Haskell Wexler, one of Hollywood's most famous and honoured cinematographers and one whose innovative approach helped him win Oscars for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory, died Sunday at the age of 93.

Wexler died peacefully in his sleep, his son, Oscar-nominated sound man Jeff Wexler, told The Associated Press.

A liberal activist, Wexler photographed some of the most socially relevant and influential films of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Jane Fonda-Jon Voight anti-war classic, Coming Home, the Sidney Poitier-Rod Steiger racial drama In the Heat of the Night directed by Norman Jewison and the Oscar-winning adaptation of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

He was also the rare cinematographer known enough to the general public to receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.

"He was a wonderful father. I owe most of who I am to his wisdom and guidance," said his son Jeff Wexler, who himself has been nominated for Oscars for Independence Day and The Last Samurai in the best sound category.

"Even in an industry where, when you're working on a movie, there is not much else you can do, he was always there for me," Jeff Wexler said.

When the elder Wexler wasn't working on big-budget studio fare, he travelled the world directing and photographing documentaries for favourite causes.

'I was under surveillance'

His 1969 Medium Cool mixed documentary and dramatic elements, telling the story of a fictional television photographer who covers the violence between Chicago police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The real-life unrest was filmed on the spot for the movie, and its "cinema vérité" approach was closely studied by aspiring filmmakers.

Obit-Haskell Wexler

Director Dennis Hopper, second from right, with Wexler, third from right, during the making of the movie Colors. Wexler was known for a versatile and intuitive camera approach. (The Associated Press)

"I was under surveillance for the entire seven weeks I was in Chicago, by the police, the army and the Secret Service," Wexler once told a reporter.

Throughout his career, Wexler was noted for his versatile and intuitive approach.

For Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the last film to receive an Oscar for best black and white cinematography, he used hand-held cameras to capture the tension of the tirades between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. For In the Heat of the Night, he put silks over the tops of sets and aimed lights at their centres. His aim was to contribute to the tension between Poitier's big-city black detective and Steiger's southern white lawman.

As visual consultant on George Lucas' American Graffiti, he hosed down the streets to achieve a moody, reflective style. He helped give Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven a hazy, dreamlike atmosphere.

Clashed with directors, criticized industry

Wexler was also noted for his clashes with directors. Francis Ford Coppola fired him during the filming of The Conversation. Milos Forman dropped him during the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest — Wexler shared the cinematography credit with Bill Butler.

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The two-time Oscar-winning cameraman was also noted for his clashes with directors, including Milos Forman and Francis Ford Coppola. (The Associated Press)

"I don't think there's a movie I've been on that I didn't think I could direct better," he said in 2005.

For one of his documentaries, 2006's Who Needs Sleep?, Wexler turned his attention to the film industry itself, decrying the long hours endured by Hollywood set workers. It was inspired by the death of a worker who fell asleep driving his car after a 19-hour stint on a movie set.

Wexler's other documentaries include: The Bus, about the Freedom Riders who risked their lives to integrate the South in the 1960s; Latino, which examined American policy in Nicaragua; Interviews with My Lai Veterans, which shone a light on survivors of U.S. brutality in Vietnam; and Brazil: Report on Torture.

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Wexler, seen here at left in 1983 on set of The Man who Loved Women, was also a prominent social activist. (The Associated Press)

Born into a well-to-do Chicago family on Feb. 6, 1922, Wexler was still in grade school when he went to work for a photographer involved in the trade union movement. At age 12, he recorded his family's vacation in Mussolini's Italy with his family's home movie camera.

A voyeuristic experience

A photographer on dozens of feature films, dozens more documentaries and scores of TV commercials, Wexler remained active for decades. At age 89, he received an Emmy nomination as the cameraman for Billy Crystal's 61*, the HBO film about Roger Maris' record-setting home run season. A few years earlier, Wexler himself was the subject of a documentary, Tell Them Who You Are, directed by another of his sons, Mark Wexler.

His last film credit, the biopic To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine, is in post-production, according to the Internet Movie Database.

"Movies are a voyeuristic experience," he once said of the attraction to the work. "You have to make the audience feel like they are peeking through a keyhole. I think of myself as the audience. Then I use light, framing and motion to create a focal point."

In addition to his sons, Wexler is survived by a daughter, Kathy Wexler, and his wife, Rita Taggart.