This piece has been updated after publication with comments from Keith Gordon. — Editor
Director of photography Tom Richmond, who shot numerous seminal features that launched many directorial careers, died yesterday in New York City. He was 72.
Tom’s career began in the early ’80s. After graduating Harvard with an undergraduate photography degree and then going on to study at AFI, he worked second camera on Alex Cox’s Repo Man and was camera operator on Oliver Stone’s Salvador, among other credits. After several low-budget comedy and horror films, Tom was director of photography on two higher-profile films: Cox’s Straight to Hell (1997) and Ramon Menendez’s Stand and Deliver (1998), which contained a breakout performance from Edward James Olmos. From then on, Tom worked regularly and often with first-time directors. Indeed, the list of filmmakers whose first films Tom shot is extraordinary: among others, Keith Gordon (The Chocolate War, 1998); Keenan Ivory Wayans (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, 1998); Roger Avary (Killing Zoe, 1993); James Gray (Little Odessa, 1994); Jesse Peretz (First Love, Last Rites, 1997); Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills, 1998); Ethan Hawke (Chelsea Walls, 2001); Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Knockaround Guys, 2001); Rob Zombie (House of 1,000 Corpses, 2003); and, in 2016, Laurie Simmons (My Art).
Other notable credits include The Singing Detective, A Midnight Clear and other films by Gordon; Peter Sollett’s Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist; Peretz’s The Chateau and The Ex; and Todd Solondz’s Palindromes. His last feature credit as cinematographer was Stephen Schible’s documentary, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017). Across his career, Richmond worked in music video as well, shooting clips for directors such as Mark Pellington and Tim Pope as well as Hawke and Avary. In recent years, Richmond taught cinematography at NYU Tisch as well as Brooklyn College Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema.
But a mere list of credits fails to fully capture what was so special about Tom. As I wrote on Filmmaker‘s Instagram earlier, Tom was impish, irascible, intuitive, kind, loving, creative, punk rock and something of a savant. There was a mischievous, perpetually youthful quality to him that was so attractive to many filmmakers embarking on their first feature. There was never a hint of careerism to Tom. He was so generous, and that generosity was reflected in the way he’d sublimate any ego to the fulfillment of a director’s vision. When I interviewed him in 1995 about his work on Little Odessa, he told me that Gray’s stated influences were some of the most strikingly photographed films of all time, but what excited him about working with this new director were the paintings Gray had made based on the script’s locations. “I told him,” he remembered, “‘I’ll do some Godfather, French Connection if you want, but what I really want to do are your paintings.’” As his NYU biography notes, the vast majority of his features were shot on film, many on Super 16mm, and I remember Tom’s instinctual understanding of celluloid — how much he could push or pull, an understanding of just how and how far images would fall into shadow, how to create a bit of poetry with film stock and not much in the way of fancy lighting.
Robin O’Hara and I worked with Tom three times, twice on films by Jesse Peretz: First Love, Last Rites, and The Chateau. After Little Odessa, everyone wanted him to shoot their movies, and I remember both the weeks Jesse, Robin and I hustled to contact him and get him to read the script and take the meeting, and then the moment he walked into our 13th Street office, interested in the project. There was an instant connection; he was part of the family. About Tom and the shoot, Jesse captured it most eloquently on social media (reprinted with permission):
He was an older guy with the vibe of a teenage skateboarder. He used to refer to himself at the Keith Richards of photography. And in a way he was exactly that. When we shot First Love, Last Rites, he would get in the car every morning a bit hungover and late and grumpy. He wouldn’t talk to me in the car. Then we would arrive on set and he would crank Black Flag or Minor Threat on his Walkman as he lit the first scene (using colored plastic bags from Walmart as gels). ‘Punk rock photography’ he would always say… And out of his punk rock photography came the most gentle and beautiful images. Because ultimately he had an instinctively vulnerable eye. He partied hard until he stopped partying — but he still was the same guy. He taught me not only so much about photography but also about character and story. He never wanted the photography to upstage the characters — and in that way he served his movies and their stories, even if it undermined his ability to grab the limelight and promote himself.
Keith Gordon, who also worked with Tom on multiple films, wrote the following in an email:
I love Tom Richmond. Always will.
He taught me so much – about film of course, but a lot more. Humor in the face of adversity. Being passionate about what you’re doing without forgetting it was supposed to be fun.
His cinematography was brave and rich and varied. His images and light could be so breathtaking – but it was always about the story, the emotion, the humans at the core of it all.
We’d be shooting a period piece, and he’d come in all excited to play me a punk rock song he said captured what we were doing that day. For 15 seconds as I listened I’d think he was crazy. Then I’d realize he was absolutely right.
I loved how much he loved other’s work. He’d get so excited by an actor’s performance, or a piece of production design or a costume… and he noticed everything.
I never knew anyone with as wide an array of friends. He could connect to anyone and everyone. I went to a party at his little house in Venice and there were 65-year-old lawyers in suits and 15-year-old skateboarders. Leather punk rockers and aging, gentle folk musicians. Tom loved humans, and many of us loved him back.
His still photography was as great as his cinematography: faces, cars, empty places. I always hoped he’d put a book together. Maybe someone will do that now…
Tom never seemed to have it easy, but life never knocked him down for too long. He was one of the most wonderful, beautiful people I’ve known, and I will miss him every day.
I’m thankful for the memories, and I will miss running into Tom in the East Village — his wicked humor, his artistic camaraderie and his gentle but no-bullshit demeanor. R.I.P. Tom Richmond.