A look at Studio Harcourt, birthplace of the Hollywood glow, where icons are made one flash at a time.
PARIS - Tourists go to the Champs-Elysées, culture hounds to exhibits at the Grand Palais, and luxury devotees to boutique-lined Avenue Montaigne. Wedged in between these three perpetually bustling points, in the 8th arrondissement, hides a staggeringly quiet neighborhood, a sanctuary where the city's richest live. But there's something here visitors and the average Parisian alike might be interested to discover: Inside one of the many magnificent limestone hôtels particuliers lies Studio Harcourt, which has been capturing mythic black-and-white portraits of the rich and famous since the days when Edith Piaf was fresh-faced and at the peak of her career.
"Not many people come behind these doors," says George Hayter, Harcourt's commercial director. Like the entrances to many street-level residences in Paris, 10 rue Jean Goujon opens into an enchanting courtyard. This one's ivy-covered and at the moment sheltering an expensive parked car. Instead of hunting for a spot on the street, the biggest celebrities drive (or, rather, are driven) directly to the studio's door, in an effort to avoid exposing themselves even to dwellers of the fancy apartments that share the courtyard.
Decked out in a three-piece suit, Mr. Hayter leads me up a set of stairs and into the studio. He seems surprised that I, an American, am curious about the studio, as it's typically only known among la bonne société française, as he puts it. Yet photos of Clark Gable and Audrey Hepburn are part of the Harcourt archive, as are international stars of today.
In fact, anyone with some heavy pocket change can immortalize himself in a Harcourt image. For 1,900€, the signature Prestige Portrait photo session takes two hours minimum (the Instant Portrait is 900€, an hour long, and shot from the thighs up). One thousand photos are produced each year, and 95 percent of those depict affluent inconnus.
While a photographer walks me through the equipment, Mr. Hayter sits down as if he's posing for a headshot. Immediately he looks as though the ghost of Cary Grant has seized him: eyes glimmering with reflections, he peers into the distance, and light softly halos around him. The Harcourt aesthetic was conceived to symbolize celebrities of the highest echelon as demigods, simultaneously present and untouchable.
Since the studio opened in 1934, the magic of its images lies in their use of light, which shines from several spotlights throughout the studio. Photophiles can learn the tricks during an onsite photography atelier (190€). The shape of the beam hitting the face, for instance, differs for men and women: males are attacked with a hard angular form that highlights a gritty cheekbone, while ladies tend to get an amorphous frontal glow to illuminate symmetric features. Flash is forbidden.
Two weeks after the shoot, the subject returns to the studio to select one photo from among 20 or so. The chosen image is digitally touched up (Harcourt modernized its retouch methods since experts, according to Hayter, are unable to tell whether an image is cleaned up on a computer or on a negative). After an imaginably agonizing second two-week wait, the image, secured in a white mat, is available for pickup. "We don't like to send it by post," he says. "Harcourt is about ritual, relationship, a unique savoir-faire." Refined but not ostentatious, slow but done right, Harcourt embodies France of today and back when.