Carlo Di Palma, who has died aged 79, was one of those Italian cinematographers who, like the masters of light of the Renaissance, gained the respectful title of maestro . He first won international recognition in 1964 as director of photography on Michelangelo Antonioni's first colour film, The Red Desert, and worked on the same director's Blow Up (1966), filmed in London. Later, in New York, he was cinematographer for 11 Woody Allen films, from Hannah And Her Sisters (1986) to Deconstructing Harry (1997).
Di Palma was born into a poor Roman family; his mother was a flower seller on the Spanish Steps. After showing an early interest in photography, he was a non-credited assistant on the sets of two pioneering neo-realist films, Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1943) and Rossellini's Paisà (1946).
He worked as an assistant cameraman to one of the first maestri of postwar Italian cinematography, Gianni Di Venanzo, and, in 1956, was his cameraman for the film that Francesco Rosi co-directed with Vittorio Gassman of the actor's stage performance as Edmund Kean. Hearing of his death, Rosi said that, with his use of colour, Di Palma had "opened a new chapter in the history of the cinema".
His first credit as cameraman had been in 1954, on a routine costume picture. His first critical attention, as director of photography, was for Florestano Vancini's The Long Night Of '43, which won the best directorial debut award at the 1960 Venice Festival. A tormented love story about a married woman (Belinda Lee) and her former boyfriend (Gabriele Ferzetti, the actor from L'avventura) during the first months of Mussolini's puppet fascist republic of Salo, it featured the camera work of Di Palma's nephew Dario, capturing the foggy greys and whites of writer Giorgio Bassani's Ferrara.
Di Palma undertook the photography for two other directors making significant debuts in the early 1960s, Elio Petri and Giuliano Montaldo. Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had been one of the scriptwriters of Vancini's film, asked Di Palma to be his cameraman for the trial tests for his directing debut, Accattone, though another cinematographer shot the film.
Di Palma had met Antonioni when Di Venanzo was shooting Il Grido and Le Amiche, and, in 1963, they got together to study the possibility of making The Red Desert in Technicolor. The film was shot at locations around Ravenna, where, that winter, there was often unwanted sunshine, and Di Palma had to explain to Antonioni that the artificial fog he had chosen played havoc with the colours of the interiors. Visiting the set, I found Di Palma engaged with technicians in painting the grass yellow. "Michelangelo loathes the greens," he explained.
Less revolutionary, but equally stunning, was the use of colours in Di Palma's next chore for Antonioni. For a segment of The Three Faces (1965), his photography did something to convey the inner qualities behind the inexpressive face of the rather pathetic ex-Empress Soraya of Iran's screen test.
More important, of course, was Blow Up, where photography was at the centre of the story. After using a deep-focus lens on The Red Desert to obtain two-dimensional effects, in Blow Up Antonioni told Di Palma he wanted "to lengthen the perspective and give the impression of space between people and things". Di Palma loved this kind of challenge, and was able to help the director get the effects he wanted.
On the set of The Red Desert, a relationship had developed between him and its star, Monica Vitti, who felt the need for a change in her private, as well as public, image. Under his guidance, she moved towards comedy, and it was in The Girl With A Pistol (1968), by the top-notch Italian comedy director Mario Monicelli (for whom Di Palma had already been director of photography on the visually dazzling, medieval comedy L'armata Brancaleone, 1965), that Vitti was turned into a box-office comic star to rival the likes of Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi.
The relationship with Vitti led to Di Palma's debut as a director, with another comedy for the actor, Teresa La Ladra (1972). He went on to direct her in several other lighthearted films but, though professionally competent, they did not turn him into an auteur. His mastery of visuals - in another film for Vitti's comic talents - was better served in 1970 under the more inspired direction of Ettore Scola, Dramma Della Gelosia.
In 1981, Di Palma worked on Bernardo Bertolucci's Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man and, once again, with Antonioni on Identification Of A Woman (1982). Later in the 1980s, he began his 10-year collaboration with Woody Allen, which he described as "the most enjoyable period of my professional life".
He was director of photography when Allen was exploring his European-style auteur fetishes, to which Di Palma was able to add some authentic visual thrills, as in such titles as Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996) and the last one they did together, Deconstructing Harry, in which one suspects that Di Palma might have contributed to the wonderful gag of Robin Williams as the actor "out of focus".
In the 1980s, Di Palma married Adriana Chiesa, admired in international film industry circles as an exporter of Italian films. As a couple, whether in New York or Rome, they had many friends. She nursed him through his final illness.
· Carlo Di Palma, cinematographer, born April 17 1925; died July 9 2004
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