haunting, black-and-white images of weather-beaten men and women wrapped in black clothes, huddled against the wind beneath an unforgiving white sky, captivated audiences at Cannes and around the world.

She won the Award for Excellence in Cinematography at the Sundance Film Festival, in 1993, for An Ambush of Ghosts. In a glowing review, Variety magazine called the film “a relentless succession of stunningly dark images.” In addition, she was awarded the Cinematographer Award at The Women’s International Film & Television Showcase, and Kodak’s Vision Award. 

Her numerous credits include: The Glamorous Days of The Adlon Hotel, (First Prize Bavarian Film Festival) directed by Percy Adlon; The Man Who Tried To Buy Hollywood: Giancarlo Parretti, (First Prize Venice Film Festival) directed by Jean-Pierre Moscardo; Saturday Night Live; eight films for Schiller’s Reel, including La Dolce Gilda and and Don’t Look Back in Anger with John Belushi; as well as many significant social issue films, including The Willmar 8, Free Voice of Labor, Fundi: The Ella Baker Story, and The Wobblies.

As a tenured professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at USC, she held the Conrad Hall Chair in Cinematography (endowed by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg). Irola’s mission—besides teaching the artistic and technical aspects of camera and lighting—was to help women pursue careers behind the camera.

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A Pioneer in a Male-Dominated World

Irola was part of a small coterie of pioneering women directors of photography that included Sandi Sissel, Nancy Schreiber, Emiko Omori and Joan Churchill, during an era where there were no women in that role. “Literally you could count us on one hand,” Churchill recalls. “We were tight knit and very supportive of one another, often working together on films by and about women. It was incredibly empowering and such fun.”

In those days, men felt women were not capable of film cinematography because it was too mechanical. With today’s small digital cameras, weightless microchips, and technical advances so that mistakes can be corrected in post-production, it is truly a different world than the one they entered—the world of 16 and 35mm film. 

Back then, the equipment was much heavier, much more expensive and required a more exacting control—if you made an error, it was very hard to recover. Each roll of film lasted only 10 minutes, so you had to be precise about what you were shooting.  No shooting hundreds of hours and then figuring everything out in the editing room. You never knew what you actually got till the film was sent to the lab for processing—which cost $1,000 a roll! It was indeed a meticulous, highly skilled craft.

According to Irola, “You learned the tools and then you have to learn to manipulate it all: color temperature, screen direction, films stocks, lenses, gels. Once you know them, then you are in charge.  And then ultimately it is about the vision.”

Born Into a Family of Basque Sheep-Herders

Irola spent her college years serving in the Peace Corps in Niger, Africa. Upon returning to the United States in 1968, she joined the documentary film unit at KQED, the public television station in San Francisco.

Irola left KQED in 1972 to form a film collective, Cine Manifest, with six colleagues—its only female member. Out of this partnership came Northern Lights, as well as numerous documentaries and public interest spots for Amnesty International. (Later she directed a scathingly funny and fascinating documentary about the group, entitled Cine Manifest.)

In 1977, she moved to New York, where she worked on features such as Working Girls with Lizzie Borden, Dead End Kids with JoAnne Akalaitis, The King James Version with Robert Gardner, In the King of Prussia with Emile de Antonio and Seguin with Jesus Trevino. She combined her film assignments with documentaries and television projects for “20/20,” “Nova,” “Odyssey,” the BBC, Channel 4 and Canal Plus.

Returning to California in 1989, Irola went back to television, including 10 episodes of Lifestories for NBC. For ABC and NBC, she filmed numerous movies-of-the-week.  Irola spent six months shooting Vatican II, four one-hour documentaries for PBS about the modern Catholic church. Filming took her to Paris, Amsterdam, Rome, Krakow, Warsaw, Nairobi, Mexico and around much of the United States. She loved to travel.

 “Some directors see cinematography as a technical rather than as an artistic job,” she said. “It’s an artistic job—any director of photography will tell you that. What’s important is my vision—how I look at the image. It’s an artistic rendering. Women can do it just as well [as men] or better.” 

Judy Irola, died on Sunday, Feb. 21, in Los Angeles, from complications of COVID. 

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Connie Field is an Academy Award nominated director and producer of The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter, Freedom On My Mind, and more.