08 · 21 · 18

Alex Phillips, Builder of Atmospheres

By: Héctor Orozco
This text was written by Héctor Orozco, curator of Fundación Televisa, for the photographic exhibition Alex Phillips, builder of atmospheres, which will be presented at the 16th edition of the Morelia International Film Festival (FICM).


The iconographic invention of Mexico, built and spread in the years that followed the Revolution by artists of the most diverse disciplines, had creators from different countries who helped to transfer our identity to the new artistic languages. In the field of moving images, the names that stand out are Paul Strand, Sergei Eisenstein and Eduard Tissé, who exalted the landscapes, customs and physiognomies of Mexico.

Alex Phillips, a young Canadian cinematographer who worked in Hollywood, came to our country in those same years to film what is considered the first sound film of our industry: Santa (1931, directed by Antonio Moreno), the second adaptation of the popular novel by Federico Gamboa. He arrived in Mexico with a five-week contract, he did not speak Spanish and knew practically nothing about the country that would become his home thereafter. “I only happened to see Indio Fernandez, who lived nearby and told me in his exalted character: Do not hesitate! Go and you will know what Mexico is”. [1]

Phillips, whose real name was Alexander Pelepiock, was born on January 11, 1900 in Ontario. During the First World War he was part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force on the fronts of France and Belgium. There he had his first contact with photography and also met the film star Mary Pickford, who was a godmother to the Canadian regiment, sending letters of encouragement to the soldiers and visiting them at the front. Heavily wounded Pelepiock was transferred to California to recover. According to him, the first thing he did when he left was to go to the studios in search of the Canadian diva to thank her for her kindness.

Alex Phillips

Alex Phillips | Photo: Fundación Televisa

In 1921, Pickford created the Motion Picture Relief Fund, an aid organization for actors and film technicians injured in war. Christie Film Co., a small company founded by brothers Al and Charles Christie, also from Ontario, was their main ally. Among the favored artists was aspiring actor Alec Phillips (as he appeared in his first credits), who soon went behind the camera to specialize in “comedy photography”, Charles Chaplin style. All the comedies followed that technique. Christie thought that photography had to be flat, without lighting or effects, so that nothing would distract the actor’s eyes.”[2]

At the beginning of the sound film, Christie went bankrupt and Alex Phillips joined Samuel Goldwyn’s production company as a photo-fixer, lighting technician and assistant to some of the most talented cinematographers of the time. “That’s where my knowledge about photography really got its start, Goldwyn’s was the best school in the whole world.” Phillips set up a photo studio attended by producers and directors looking for new faces. He worked there at night and organized evenings with his friends and the beautiful aspiring stars. “Those were the times of bohemian joy in that fascinating world of Hollywood,” he remembered.

Double shifts reduced his performance and he was fired. Actress Carmen Guerrero told him that the National Film Production Company was looking for Hollywood solvent technicians to make the first sound film of Mexican cinema. The cinematographer was recruited with the Spanish director Antonio Moreno, the Rodriguez brothers as sound engineers, and the actors Lupita Tovar and Donald Reed. He traveled alone from Los Angeles by road and when he arrived in the city he wrote to the Indio, thanking him for his advice. On November 8, 1931, El Universal reported: “The cinematographer Alex Pillips, considered one of the most competent cameramen in Hollywood studios, has arrived in our capital.”

Santa was filmed in a rudimentary set built in Chapultepec and in locations of Chimalistac, the backdrop to Federico Gamboa’s story. During production, Phillips “was not only the photographer but the person who did everything. He was the one who came to teach cinema to Mexico…”[3], his director Julio Bracho would remember when talking about his first encounter with who would become his favorite photographer. When they finished, the job offers multiplied. He participated in a fourth of the films filmed in the thirties thanks to his enormous gift adding meaning to images. “The purpose of photography is not to use light mechanically and expect to capture an image as the final result, but to paint a scene with light; create an atmosphere, inspire true art … ”

Santa (1931, dir. Antonio Moreno)

Santa (1931, dir. Antonio Moreno) | Photo: Fundación Televisa

He considered himself the slowest photographer in the world for the time he took illuminating to create his atmospheres. With the rigor that characterized him, he integrated into his work the Mexican mysticism that predominated in art, contributing interesting images to the iconographic invention of our country. Films such as: Revolución (1932, dir. Miguel Contreras Torres), Enemigos (1933, dir. Chano Urueta), La mujer del puerto (1933, dir. Arcady Boytler) and Chucho el Roto (1934, dir. Gabriel Soria), were fundamental in the training of his apprentice and friend, Gabriel Figueroa.

Phillips was a teacher to many of his classmates and a highly respected figure by the guild. “Alex is a great man, a man of a sweetness…of a kindness he must feel proud of. I had the privilege of being his disciple and the added privilege of being friends with him, whom I consider a brother”[4], said Figueroa. “Alex is a saint, he’s the nicest man I’ve ever met, and as a photographer the best I’ve ever had”[5], Buñuel confessed to Gustavo Alatriste. And Claudio Isaac was surprised when he visited the set of Foxtrot (1975, dir. Arturo Ripstein): “Don Alex arrived in a wheelchair, due to an advanced case of gangrene, both legs had been amputated. When seeing his silhouette advancing from the great door of the forum the technicians, all the members of the staff, congregated in clear reverence.” [6]

But it is undoubtedly his own words that best portray the affable character of the cinematographer. “There are no words to thank Mexico for what it has done for me! It has given me a wife, the best wife in the world, Alicia. A wonderful home and the love of all my peers. Mexico has nothing to thank me for. I am the one who has a lot to thank this wonderful country, which is mine, for.” [7] Alex Phillips died on June 14, 1977 leaving behind an impressive legacy. It brings Fundación Televisa great pride to contribute to the diffusion of the work of this important image maker who contributed so much to our industry, to our visual culture and to the formation of new generations of artists.

Photographic exhibition presented by Fundación Televisa

[1] Juan Manuel Tort, “Los monstruos del cine mexicano”, in Ovaciones, Thursday, March 24, 1977.
[2] Alex Phillips in Testimonios para la historia del cine en México, Volume I, p. 21, Mexico, 1975.
[3] Julio Bracho in Testimonios para la historia del cine en México, volume V, p. 34, Mexico, 1975.
[4] Juan Manuel Tort, op. cit.
[5] Documentary Alex Phillips, the magic between light and shadow, director Ernesto Medina, 1998.
[6] Claudio Isaac, “Twenty-two posthumous memories of Mexican cinema”, in Revista de la Universidad, no. 8, October 2004.
[7] Juan Manuel Tort, op. cit.