Sven Nykvist Biography

Sven Vilhem Nykvist, a distinguished Swedish cinematographer, is best known for his collaboration with renowned director Ingmar Bergman. With a career spanning five decades, Nykvist worked with numerous national and international directors, including Woody Allen and Bob Fosse. His subtle use of light in his camera work enhanced the emotional tone of characters and the mood of the scene, earning him the reputation as one of the all-time great cinematographers. Nykvist’s exceptional talent was recognized with two Academy Awards for Best Cinematography for his work on Bergman’s films ‘Cries and Whispers’ and ‘Fanny and Alexander’. His contributions to films such as ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and ‘Chaplin’ further solidified his status as an influential cinematographer. In 2003, the ‘International Cinematographers Guild’ listed Nykvist among history’s 10 most influential cinematographers.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: The Master of Light, Sven Vilhem Nykvist
  • Died At Age: 83
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Ulla Söderlind, Ulrika Nykvist
    • Father: Gustav Natanael Nykvist
    • Mother: Gerda Nilsson
    • Children: Carl-Gustav Nykvist, Johan Nykvist
  • Cinematographers
  • Swedish Men
  • Died on: September 20, 2006
  • Place of death: Stockholm
  • More Facts
  • Education: Municipal School for Photographers

Childhood & Early Life

He was born on December 3, 1922, in Moheda, a locality in Kronobergs län in southern Sweden. His parents were missionaries who followed Lutheranism and spent many years in Belgian Congo, a Belgian colony in Central Africa. During his parents’ absence he along with his siblings lived in a Christian children’s home located at Stockholm. His parents returned to Sweden when Nykvist was ten. His enthusiasm in visual arts might have been infused by his father’s activities, who himself was an amateur photographer of the wildlife of Africa. He purchased his first 8mm camera when he was only fifteen years of age. He was also a gifted athlete in his youth and to enhance his athletic techniques he filmed himself taking a high jump, which remained his first cinematic endeavour with the camera. While he was in his secondary school, he came across many students of the school who later became eminent theatre, TV and big screen personalities of Sweden such as Torsten Lilliecrona, Kenne Fant and Keve Hjelm. He attended Stockholm’s ‘Municipal School for Photographers’ for a year and headed for a career in the film industry.


Nykvist, still in his teens, joined the ‘Sandrews’ studio as an assistant cameraman in 1941. While working the young Nykvist came across many eminent Swedish film personalities of that era such as Alf Sjöberg, Lorens Marmstedt, Hasse Ekman, Julius Jaenzon and Viveca Lindfors. In 1943 he relocated to Italy where he joined the ‘Cinecittà Studios’ in Rome. He returned to Sweden in 1945, after a stint of two years. The same year he made his debut as a full-fledged cinematographer in the Rolf Husberg directed popular film ‘Barnen från Frostmofjället’ (‘The Children from Frostmo Mountain’). The next few years saw him working on several small Swedish films. He also visited and stayed with his parents in Africa during this time and filmed the wildlife there. A documentary featuring the wildlife footages captured by him was later released with the title ‘In the Footsteps of the Witch Doctor’. It was also called ‘Under the Southern Cross’. In 1953 his spectacular association with noted film director Ingmar Bergman began when he started working as one of the three cinematographers for the latter’s film ‘Sawdust and Tinsel’. The film was released as ‘The Naked Night’ in the United States. With time he emerged as a full-time cinematographer of Ingmar Bergman replacing famous cameraperson Gunnar Fischer. The creative collaboration of the two that lasted for around four decades saw a deflection of the legendary director’s films from an earlier theatrical look. Nykvist was the solo cameraperson of two of Bergman’s ‘Academy Awards’ winning films namely ‘The Virgin Spring’ (1960) and ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ (1961). His subtlety in capturing close-up shots of human faces and their emotions in ‘Persona’ (1966), a psychologically intense film by Bergman was revolutionary. Over the years he worked in several remarkable films of Bergman thus marking the association of the duo as one of the most glorious ones in the history of cinema. Some such notable films were ‘The Silence’ (1963), ‘The Winter Night’ (1963), ‘The Passion of Anna’ (1969), ‘Cries and Whispers’ (1973), ‘The Magic Flute’ (1975), ‘The Serpent’s Egg’ (1977), ‘From the Life of the Marionettes’ (1980) and ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (1982). He worked with several other directors like Alf Sjöberg for his film ‘The Judge’ (1960) and Mai Zetterling for his film ‘Loving Couples’ (1964).

Notable Works

Some of his noted works with renowned international film directors were ‘The Last Run’ (1971) with American director Richard Fleischer; ‘Black Moon’ (1975) with French director Louis Malle; ‘The Tenant’ (1976) with French-Polish director Roman Polanski; ‘Another Woman’ (1988) and Crimes and Misdemeanors’ (1989) with American filmmaker Woody Allen; and ‘Chaplin’ (1992) with English actor-director Richard Attenborough. He directed a Swedish drama film called ‘The Ox’ (1991) apart from being the cinematographer of the film. He also co-wrote the script of the film along with Lasse Summanen. The film was nominated at the 64th Academy Awards in 1992 for the ‘Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film’. Nykvist was the first European director of photography to become a member of the prestigious ‘American Society of Cinematographers’ (‘ASC’) and received a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ from the organisation in 1996. His long and successful career faced an abrupt end in 1998 when he had to take retirement from cinema after being diagnosed with aphasia. His last work was with Woody Allen in the latter’s film ‘Celebrity’ (1998).

Awards & Achievements

He won the ‘Academy Award for Best Cinematography’ for ‘Cries and Whispers’ (‘Viskningar och rop) in 1973 and for ‘Fanny and Alexander’ (‘Fanny och Alexander’) in 1983.

Personal Life & Legacy

He was married to Ulla Söderlind from 1952 to 1968. He later married Ulrika Nykvist. His son, filmmaker Carl-Gustaf Nykvist released a documentary on his life on August 26, 2000, titled ‘Light Keeps Me Company’ that saw participation of many of his colleagues from the film industry. On September 20, 2006, he died in Stockholm.

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