Painting With Light
Richard Avedon called it his "Beauty Light," but its versatility went way beyond making gorgeous women look even more ravishing. It could even make subjects look mad or evil, or just plain foolish.
The essence of the "Beauty Light" was that this lamp did not remain in a fixed position but was continuously manipulated to bring out the desired features in the subject, paying close attention to facial bone structures, shadows, dimensionality, separation from background, and other factors. It was nearly always the only light source for the photograph, although it could sometimes be used with an illuminated background. In a sense, it was really "painting with light."
Originally, the "Beauty Light" was a 1,500-watt Saltzman flood with a spun-glass diffuser on a lightweight aluminum stand that could be lifted and held in an elevated position by a (strong) assistant as both Avedon and the subject shifted about. It was always kept very close to the subject, just outside the camera's field of view. Doing so allowed a high ratio of light fall-off, yielding enhanced depth.
As you might imagine, its use required skill on the part of the assistant along with artistic sensibility and an understanding of Avedon's vision. Until the Spring of 1962 this was done by the very talented Frank Finocchio, from whom I learned the techniques and later transferred it to strobe light.
Using a Rolleiflex camera loaded with Plus-X black-andwhite film, the exposure with the Saltzman flood was 1/60 second at f/8. The images were then slightly overdeveloped in Panthermic 777 for elevated contrast with clean, radiant skin highlights. Some earlier examples of this from the 1950s can be seen in Avedon's 1959 book Observations. These include a section entitled "A Gathering of Swans" (1953-59) on pages 27-35, a portrait of Mae West (1954) on page 88, one of Katharine Hepburn (1955) on page 106, and of Brigitte Bardot (1959) on page 107.
In time, this single-source lighting plan was also used on some portraits, especially those of celebrities. Controlling this light became a bit of an art as the assistant manipulating it had to anticipate what both Avedon and the subject would do next. And, of course, the distance from the sitter to the lamp had to remain constant in order to maintain consistent exposure, especially with color films.
This single-light-source technique was most effective in black-and-white photography, much less so in color.
By the late 1950s Avedon had pretty much switched to Ascor strobe lighting for most studio work, although the Saltzman flood remained in use for beauty photography as well as for some celebrity portraits. Gradually, the new Balcar strobe with its umbrella reflector was found to be just as effective in achieving the same result — and was a lot lighter in weight.
One drawback was that it had four modeling lights spaced around the flash tube, which resulted in four hot spots. Although these did not register on film, the assistant had to bear in mind that the real but invisible hot spot (which did register on film) was right in the middle of the four visible ones, and aim accordingly. Another slight problem was that the joint between the supporting pole and the flash head sometimes came loose from the weight of the umbrella, so that it was best to keep one hand on it while the other grasped the pole.
As the light output from the strobe was much more than that from the tungsten Saltzman lamp, a finer-grain film such as Panatomic-X (ISO 25) could be used. It also allowed for a smaller f-stop with its greater depth of field.
The same technique was used with the 8x10 Sinar camera loaded with Tri-X Estar film developed in HC-110 for fashion photography. For this we used the larger Ascor 800 strobe in a standard reflector with spun-glass diffusion. This permitted the use of an aperture as small as f/64 so that both the model and the hand-held lamp could move around the set at will while always remaining in focus.
The concept of a hand-held, moving strobe light later evolved into Lighting on The Run. Avedon used this technique for outdoor fashion photography at night in early 1965. For it he loaded a Rolleiflex camera with Plus-X film and set the exposure to a full second at f/22. Streetlights became long blurs while the dancing, running model was stopped in mid-action against a dark background. I hand-held the smallish Honeywell 650 strobe, always keeping it in the best position relative to the model's movements. Later, I wrote an article about this for the November 1964 issue of Photographic Product News magazine, illustrated with Avedon's photo.
A similar technique was used during the Fall 1962 Paris Collections, where he imitated the famous "paparazzi" photos of Fellini's La Dolce Vita movie, using Susy Parker and Mike Nichols as subjects. Although these were meant to look like press photos, lighting still had to be carefully done to make the garment look terrific.
NOTE: This entry is taken directly from my recent app "Assisting Avedon," which is available for download to your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch at Apple's iTunes App Store. I assisted the world-famous photographer Richard Avedon from 1952 to 1965, and on this app reveal all that I know about his spectacular early career.
More samples, including a Table of Contents, are on my Assisting Avedon blog.