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Walter Lassally (1926-2017): Award-winning cinematographer who made magic with black-and-white

The German-born Lasally won an Oscar for his camera work in the 1965 classic ‘Zorba the Greek’.

Cinematographer Walter Lassally died in Greece on Monday following complications from surgery. He was 90.

In a career that spanned five decades and over a hundred movies, Lasally shot several acclaimed films, including Tony Richardson’s Academy Award-winning Tom Jones (1963), Zorba the Greek (1965), for which Lasally won an Oscar for best black-and-white cinematography, Merchant-Ivory’s Heat and Dust (1983) and Pakistani arthouse film Jago Hua Savera (1959). Lasally also made an onscreen appearance in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).

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Zorba the Greek (1965).

Born in Berlin with Jewish ancestors, Lasally had to flee to London with his family in 1939. He then quit his studies to become a clapper boy at a studio. He began freelancing as a cameraman after the studio went bankrupt and had become associated with United Kingdom’s Free Cinema movement, which rebelled against film industry’s focus on big money and affluent people, choosing to make low-budget feels depicting social realities.

A chance meeting with Greek director Michael Cacoyannis in 1954 led to a five-film collaboration and some of Lasally’s most acclaimed work. Together, they made A Girl in Black (1956), A Matter of Dignity (1956), Our Last Spring (1960) and Zorba the Greek. The Day the Fish Came Out (1967) was the last film Lasally shot for the director, the only one of the lot that was shot in colour.

In 1965, Lassally shot Cacoyannis’s Zorba the Greek in four different locations in Crete, and fell in love with the island. The film chronicled the story of a young and straitjacketed part English part Greek writer whose life alters when he meets the free-spirited musician Alexis Zorba. Lassally eventually moved to Stavros near the city of Chania in Crete in 1998.

Apart from Richardson, Lassally also collaborated frequently with James Ivory in the 1970s and ’80s. For Ivory, he shot Savages (1972), Wild Party (1975) and The Bostonians (1984) in the US, Autobiography of a Princess (1975) in London, and Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures (1978) and Heat and Dust (1983) in India.

Lassally wrote his autobiography, Itinerant Cameraman. in 1987. Although he began to shoot fewer films in the latter 1980s and 1990s, Lassally remained an active photographer, and headed the camera department of the National Film and Television School in London 1988 to 1992. The last film for which he was credited as cinematographer was Crescent Heart (2001).

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Heat and Dust (1983).
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