At a time when women were actively discouraged from pursuing careers behind the camera, Babette Mangolte became one of the first to study cinematography at l’Ecole Nationale, in Paris. After graduating in the early seventies, she left France for the downtown New York film scene, armed with little but her training and a hunger for avant-garde cinema. She got her start with photographs and films documenting the work of choreographers like Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, and soon her circle of friends was filled with such iconoclasts as filmmaker Jonas Mekas, avant-garde theater director Richard Foreman, and—most fatefully—Chantal Akerman, another expatriate artist. Mangolte found a kindred spirit in the great Belgian filmmaker, and together they sought to infuse cinema with the female perspective they found lacking on-screen. Their early work, including the urban portraits Hotel Monterey and News From Home, captured the alienation of New York life with a mix of slow rhythms and hauntingly static compositions. The distinctive aesthetic they honed in those films found its most powerful expression in 1975’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles , one of the landmarks of feminist filmmaking.
In the decades since that masterpiece, Mangolte has worked on a wide range of projects, directing her own features (The Sky on Location, The Models of Pickpocket) and shooting for filmmakers like Jean-Pierre Gorin and Sally Potter. This week, she’s being celebrated as one of the central figures in a series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center called The Female Gaze, which throws the spotlight on women cinematographers. For the occasion, I spoke with Mangolte about her approach to the art and her experiences in a male-dominated field.
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