Cinematographer Tom Richmond, who shot many seminal feature films that launched numerous directorial careers, died yesterday in New York. He was 72 years old.
Tom’s career began in the early 1980s. After earning an undergraduate degree in photography from Harvard, then studying at AFI, he worked as a second cameraman on Alex Cox’s film. The man from the depot and was a camera operator on Oliver Stone salvador, among other credits. After several low-budget comedies and horror films, Tom served as director of photography on two higher-profile films: Cox’s straight to hell (1997) and Ramon Menendez Stand up and deliver (1998), which contained a breakout performance by Edward James Olmos. From then on, Tom worked regularly and often with new directors. Indeed, the list of filmmakers whose first films Tom made is extraordinary: among others, Keith Gordon (The chocolate war, 1998); Keenan Ivory Wayans (I will make you suck, 1998); Roger Avary (Kill Zoe, 1993); James Gray (Little Odessa, 1994); Jesse Peretz (First love, last rites, 1997); Tamara Jenkins (Beverly Hills Slums, 1998); Ethan Hawke (Chelsea Walls, 2001); Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Stunning 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 light and other Gordon films; by Peter Sollet Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist; by Peretz The castle and The EX; and Todd Solondz Palindromes. His last feature as a cinematographer was Stephen Schible’s documentary, Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (2017). Throughout his career, Richmond has also worked in music videos, directing music videos for directors such as Mark Pellington and Tim Pope as well as Hawke and Avary. In recent years, Richmond has taught filmmaking at NYU Tisch as well as Brooklyn College Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema.
But a simple credits list fails to fully capture what was so special about Tom. As I wrote on Directorit is instagram Previously, Tom was mischievous, irascible, intuitive, kind, loving, creative, punk rock, and a little scholarly. He had a mischievous, perpetually youthful quality to him that was so appealing to many filmmakers embarking on their first feature film. There was never a hint of careerism in Tom. He was so generous, and that generosity was reflected in how he would sublimate any ego for 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 among the most photographed films of all time, but what excited him to work with this new director were the paintings that Gray had done based on the locations of the script. “I told him,” he recalls, “I’m going to do some Godfather, french connection if you want, but what I really want to do is your paintings. New York University Biography notes, the vast majority of his feature films were shot on film, many on Super 16mm, and I remember Tom’s instinctive understanding of celluloid – how much he could push or pull, an understanding of how and how far the images would fall into the shadows, how to create a bit of poetry with film and some fancy lighting.
Robin O’Hara and I have worked with Tom three times, twice on Jesse Peretz films: First love, last ritesand The castle. After Little Odessa, everyone wanted him to shoot their movies, and I remember the weeks when Jesse, Robin and I were rushing to contact him and have him read the script and take the meeting, and then the moment he walked in in our office on 13th Street, 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 (reproduced with his permission):
He was an older guy with the vibe of a teenage skateboarder. He used to refer to 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 didn’t want to talk to me in the car. Then we’d get on set and he’d throw Black Flag or Minor Threat on his walkman as he lit up the first scene (using colored plastic bags from Walmart as gels). “Punk rock photography” he always said… And from his punk rock photography were born the sweetest and most beautiful images. Because at the end of the day, he had an instinctively vulnerable eye. He partied until he stopped partying – but he was still the same guy. He not only taught me a lot about photography, but also about the characters and the story. He never wanted the photography to overshadow the characters – and in this way he served his films and their stories, even if it undermined his ability to grab attention and promote himself.
I’ll miss meeting Tom in the East Village – his wicked humor, artistic camaraderie, and sweet but no-bullshit attitude. RIP Tom Richmond.