During the 1930s and 1940s, Howe was one of the most sought after cinematographers in Hollywood. He was nominated for 10 Academy Awards for cinematography, winning twice for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963). Howe was judged to be one of the 10 most-influential cinematographers in a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers Guild in the United States.
Howe was born Wong Tung Jim in Taishan, Canton Province, China in 1899. His father Wong Howe moved to America that year to work on the Northern Pacific Railway and in 1904 sent for his family. The Howes settled in Pasco, Washington, where they owned a general store. A Brownie camera, said to have been bought at Pasco Drug (a now-closed city landmark) when he was a child, sparked an early interest in photography. After his father's death, the teenaged Howe moved to Oregon to live with his uncle and briefly considered (1915–16) a career as a bantamweight boxer. After compiling a record of 5 wins, 2 losses and a draw, Howe moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in hopes of attending aviation school but ran out of money and went south to Los Angeles. Once there, Howe took several odd jobs, including work as a commercial photographer's delivery boy and as a busboy at the Beverly Hills Hotel. After a chance encounter with a former boxing colleague who was photographing a Mack Sennett short on the streets of Los Angeles, Howe approached cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff and landed a low-level job in the film lab at Famous Players-Lasky Studios. Soon thereafter he was called to the set of The Little American to act as an extra clapper boy, which brought him into contact with silent film director Cecil B. DeMille. Amused by the sight of the diminutive Asian holding the slate with a large cigar in his mouth, DeMille kept Howe on and launched his career as a camera assistant. To earn additional money, Howe took publicity stills for Hollywood stars.
One of those still photographs launched Howe's career as a cinematographer when he stumbled across a means of making silent film star Mary Miles Minter's eyes look darker by photographing her while she was looking at a dark surface. Minter requested that Howe be first cameraman, that is director of photography, on her next feature, and Howe shot Minter's closeups for Drums of Fate by placing black velvet in a large frame around the camera. Throughout his career, Howe retained a reputation for making actresses look their best through lighting alone and seldom resorted to using gauze or other diffusion over the lens to soften their features. Howe worked steadily as a cinematographer from 1923 until the end of the era of silent film.
In 1928, Howe was in China shooting backgrounds for a movie he hoped to direct. The project he was working on was never completed (although some of the footage was used in Shanghai Express), and when he returned to Hollywood, he discovered that the "talkies" had largely supplanted silent productions. With no experience in that medium, Howe could not find work. To reestablish himself, Howe first co-financed a Japanese-language feature shot in Southern California entitled Chijiku wo mawasuru chikara (The Force that Turns the Earth around its Axis), which he also photographed and co-directed. When that film failed to find an audience in California's nisei communities or Japan, Howe shot the low-budget feature Today for no salary. Finally, director/producer Howard Hawks, whom he had met on The Little American, hired him for The Criminal Code and then director William K. Howard selected him to be the cinematographer on Transatlantic.
Howe's innovative work on Transatlantic reestablished him as one of the leading cinematographers in Hollywood, and he worked continuously through the 1930s and 1940s, generally on several movies a year. Howe gained a reputation as a perfectionist who could be difficult to work with, often overruling and even berating other members of the film crew. In a 1945 issue of The Screen Writer, Howe stated his views of a cameraman's responsibility, writing in The Cameraman Talks Back that "[t]he cameraman confers with the director on: (a) the composition of shots for action, since some scenes require definite composition for their best dramatic effect, while others require the utmost fluidity, or freedom from any strict definition or stylization; (b) atmosphere; (c) the dramatic mood of the story, which they plan together from beginning to end; (d) the action of the piece." Howe's broad view of a cinematographer's responsibilities reflected those established for first cameramen in silent films and continued through the studio era where most directors were also contract employees mainly in charge of actor performances.
Howe was nominated for an Academy Award in 1944 in the "Best Cinematography: Black-and-White" category for his work on the movie Air Force, which nomination he shared with Elmer Dyer, A.S.C., and Charles A. Marshall.
In the early 1930s, while at MGM, Howe, who had generally been billed as "James Howe", began listing his name in film credits as "James Wong Howe". Over the course of his career, he was also credited as "James How", "Jimmie Howe", and "James Wong How." Often publicized as a Chinese cameraman, Howe was prevented from becoming a U.S. citizen until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Prior to World War II, Howe met his future wife, novelist Sanora Babb, whom he married in 1937 in Paris. Due to anti-miscegenation laws, the marriage would not be legally recognized in the United States until 1949. Babb died in 2005, aged 98.
After the end of World War II, Howe's long-term contract with Warner Bros. lapsed, and he went to China to work on a documentary about rickshaw boys. When he returned Howe found himself gray-listed. While never a Communist, Howe was named in testimony as a sympathizer. Howe and his wife Sanora Babb, who had been a member of the Communist Party, moved to Mexico for a time, Howe again had trouble finding employment until writer/director Samuel Fuller hired him to shoot The Baron of Arizona.
Again reestablished, Howe's camerawork continued to be highly regarded. In 1949 he shot tests and was hired for a never made comeback film starring Greta Garbo (screen adaptation of Balzac's La Duchesse de Langeais). In 1956, Howe won his first Academy Award for The Rose Tattoo. The film's director, Daniel Mann, had originally been a stage director and later stated that he gave Howe control over almost all decisions about the filming other than those regarding the actors and dialogue. In 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, Howe worked with director Alexander Mackendrick to give the black-and-white film a sharp-edged look reminiscent of New York tabloid photography such as that taken by Arthur "Weegee" Fellig. During the 1950s, Howe directed his only English-language feature films, Invisible Avenger, one of many film adaptions of The Shadow, and Go Man Go, a movie about the Harlem Globetrotters. Neither was a critical or commercial success. In 1961 Howe directed episodes of Checkmate and 87th Precinct, then went back to cinematography.
Howe's best known work was almost entirely in black and white. His two Academy Awards both came during the period when Best Cinematography Oscars were awarded separately for color and black-and-white films. However, he successfully made the transition to color films and earned his first Academy Award nomination for a color film in 1958 for The Old Man and the Sea. He won his second Academy Award for 1963's Hud. His cinematography remained inventive during his later career. For instance, his use of fish-eye and wide-angle lenses in Seconds (1966) helped give an eerie tension to director John Frankenheimer's science fiction movie. After working on The Molly Maguires (1970), Howe's health began to fail and he entered semi-retirement. In 1974, he was well enough to be selected as a replacement cinematographer for Funny Lady. He collapsed during the filming; American Society of Cinematographers president Ernest Laszlo filled in for Howe while he was recovering in the hospital. Funny Lady earned Howe his tenth and final Oscar nomination. Three documentaries were made about Howe during the last two decades of his life.
Howe met his wife, Sanora Babb, before World War II. They traveled to Paris in 1937 to marry, but their marriage was not recognized by California until 1948, after the law banning racial intermarriage was abolished. Due to the ban, Howe's studio contract "morals clause" prohibited him from publicly acknowledging their marriage. They would not cohabit due to his traditional Chinese views, so they had separate apartments in the same building.
During the early years of the HUAC witch-hunts, Babb was blacklisted, and moved to Mexico City to protect the "graylisted" Howe from harassment.
Howe raised his godson, producer and director Martin Fong, after Fong arrived in the United States.
He is buried at Pierce Bros. Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
Howe's earliest discovery was the use of black velvet to make blue eyes show up better on the orthochromatic film stock in use until the early 1920s. Orthochromatic film was "blue blind"; it was sensitive to blue and green light, which showed as white on the developed film. Reds and yellows were darkened. Faced with the problem of actors' eyes appearing washed out or even stark white on film, Howe developed a technique of mounting a frame swathed with black velvet around his camera so that the reflections darkened the actors' eyes enough for them to appear more natural in the developed film.
Howe earned the nickname "Low-Key" because of his penchant for dramatic lighting and deep shadows, a technique that came to be associated with film noir. Later in his career, as film-stocks became faster and more sensitive, Howe would continue to experiment with his photography and lighting techniques, such as shooting one scene in The Molly Maguires solely by candlelight.
Howe also was known for his use of unusual lenses, film stocks, and shooting techniques. In the 1920s, he was an early adopter of the crab dolly, a form of camera dolly with four independent wheels and a movable arm to which the camera is attached. For the boxing scenes of Body and Soul (1947), he entered the boxing ring on roller-skates, carrying an early hand-held camera. Picnic (1955) features a very early example of the helicopter shot, filmed by the second-unit cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, and planned by Wexler and Howe.
Although the innovation of deep focus cinematography is usually associated with Gregg Toland, Howe used it in his first sound film, Transatlantic, ten years before Toland used the technique on Citizen Kane. For deep focus, the cinematographer narrows the aperture of the camera lens, and floods the set with light, so that elements in both the foreground and background remain in sharp focus. The technique requires highly sensitive film and was difficult to achieve with early film stocks; Toland, Howe, and Arthur Edeson were among the earliest cinematographers to successfully use it.
Academy Award for Best CinematographyNominee Algiers (1938)
Nominee Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940)
Nominee Kings Row (1942)
Nominee The North Star (1943)
Nominee Air Force (1943)
Winner The Rose Tattoo (1955)
Nominee The Old Man and the Sea (1958)
Winner Hud (1963)
Nominee Seconds (1966)
Nominee Funny Lady (1975)