The Ladies Lounge


By Erika Addis.

The Ladies Lounge – what’s that, did I hear you say? Well I’m glad you asked, because it’s a number of things, really.

It started a while ago, over a cup of tea, and some emails exchanged during the final months before the launch of The Shadowcatchers: a history of cinematography in Australia. All the pressures of getting the book together were mostly done but all the pressures of the launch were well and truly building up, like a 747 getting ready for take off.

Earlier in the year Encore magazine had published an interview with Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS ) National President Ron Johanson about gender equality in the film industry. And Ron had expressed a view that women cinematographers were doing well, and appeared to be going from strength to strength and that was a good thing.

Unsurprisingly, some of us begged to differ with him about the “doing well” bit, as we felt from our observations that, statistically speaking, women cinematographers have been doing poorly for quite a long time. Employment figures in the film industry are notoriously difficult to measure meaningfully because of the freelance business model and the large number of hours of unpaid work that may lead to paid work, etc., etc. Also, it’s difficult to establish when someone really leaves the industry, as they could just be
having a bad run, a dry spell, or they may have actually moved on. So getting valid employment data is hard.

But the ACS, being an egalitarian organisation that welcomes and invites membership (rather than excluding them as some international societies tend to do), provides
some useful data on numbers of cinematographers – or, should we say, on professionals who identify themselves as cinematographers.

In 2012 the percentages of women ACS members were:

Student: 16.33%
Active Members: 8.46% (Members working professionally)
Full Members: 3.69% (Members who have been active for a minimum of 5 years)
Accredited: 1.9%

So questions arising from these figures are: what happens to the approximately 8% of the female student members who don’t stay in the ACS, and presumably don’t make the transition from student to working cinematographer?

Obviously, this career development takes several years, but given that these figures are from 2012, and film courses have been big business for well over a decade now, the student members from 8 – 10 years ago should potentially be today’s professionals – and active members of the ACS. So what has happened to them?

More significantly, what has happened to the roughly 4.7% active members who perhaps didn’t stay in the business long enough to become full members? This figure suggests that more women dropped out than stayed working – that is, a statistically significant percentage of women who took themselves seriously enough to join the ACS as active members have disappeared. Did these women all head for the hills to have children, or was it something else? What could be the reason?

Historically, women have been active in filmmaking from its early days to well into the 20th century. They have been primarily actors and increasingly producers, directors, and writers. But never cameramen. The camera was a strictly male only domain right up until the 1960s when Adelaide’s Pat Walter became the first woman in Australia to take up the camera professionally and shoot news. And Jan Kenny was the first female full ACS member in 1979 and the first woman to gain ACS accreditation in 1986. So the female full membership of the ACS has grown from 0% to 3.69% in 33 years. It’s not a lot of growth to show for nearly three and a half decades.

Why does it matter? Some might argue that it doesn’t matter whether or not women work as cinematographers. Gender isn’t an issue when it comes to cinematography. But others note that there’s the sensibility and tone that every cinematographer brings to his or her image making, working process and onset relationships. This sensibility is unique to each individual and it’s that quality that is sought after by directors and producers looking for creative partners to bring depth and resonance to their projects.

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Figures from Dr M Lauzen (The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-The-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2012, 2013) analysing the employment data from the 250 top grossing domestic films in USA, show that the number of women cinematographers declined from 4% in 1998 to 2% in 2012. That’s to say, 98% of the 250 top grossing films produced in USA in 2012 did not have a female cinematographer.

And the absence of women in behind the camera positions – producer, executive producer, director, cinematographer and editor – correlates to a measurable absence of women on the screen. In a 2007 study of employment figures of women in above the line positions Stacy Smith (Gender Oppression in Cinematic Content?: A Look At Females OnScreen and Behind-The-Camera in Top-Grossing 2007 Film, 2009) comments that “on screen gender roles are a function – to some degree – of the gender composition of behind-the-camera workers”. Smith’s Gender Report 2007 indicates that when women are present behind the camera, the number of actresses in front of the camera increases. For example, in that report, in films directed by women, 44% of the characters are female, compared to 29.3% when directed by men.

Smith also found that the female characters are more complex, interesting and realistic when more women are involved in above the line roles. As J N Hunter-Thomas noted “Smith’s report demonstrates that when women are employed in Above-The-Line positions it represents a broader cultural shift”.

When there’s a gender imbalance in the cinematography work force, as there is world wide, there’s a loss of the particular sensitivities and textures that, as a result of their
specific life experiences, women bring to the story and to the images. And there’s also an impact on the working environment and the leadership within the camera crew, which can subtly inform the way shots are created. All of these things matter, because that’s a loss of diversity in our filmmaking gene pool if you like. And that means a loss for all of us, as storytellers and audiences, male and female alike.

So why has there been a decrease in the number of women in these crucial above the line positions in first decade of this century? It will take comprehensive research to investigate and formulate some answers. But in the meantime, in Australia, encouraged by ACS National President Ron Johanson, women ACS members have begun to get together to see what we can do.

We meet once or twice a year to discuss matters of particular relevance to women cinematographers and the ACS has now invited us to form a Women’s Advisory Panel. This means there is a recognised and structured channel to provide a voice to women members of the ACS. This is an important development by the Society, when it still has a significantly small percentage of female members.

So, meanwhile, back to the “Ladies Lounge” question you asked earlier – this is where the Ladies Lounge comes in. Some readers will get the reference to the genteel lounge in
the back section of Australian hotels, where women could sit in armchairs and sip their gin and tonics away from the loud voices and harsh language of the male drinkers (their
husbands) in the front bar. Plenty of business got sorted in the Ladies Lounges, as well as news exchanged – they were a world of their own within the world at large. One of my first jobs in the 70s was working in the bar of such a Lounge on the outskirts of Adelaide, and I loved pouring the beers and mixing the brandy and dries. Ironically I was sacked because although I agreed to wear a dress, I refused to wear nylon stockings and my legs were apparently unacceptably hairy for those genteel ladies.

So now the modern day Ladies Lounge is thoroughly contemporary. Being virtual it is unfortunately a dry lounge, but nonetheless it is a place where women in cinematography can chat and catch up, post news, notices, questions, pictures, job ads etc. and generally support one another. The lights are low and the friendly atmosphere aims to encourage women cinematographers to fully participate both in the ACS and in professional work. The ACS Ladies Lounge is open by invitation to all cine women – ACS members, cinematographers, operators, camera assistants and cinematography students at every level of proficiency and standing.

Written by Erika Addis.

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