Photographers to the rich and famous

Portraits from Paris’s fashionable Harcourt studios have been coveted for decades, as Samantha David finds

23 July 2018
Harcourt has photographed modern sports stars Lewis Hamilton and Andy Murray
By Samantha David

The Harcourt photography studio in Paris is famous for its stunningly beautiful pictures of actors and actresses.

In a Studio Harcourt portrait, the skin is alabaster, the eyes fixed on some dreamy point in the distance, and the hair, like the background, is wreathed in smoky shadows.

“You are not a real actor if you’ve not been photographed by Studio Harcourt,” said French philosopher and writer Roland Barthes in 1957.

King George VI and Queen Elizabeth

The studio, which was founded in 1934 by the Lacroix brothers, got its name from Germaine Hirschefeld, who worked under the pseudonym Cosette Harcourt. She was the photographer whose style established the studio’s name.

Her black-and-white portraits always featured wonderful lighting. They were always printed on 24x30cm paper with the Harcourt logo at the bottom.

Everyone wanted one.

Stars, actors, celebrities, wealthy Parisians and during the occupation, Nazi officers and members of the Vichy regime. After the Liberation of France, Americans wanted portraits as did, of course, movie stars.

In 2000, the French State bought all Harcourt’s negatives from 1934-1991: around 550,000 images of people including 1,500 celebrities.

Anyone can book a portrait session at the Paris studio. A Harcourt portrait costs around €400 for three low-res digital colour portraits (suitable for CVs and websites), and around €2,000 for one of the classic black-and-white ‘Prestige’ shots.

From €24,000 gets you the full superstar treatment. The entrance is via a grand red-carpeted staircase, and there are plenty of star portraits on the walls.

The doors to the studio hark back to 30s cinema, and a make-up and hair session is included in the price, so there is no chance of anyone not looking 100% Hollywood.

Harcourt will even happily photograph pets

Clients can take whatever clothes they like or, for a fee, Harcourt will arrange a couture session.

“It’s a life experience,” said managing director George Hayter.

“It’s not just another selfie. Millions of images are created every day on phones – but at Studio Harcourt you live an experience and receive a tangible souvenir, which can be touched and passed down the generations. An image on a screen isn’t durable.”

It is said that the studio used all sorts of tricks to get the right lighting.

These days however, most of the effects are obtained digitally – although the soft lighting still owes much to movie studios.

“Our style is very identifiable, very specific, our lighting is famous, it’s our trademark.

“We perpetuate this lighting from generation to generation; a Harcourt portrait is easily recognisable.”

Getting a Harcourt portrait involves three visits to the studio.

First is the shoot. A week later there’s another session to select the final image, and then – up to a month after that, clients are presented with the final, printed portrait.

“A Harcourt portrait tells the subject’s story, it’s very personal, human,” Mr Hayter said.

The majority of clients love their portraits, but a few are surprised when faced with the reality of their appearance.

“People come to find a new confidence, a new identity, and we accompany them, have a dialogue with them.

“We work as a whole team to get the right result. And our speciality is creating beautiful images, which is why we re-touch. We take out distractions, such as a wisp of hair in the wrong place, in order to reveal true personality.”

It is possible to get an appointment for a portrait at the studio quite quickly.

“We are very flexible when it comes to hours and we have more than one photographer!” Mr Hayter said.

“We can usually fit people in, and we can telescope timings for visitors who are in Paris for a limited period.” 

And, if you do not require champagne, make-up or a photo, you might like to visit the studio, in a beautiful town house on a Wednesday, Friday or a Saturday to see their Generation Y exhibition.

“They are portraits of mainly under 30s influencers; actors, designers, writers, sportspeople.

The exhibition runs until October 31, 2018, and entry costs €7.

Clients who sign up for a famous black-and-white image pass famous faces as they climb a red-carpet staircase, while the make-up studio harks back to the 1930s
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