Don Lenzer: A Wide-Angle Lens on the World

An extensive filmography includes only a handful of narrative features
Don Lenzer relaxed in a zebra-striped Alvar Aalto chair before heading to Guild Hall to see Laurie Anderson’s virtual reality installations. Mark Segal

To call Don Lenzer’s nearly 50 years as a documentary cinematographer and director a career is to sell it short. His film projects have brought him into contact with so many different people, enterprises, and disciplines that together they constitute an extraordinary education, a wide-angle lens on the world of his time.

His extensive filmography includes only a handful of narrative features. “I love feature films, but I didn’t enjoy working on them that much,” he said during a recent conversation. “I tell people I love working on documentaries, and it’s most rewarding when it turns out to be a work that moves other people. But always for me it’s a way of learning about life. I do feel like I appropriate the world.”

Although he acknowledged that his output inclines toward cultural subjects, his work as a co-director and cinematographer has ranged widely. In 1970, when he and Lee Lockwood made “The Holy Outlaw,” a documentary about the antiwar activist Father Daniel Berrigan, they interviewed him after he’d been sentenced to prison and was living underground.

“I did make friends with some of the people, including Philip Berrigan and Sister Liz McAlister, who later married. There have been times when I made deep friendships that lasted well beyond the filming.”

Mr. Lenzer directed “Among the Stars,” about the East End Special Players, an acting troupe of learning-disabled adults led by Jacqui Leader, in 2004. The film chronicles a production of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

For PBS’s “Great Performances” series, he co-directed and shot “Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler’s House,” a 1995 Emmy Award-winning documentary in which Mr. Perlman explores the vitality of klezmer music while traveling from New York’s Lower East Side to Poland.

Mr. Lenzer has been director of photography on five Academy Award-winning documentaries, among them “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport” (2000), which tells through archival footage and interviews with survivors the story of the British rescue of more than 10,000 Jewish and other children from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia before World War II.

“If I’m working as a director of photography for someone else and I’m not directing or co-directing, it’s really great for me to try to get into the head of the director as much as possible, to try to find out what they’re trying to do. Even if it isn’t exactly how I understand it, I have to appropriate it in some way and make it my story too, without in any way taking away from them.”

Elaborating for an article in Filmmaker magazine, Mr. Lenzer wrote, “Getting off to a good start in a collaboration between director and [director of photography] of a documentary is one of the most important elements of the filmmaking process, and that collaboration can take many forms.” Speaking of documentary directors of photography, he observed that “We’re so preoccupied with just covering the action that you can’t discern very many individual styles.”

Although Mr. Lenzer said his film work was slowing down, he still has several projects going. A member of the advisory board of the Sag Harbor Cinema Arts Center, he was invited to take photographs inside the remaining section of the building, much of which was lost to a fire in December 2016. One shows the dark theater with a string of lightbulbs suspended eerily from the ceiling. In another, the projector is draped with a strip of film from “The Station Agent,” exactly as it was found after the fire.

A work in progress, with several more visits to the theater planned, the mostly black-and-white images reflect the influence of film noir. They have an element of mystery, as of narratives frozen in time.

One positive result of the dropoff in film work is that Mr. Lenzer has more time for community-related projects. In addition to the cinema, he is on the advisory board of the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival.

“I lived in New York for 25 years and I had a lot of friends, but I never felt the kind of community rootedness that I feel here, and that I increasingly feel as I get older,” he said.

Although he was born and raised in Southern California, a life in movies was not on the horizon when he left at the age of 16 to attend Yale, where he majored in political science and spent a junior year abroad in France.

“I used to sometimes go the Cinémathèque Francaise in Paris two or three times a day. My French friends had a different attitude toward movies than I and my American friends had. I loved movies, but the French looked at them as works of art. While in Paris, I was talking with a friend from Yale and said for the first time that I thought I wanted to be a film director.”

After graduating, he returned to California and enrolled in the M.F.A. program at U.C.L.A. “I watched a lot of movies, and there were a couple of professors who were very influential.” One was Ed Brokaw, who had worked in New York City at the same time as the Maysles brothers and Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, and talked about cinéma vérité in class. “The kind of filmmaker I wanted to be did both camera and directing.”

His time at U.C.L.A. was cut short in 1963, when he was drafted. “I was very lucky I didn’t get sent overseas, and when I got out I didn’t have a clue as to what I would do for a living.” He eventually found work as a cinematographer for television stations in Portland and Seattle, but moved two years later to New York, “where I thought documentary films were mainly being made and where I needed to go.” There, he directed “Fathers and Sons,” a Public Broadcast Lab documentary feature, and never looked back.

Musing on the direction of his career, Mr. Lenzer recalled that his father had suggested law school as more practical than filmmaking, “and it might have influenced me a bit, as documentary seemed a more practical pursuit than theatrical fiction films.” 

Making documentaries is more straightforward today than when he started out, he said. “It used to be you had to have an editing suite that would cost a couple of thousand dollars. Now you can edit at home with a computer and software. All you need are ideas. You need stories. That’s what great documentaries and great narrative films are about — storytelling.”

Mr. Lenzer first came out to the East End during the 1970s, staying at the Ocean Dunes in Amagansett and later renting a cottage on Three Mile Harbor and a boathouse on Georgica Pond. A rental on Red Dirt Road in Springs led to his purchase of a lot nearby, in the Amagansett woods north of Montauk Highway.

Once the land was paid off in 1985, he built a saltbox, and soon after met Bettina Volz, a clinical psychologist who was working on her doctorate in the city. They married a few years later; their daughter, Antonia, is now 27. Several years ago the couple replaced the original house with a sustainable design that reflects their taste for midcentury modern.

Musing on their lives together as he approaches his 80th birthday, Mr. Lenzer said, “We don’t regret any of it.”

Don Lenzer was a cinematographer on “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’,” an Oscar and Emmy-winning 1983 documentary about the dancer and choreographer Jacques d’Amboise.
From left, Fyvush Finkel, Itzhak Perlman, and Red Buttons in “Itzhak Perlman: In the Fiddler’s House,” which was co-directed and shot by Mr. Lenzer for PBS’s “Great Performances” series.
The air of mystery in Mr. Lenzer’s black-and-white photographs taken inside the Sag Harbor Cinema after the 2016 fire is reminiscent of film noir.
Don Lenzer Photos