This article from the November 1947 issue of Popular Photography offers a great insight into the working methods and views of George Hoyningen-Huene, one of the 20th century’s great fashion photographers. It describes a lecture he gave at the Art Center School in Pasadena, where he had begun teaching.
At that time, he had recently grown disillusioned with the direction fashion photography was taking, and that comes through strongly in some of his comments. But read on and you’ll find out about his approach to lighting – an aspect of his work for which he is particularly renowned. I love his observation that:
With women, if the lighting proves to be the least bit unflattering, you’re liable to find yourself picking pieces of tripod out of your head where the irate female has placed them.
I came across the article as I was preparing a piece on Hazel Brooks. A scan of the original, complete with photographs, is available online. The photo on this page is in my collection and does not relate to the session described by Timothy Stratton though it was taken the same year.
Hoyningen-Huene makes a Portrait by Timothy Stratton
George Hoyningen-Huene is a name not new to photography. Russan born, Hoyningen-Huene had an American mother, an English education, art training in France, and has explored virtually every country in Europe, and many in Asia and Africa. Most well known for his photographic work in women’s fashion magazines, he is also the author of the picture books “Hellas,” “Egypt,” “Mexican Heritage,” and “Baalbek and Palmyra.”
Three hundred photography students at Los Angeles Art Center recently had George Hoyningen-Huene, internationally known photographer, as a guest lecturer. Huene brought with him Hazel Brooks, Enterprise Studios’ star who spent six months as a Conover model before Hollywood recognized her. She is copper-haired, green-eyed, tall and sveltely slim, and Huene claims she is the ideal photographic subject.
To back up his belief that she makes an ideal photographic subject, Huene used her to demonstrate the procedure followed in a typical commercial fashion or glamour assignment. After posing her in several ways, and under varying lighting conditions, he set out to make the portrait shown on the opposite page, explaining his procedure as he went along. Following his theory that the pose is all important, his model’s position was first determined, and then the lighting set up. His backlight, key or main lighting, and fill-in lights were arranged, and lights to accentuate special features of the photograph, such as veiling and straw hat, were then set. After this was done, his exposure readings were taken, and Hoyningen-Huene was ready to make a portrait.
In the course of his lecture, Huene, who has posed more beautiful women than the loneliest male ever dreamed of, informed the Art Center students that he is not pleased with the present crop of glamour pictures turned out by members of his profession.
His opinions on glamour and fashion photography – two fields whose techniques are in many ways similar – were definite, outspoken, and well phrased.
Somebody apparently got the idea, not too long ago, that models were supposed to give the appearance of having been under water for a couple of weeks before they were photographed. With their deadpan, limp fish looks, many of the models appearing in current ads leave me with a feeling of wanting to race for great gulps of fresh air.
Were these stupid expressions that burden the faces of various models entirely the fault of the girls themselves, I would offer a suggestion that the present crop of models be dumped and an entire new lot hired. There is, unfortunately, a similarity among most of the models, but not so complete that a good photographer can’t hide these similarities with an average employment of intelligence. The sooner photographers realize that the models are women and not alabaster personalities, the more arresting fashion and glamour ads will be.”
Huene strongly believes that too many fashion photographers are afraid to let their models look like beautiful women. They prefer to treat them as statues and in so doing lose whatever personality might be expressed in the girls’ faces.
Most of the time, this ‘statue treatment’ is nothing but laziness. Any photographer knows that floodlighting a face and letting the makeup take care of the model’s personality is the easiest way to a pseudo-glamour shot. This opinion is shared by the girls who have been modelling for a long time and who realize that such time-saving stunts as false eyelashes and a liberal application of lipstick cover up for their own laziness. Many of the models are under the impression that such phoney devices add to their beauty. I wonder who they think they are fooling. A good model should be herself and not try to look like the average concept of a model. But trying to get her to look natural is an entirely different matter. Many of the present high-priced photographic lovelies have been so mishandled and improperly photographed by the ‘alabaster look’ photographers that they naturally assume that every photographer they work for wants that same old ‘How bored can one be?’ expression. I’d much rather take an inexperienced model and, through a sensible lighting arrangement, bring out the freshness and charm of the girl, something that is nearly impossible with girls who have been modeling for three or four years. Too, with an inexperienced model, one who hasn’t been mauled photographically, freshness can be brought out with even a basic lighting arrangement.
In the matter of lighting a subject, Huene takes a healthy clout at those photographers who spend hours arranging their lights.
Any photographer should realize that for fashion shots the basic lighting arrangement never changes. One key light of no particular power or quality; a background light dictated by the way in which you wish to highlight your subject, and another light either above or below your subject, depending upon the features of the subject to be emphasized, are all you need.
The only tough part in the entire lighting setup is the decision as to what part of the model should be accented. Some feature of the model must be accented or a dull, flat, lifeless picture will be the result. I think the easiest way to accent is through use of a ‘dinky,’ using the small light as an artist would a shading pencil. I’ve found that with such a lamp it is almost possible to ‘draw’ with light. Too, to bring out the sparkle in the eyes with light and not depend on the easily detected eye-sparkle created by the brush of a retoucher, a ‘dinky’ can’t be beaten. It’s biggest advantage is that it can ‘draw’ a line of light without destroying the image created by the balance of key lights and fill-in.
I’ve found over the years of long, hard experience that the best lighting arrangement for glamour or fashion shots is the simplest possible lighting. The simpler the lighting, the more true the photograph. Once you’ve established the lighting setup, forget about it and concentrate on the subject. And whatever you do, try to arrange your lighting scheme in a hurry and not bore the model with lighting details. With men you’ve really got nothing to worry about. Men don’t care about looking handsome. Most of the males that I’ve photographed have been against ‘glamour boy’ shots. The male attitude being such, you don’t have to spend too much time on a lighting setup. Actually, the more rugged the subject appears the better he likes it. But with women, if the lighting proves to be the least bit unflattering, you’re liable to find yourself picking pieces of tripod out of your head where the irate female has placed them.
As simple as the lighting setup should be, it still takes care to find out the necessary angles for simplicity. Huene suggests that the student fashion photographer practice lighting arrangements on a plaster cast. “It’s the surest way I know for an embryonic fashion photographer to discover the ways light travels over a face and how it can completely alter the features of the model. After the plaster cast light experiment has been completed and the various gradations of light recorded on a piece of paper, the student should start experimenting on mood pictures of old men or women, enhancing facial characteristics through deft lighting.
On the matter of backgrounds for fashion shots, Huene claims that any background can be used as long as it doesn’t blend with the subject being photographed and make it lifeless, and doesn’t interfere with the facial qualities of the model. By this Huene means that in many glamour or fashion shots, a flower placed in the background often looks as if it is growing out of the subject’s ear. The best background, claims Huene, is one that is shaded in darkness but still an intrinsic part of the picture. This is not as difficult to obtain as it sounds.
All the photographer has to do is exercise some ingenuity and care in the selection and creation of his backgrounds. Whatever you do, don’t make the backgrounds so arresting that they attract more attention than the primary subject.
Following the work on the old men, Huene suggests (and it is probably one of the few suggestions that any student of any subject will readily accept) that the photographer make a series of “posture poses” of girls garbed in bathing suits.
Don’t kid yourself that making a series of pictures of girls in bathing suits is a very pleasant way to spend many hours. It’s tough work but very valuable. For the first time most young photographers realize the tremendous artisitic value of good feminine posture. With nothing to lean upon during the beach photo session, both the girl and the photographer soon find that some of the over-exaggerated postures assumed by a model for fashion shots are completely unnatural. When the model tries to assume these poses at the beach, with nothing upon which to support herself, she can’t stand up. Remember this when you pose the girl for a fashion shot, and you won’t wind up with one of the stupid stances that ruin otherwise decent pictures.
After the lighting experiments, the practice shots made of the plaster cast, the experiments with the old men, the selection of a new, sweet feminine face for a model and the series of bathing suit shots, I think that the student fashion photographer is ready to make his first shot.
Experiment with the texture of the gown your model is wearing before you decide on a picture. Arrange the girl under the basic lighting setup, making certain that you bring out the ‘life’ in the cloth. Add accessories as necessary and you’re nearly ready to click the shutter. There’s just one more step that remains, and this final step separates, as it were, the amateurs from the master.
It’s the composition of the picture. The camera originally was designed to capture and retain some particularly striking scene. Why forget about this use of the camera in the making of a photograph designed to sell a product?” Your fashion photo, or any picture taken for use as an ad, is only going to hold reader attention if it is strikingly beautiful through natural simplicity. We’ve come right back to the business of the dismal expressions that blacken the otherwise beautiful faces of our leading models. And again, it is not their fault but the fault of the photographers.
I can’t understand why a photographer shouldn’t take a few minutes more during the course of a sitting, and get from his models the grace that only comes with being natural. One of the tricks that I’ve used is to have the model walk slowly around the area outlined by the lights. Watch her through the groundglass. After a couple of minutes of parading she’s bound to forget all that she might have learned in modeling school about ‘walking like a lady.’ Then she’ll start walking and acting like any normal person. That’s the time to take your picture. Stop her when you see a natural looking pose. If necessary have her hold the stance or the action a couple of seconds while you alter your fill-in light. Then shoot.
When the picture you’re shooting has to show two or more people your trouble is doubled. Even when you tell a group of models to start talking or acting in an entirely natural manner, they are conscious of the camera. I’ve been making fashion, glamour, and news shots for nearly twenty-five years, and I have yet to find a posed subject void of camera consciousness.
Did you ever think of the fact that the camera does practically all the wok in the making of a picture? Focusing and stops are up to the cameraman, of course, but even the crudest camera can make a good picture. Its value, however, depends entirely on the photographer, and the picture is not going to have any value at all unless the photographer works for naturalness. And how should the photographer work for this naturalness? By balancing all the factors that make the picture. The background should be balanced with the subject. The subject should not overbalance the object that the photographer is trying to present. Everything in the picture should work for something. Obtaining this balance is difficult, of course, but not impossible. A short course in architecture and free hand drawing, particularly of nudes, is very valuable.
I can’t tell anybody how to blend these factors. It’s a matter that the photographer must work out for himself. Nobody told the masters the tricks of balance when they started painting the pictures that have endured and increased in beauty with each passing year. The charm of the picture that the painter obtained through balance is never changing. It should be the same with a fashion or glamour photo. Don’t start making fashion shots with the idea that they are only for 1947 or 1948. Set up your pictures with the idea that some day they’ll be included in a collection of the world’s great photographic art.
These are the technical aspects of making a good picture. From the commercial standpoint Huene feels that it would be a good idea for every fashion or glamour photographer to know something about the dressmaking industry or the product he is trying to sell through a masterful picture. When possible, an assistant should be hired to take care of the basic lighting arrangements and the like.
Most important, however, is an understanding between the photographer and the editor of the magazine for which he is shooting. A conference between the two before the model arrives will iron out most of the difficulties that can normally be expected and save time and effort.
After all these preparations, what is going to be the final result?
A picture of a girl that looks human,” claims Huene. “A picture that not only sells a product, but attracts reader attention by being fresh and entirely lifelike. It seems almost a crime that with all the wonderful photographic equipment and supplies at their disposal, so many photographers should continue, through the lack of understanding of what makes a good picture and the failure to exercise artistic judgment, to pour out thousands of stupid, make-believe glamour prints. Don’t let anybody tell you that the reason for the models appearing so similar in ads is the models themselves. They are only doing what they are told. It’s the fault of the photographers, who, through carelessness or laziness are interested only in getting a check and not an artistic creation.
Hoyningen-Huene, who has made pictures of women in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States, and won numerous prizes in photographic salons, should know whereof he speaks.