Look like a film star in photos shot by famous French studio, now in Hong Kong

Studio Harcourt, which specialises in the highest quality black-and-white portraits, has opened its first outlet outside Paris in Hong Kong’s Central district. Expect a special experience

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 May, 2016, 12:54pm

In an age when the selfie has come to define photography, it is refreshing to be reminded of a time when technique defined the art.

And one of the leaders in the technical field is Studio Harcourt.

Founded in Paris in 1934 by the Lacroix brothers and Cosette Harcourt, the studio is known for its black and-white photographs of movie stars and celebrities, each portrait showing flawless complexions and candid expressions, the result of painstaking precision with lighting, make-up and photography – each role considered equally important in the process.

When I think of Harcourt, I think of a glamorous and respectable old lady who is not in a rush
Elisa Ghigo Barthelemy

Having a photo taken at Harcourt a few times during one’s life was once considered standard by the French upper middle class, and so valuable is the studio’s archive that the French government bought the negatives of the photos it shot between 1934 and 1986. Comprising about five million negatives of 550,000 people and 1,500 celebrities, it has been labelled a national treasure.

Now Hongkongers can have access to its talented team with the opening of its first and only studio outside Paris.

“When I think of Harcourt, I think of a glamorous and respectable old lady who is not in a rush,” says Elisa Ghigo Barthelemy, general manager of Studio Harcourt Hong Kong, as she walks through the new studio in On Lan Street in Central.

Ghigo Barthelemy says the decision to set up shop in Hong Kong came after the studio staged a successful pop-up at the IFC in 2013.

“It was a huge success. Hong Kong people loved it and we thought why not come here? It’s the ideal choice for our first studio outside Paris: Hong Kong people love photography, they love French brands and are particular about the details. It’s a sophisticated and mature market, all the traits of a Harcourt client.”

The Central studio exudes Parisian style from the moment you step out of the lift, from the elegant moulding to the parquet flooring and dramatic black walls.

But it’s the portraits of celebrities along the main hallway – a who’s who of culture, each image inspired by the glamour of the golden age of cinema – that really take the eye. There’s fashion designer John Galliano, Hollywood stars Cate Blanchett, Sophie Marceau, Marion Cotillard and Kevin Spacey. Asian stars figure prominently too: there’s Fan Bingbing, Michelle Yeoh, Ge You, Lee Byung-hun, photographer Chen Man, film director Jia Zhangke, and artist Yue Minjun.

Next stop is the spacious make-up room that screams Hollywood glamour and includes a portrait of Harcourt on the wall, shot in the Harcourt style, of course. Harcourt is credited with the studio’s success when she started to specialise in black-and-white glamour photography of figures from French cinema and culture. Her images – always in the 24cm x 30cm format – are immediately recognisable for their distinctive style and lighting that create a halo of light and dark on a grey-to-black background. All subjects wear a slight smile, but somehow feel a little staged. This is intentional and is a style inspired by the work of French cinematographer Henri Alekan.

Once dressed and made up, clients are ushered into a dimly lit studio with huge cameras and lights. Ghigo Barthelemy explains that only tungsten light without the harshness of flash photography is used. “Make-up is important – we like to speak with the eyes. We have a matt finish – no shine. The lighting is also important – this is our signature. We don’t use flash but continuous lighting and it’s very difficult. It is something from the cinema. At Harcourt we still use the same system and techniques from the cinema.”

And precision is key.

“The subject has to remain still so the lighting is just right on the face – it’s like a sculptor at work. You are in the dark and you don’t see the photographer – you only hear his voice. If the subject moves then the shadows change and we have to do it all again.”

Once a session is over – and packages can range from a few hours to a whole day – a pre-selection of the best photos is made. The selected portraits are then sent to Paris and finalised by Studio Harcourt’s in-house experts. It is then registered in the Studio Harcourt photo library with the signature logo.

“It’s better if the client comes into the studio when selecting shots. We could e-mail but it’s better to discuss with the photographer. It adds to the whole experience,” Ghigo Barthelemy says.

Wearing white gloves, a studio assistant shows how the portraits are packaged between thin sheets of paper in a beautiful black Harcourt box.

Ghigo Barthelemy turns the portrait over; it is an image of herself.

“You can see each image is embossed and numbered. This is entered into the archive database. If you want another image then you can easily order.”

Studio Harcourt offers a selection of portrait packages, from a two-hour portrait prestige (HK$22,000) to the full day Mode & Legende (HK$250,000) package. There’s also a wedding album package.

“These portraits are timeless. You can give [them] to your mother and your daughter. They are forever,” Ghigo Barthelemy says.

Studio Harcourt Hong Kong, 18/F, 18 On Lan Street, Central, tel: 2662 0030