John Alton

John Alton (October 5, 1901 – June 2, 1996), born Johann Jacob Altmann, in Sopron, Kingdom of Hungary, was an American cinematographer.[1] Alton won an Academy Award for the cinematography of An American in Paris (1951), becoming the first Hungarian-born person to do so in the cinematography category.

John Alton
Johann Jacob Altmann

(1901-10-05)October 5, 1901
DiedJune 2, 1996(1996-06-02) (aged 94)
Spouse(s)Rozalia Kiss


Alton photographed some of the most famous films noir of the classic period. He began as a lab technician in Los Angeles in the 1920s, later becoming a cameraman within four years.[2] He moved to France with Ernst Lubitsch to film backgrounds for The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) and ended up staying for one year heading the camera department of Paramount Pictures's Joinville Studios. In 1932, he moved to Argentina where he shot many Spanish-language films and designed the country's first sound film studio for Lumiton and Argentina Sono Film.

He returned to Hollywood in the late 1930s, with two dozen film credits, and became one of the most sought after cinematographers of the time.[3]

Alton was known for unconventional camera angles—especially low camera shots. His style is most notable in the films noir: He Walked by Night, The Big Combo, The Amazing Mr. X, T-Men, and Raw Deal.

Alton also photographed many color movies including Slightly Scarlet (a color film noir).

Alton resigned from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) in January 1944, reportedly due to conflicts with ASC founding member and MGM camera department head John Arnold. He was reinstated at his request less than a year later, with the help of Leon Shamroy,[4] but ended up resigning a second and final time in March 1954.[5]


Alton wrote Painting with Light (1949), one of the first books written by a working studio cinematographer. The book put forth several controversial theories for the day, such as depth is created by placing the brightest object in the scene furthest from the camera, and that studio lighting must always simulate natural light in texture and direction. It addresses both conventional and unconventional methods of studio motion-picture lighting. Despite the vast technical advances achieved within the motion picture industry much of the content is still pertinent. Painting with Light (1949) contains essential reading for any budding filmmaker with detailed information and ideas for lighting several difficult interior and exterior setups and situations. The table of contents includes chapters such as "Mystery Lighting", "Special Illumination", and "Visual Symphony".




In 1966, Alton shot the pilot for Mission: Impossible, which became a successful television series.




  • Laurel Awards: Golden Laurel, Top Cinematography, Color, The Brothers Karamazov, 4th place; 1959.

Other honors


  1. John Alton on IMDb.
  2. John Alton at AllMovie.
  3. Steeman, Albert. Internet Encyclopedia of Cinematographers, "John Alton page", Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 2007. Last accessed: December 13, 2007.
  4. John Bailey (July 17, 2016). "An American in Paris: John Alton vs. Alfred Gilks". American Cinematographer. American Society of Cinematographers. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
  5. John Bailey (October 6, 2013). "John Alton: Cinematography's Outlier, Part One". American Cinematographer. American Society of Cinematographers. Retrieved August 13, 2019.
  6. Goble, Alan. The Complete Index to World Film, since 1885. 2008. Index home page.
  7. Steeman, Albert. Ibid.


  • Harry Tomicek: Das grosse Schwarz. Border Incident, von Anthony Mann, Kamera: John Alton (1949). In: Christian Cargnelli, Michael Omasta (eds.): Schatten. Exil. Europäische Emigranten im Film noir. PVS, Vienna 1997. ISBN 3-901196-26-9.
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