He worked as an actor from an early age, both in the music hall and in a number of silent films: My Son, My Son (1918), Billy's Rose (1922), The Loves of Mary, Queen of Scots (1923) and Tiptoes (1927). At 15, he began working as a camera assistant, clapper boy and production Runner for British International Pictures, including Hitchcock's The Skin Game (1931).
Jack Cardiff was the camera operator and then Cinematographer for 73 films, documentaries and TV series between 1935 and 2007. These are some of the main films:
The turning point in his career was as a 2nd unit cameraman on Powell & Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943); they were sufficiently impressed to hire Cardiff as Cinematographer on their post-war Technicolor A Matter of Life and Death (1946). Their collaboration continued with Black Narcissus (1947), which won Cardiff an Oscar and a Golden Globe, and The Red Shoes (1948). These films put Cardiff's talents in high demand, and a string of big-budget films followed.
In the late 1950s Cardiff began to direct, with two modest successes in Intent to Kill (1958) and Web of Evidence (1959). His version of D. H. Lawrence's novel Sons and Lovers (1960), starring Trevor Howard, Wendy Hiller and Dean Stockwell, was a hit, critically and at the box-office. It received seven Oscar nominations (including a Best Director nomination for Cardiff) and Freddie Francis won for Best Black-and-White Cinematography. Cardiff received a Golden Globe Award for Best Director.
After concentrating on direction in the 1960s, he returned to cinematography in the 1970s and 1980s, working on mainstream commercial films in the United States. One of the last films Cardiff photographed was at Pinewood Studios in 2004 when he lit veteran actor Sir John Mills in a short entitled Lights 2 (dir. Marcus Dillistone). The combined age of leading actor and Cinematographer was a record 186 years. A feature-length documentary was made about Cardiff's life and career, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010) by Craig McCall.
In 1995, the British Society of Cinematographers conferred a lifetime achievement award on Cardiff.
In 2000 he was awarded an OBE and in 2001 he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for his contribution to the cinema.
Cardiff died on 22 April 2009, aged 94, the same day as Ken Annakin, with whom he had worked on The Fifth Musketeer (1979). He was survived by his wife and his four sons.
It took 17 years to make but wasn't completed or released until after Cardiff had died. As well as many interviews with Cardiff, it included tributes from Mills, Martin Scorsese, Thelma Schoonmaker, Kathleen Byron, Kim Hunter, Moira Shearer, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas. It was selected for the official selection of Cannes Classics at the Festival de Cannes in 2010, as well as four other important film festivals that year.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff was shown as part of the Great Yarmouth Arts Festival 2014 along with some of his photographs, often taken as preliminaries to lighting the films. Further celebrations to mark his birth date took place in September – particularly at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth.