All rights reserved - Suzan Farkas © 2013

My career

I was born on July 15th, 1938 in Budapest as Zsuzsanna Gonda.

In 1955 I took a photography exam at the Photographers' Cooperative. My teachers were among the best in their different photographic fields, and included the great portraitist Angelo. 

In photography I was most interested in people and was tremendously impressed by lighting. I learnt all the technical aspects because it is impossible to work without them but I couldn't stand working in the laboratory. I found developing 12 similar copies of the same photo boring and felt cooped up in a dark airless room.
I had neither the talent nor the patience for retouch.

Originally I wanted to be a doctor but in the 50s behind the iron curtain not everybody could choose for higher education. I was accepted to the Polytechnic of Economics but it could not fulfil my curiosity, sensitivity and interest in humanities. That is why I became a photographer.

During my studies Angelo had the greatest effect upon me. Whenever I heard the magical words: „I need assistance.” – I rushed and did what he told me, put everything wherever he wanted. He never explained why a lamp should have been pushed further but I observed all his movements in order to study. He always said it is useless to copy him. „Just do as you feel it, sonny.” But he talked a lot about his feelings and the people he took photos of. He sent me to museums to look at portraits and paintings of full body figures, to study their positions and the lighting.

At the beginning of 1957, I started to work at a children's photo studio where my only duty was to take photos. All the other job: laboratory procedures, retouches and sticking photos into albums were done by others. After a while, fooling  around for children to raise a smile, surprise or a teardrop on their faces, became tedious. I wanted a change and six months later my dreams came true and I got into as a portraitist in the biggest and most famous photo studio. 
As a matter of fact it was not an easy job. The 3 or 4,000-watt lamps emitted extreme heat and the stands of the huge studio camera were very difficult to handle. We worked with 6x9 or 9x12 sheet film and if the customer ordered only one shot, or in other words paid only for one, then that single  exposure had to be perfect because the materials were expensive.

The most difficult task was to keep the model still after I had set the focus and slid the platholder into the camera. The model had to sit stiffly and I almost hypnotised them not to move out from the focus. I kept contact to avoid twinkling and to get a pleasant expression on their face during the 1/15 exposure.
The spring and summer seasons were often unbearable. Boiling hot and humid outside and lamps' heat in the studio – everybody was sweltering like hell. On Saturdays we were  shooting 15 weddings a day. If I finished a series of shots with a full figure setting I started the next one from the same angle, then the kneeling position, the face portrait... and this rotation repeated again and again. 
Graduating students come to take their individual portraits it wasn't unusual if 120-150 portraits were shot daily to the highest possible standard.

I worked at this studio in the centre of Budapest until 1964, after which my family moved to Geneva because of my husband's work. We returned after two years to Budapest, and I continued working at the studio. In 1967 we moved to Geneva again.

I started to teach portrait photography at a French private photo school established in Geneva in 1971. My students were aged between 18 and 25 with well -off backgrounds. Their idea was to do photography until they made up their minds about what to do with their lives. They had Leica and Hasselblad cameras hanging from their necks and naturally they all wanted to be fashion and commercial photographers.
How could I explain and show them the the basic position and lighting of portrait photography? The same way as I studied it? Head position, small nose shadow, triangle composition and half face lighting?

It was obvious that they would have all left roaring with laughter and never come back if I had started like that. Therefore I started to speak about people instead. The people they wanted to take photos of. About the body, the lights – and then I was astonished to realize that I was reciting master Angelo's words.
At around the end of the year I took my students to our apartment with a nude model so they could study the female body and experience the difficulty the appropriate lighting of embracing harmonious beauty andon a female body.
My students appreciated that they could work freely, I did not force them to take photos in a certain style.

The Kodak company in Switzerland – they knew my teaching methods from the photo school – offered me a contract to teach portraiture to professional Swiss photographers through various courses. Before accepting their offer I wanted to get some experience as I had never before worked using the raw material in colour, apart from short film slides. I was really surprised at how much more lifelike a coloured portrait was compared to a black-and-white one. There was no need for retouching as the wrinkles and blemishes blend into the skin tones, while with a black-and-white photograph the wrinkles becomes a dark spot on the skin.

Lighting using magnesium or a flash had been around for a long time but both were unsuitable for portraiture. To bring studio portraiture back into fashion, equipment had to be developed which made it possible to take a photo even allowing for the subject's movement while using the new coloured negative and a flash. 
They delivered everything to my flat, studio lights, coloured film and a camera so that I could experiment to find outwhat kind of lighting was the best. Several other famous companies manufacturing studio equipment also asked me to test their lights and equipment modified for portraiture. For industrial  photography great intensity of light is needed. This suitable flash equipment already existed, but for portraits we couldn't use them, portraits need a controled weak flashes light which not had been manufactured. 

Based on my experiments, advice tests and ideas, the technology was developed to such a degree that every shade of light became achievable. Also, they incorporated into the standard studio light a flash with a 60 or 100 W bulb, with which the subject could be lit so that during exposure there was no difference between the light-shade created by the bulbs and the results on the face created by the flash.

Between 1972-75 in Kodak's headquarters in Lausanne we set up a studio, where I taught nearly 500 professional photographers how to take portraits in colour. One day Mr, V. Hasselblad came as well to sit for a serie de portrait.


By the way, the colour negatives – just like the prints taken from them – retained their original colour from 1971 up until today.

After 1974 – having given my first lecture at the Cologne's Fotokina conference, titled 'The Future of Colour Portrait Photography' – I received invitations to lecture in several other European countries. At these conferences I spoke about the psychological aspects of portrait photography. Apart from various professional techniques illustrated by my own photographs, I showed them the basis of my own method: how to approach the subject with the help of psychology and the necessary sensitivity so that, in the end, the portrait would reveal the subject's true personality. How to create the correct balance of power between the photographer and the subject? It is a delicate point in their relationship. If I overpower my subjects, I supress their personality, if they overpower me, they inhibit my ability to work. Thus the necessary good relationship needed between us will never develop. I must show empathy and tact towards my subjects so that they can be themselves.

I travelled around the world giving lectures for ten years. During this time I was able to observe that not everybody is capable of taking portraits, just as I, for instance, would definitely not be a good photojournalist.

Merely calling someone a photographer is meaningless as there are so many branches to photography. Many of those attending my courses had absolutely no feeling for portraiture. They might well have been excellent photographers in other ways, but they could not find what it is that makes portraiture different from other types of photography. Of course you must understand the basic techniques, but very little technology is required for good portraiture.

Often people have been offended by my saying that I could teach anyone the techniques of portraiture in just a couple of hours.

Many years later I came across a quote by Nadar, in which he talks of the psychological aspect of photography. I was most surprised to find that even in the 1860s someone had already stated what I had discovered through instinct, while thinking about teaching and photography and what is the essence of my work as a portrait photographer.

In 1976 I opened my own studio in the centre of Geneva. I began by inviting people from different social circles to sit for me, and put the photographs of them in my shop window. I hoped they would show their photographs to other people. This strategy paid off, and gradually my clientele grew.

Here is a series of photographs, which speaks for itself. Soon after I had opened my studio, this woman came in, without an appointment, to have a set of photographs taken.
In the first photo you can see how hunched up she is and how timidly she is looking at me …But then we had two hours of conversation, chocolate and getting to know each other but no photographs. The result of that can be seen here.


My first meeting with the client – which was just about getting to know each other – was also very important for me to overcome my own shyness.
Even when making the initial appointment over the phone, I would ask the client to ensure they had adequate time so they would not be constantly looking at their watch. I myself was glad to devote enough time to these meetings to develop an informal friendship and get to know each other better, because in the end I always said that anyone who felt good about themselves was photogenic.
I always made sure that the person understood why they wanted their photograph taken. And that they should dress accordingly as their clothes were part of who they were. The rest was down to me. If they used a hairdresser, then they should go there, but if they did not, then under no circumstances should they go to one. A woman who generally used very little make-up or even none at all would look very strange in the photograph heavily made-up unless that was the intention.
I never made-up a client; at the most, I used a little light  powder if the skin looked too shiny. I always warned my sitters against getting a deep tan before being photographed as it would result in a loss of translucence to their skin and would create all kinds of strange shading. Even in black-and white, it would make the skin look like cardboard.
While we talked about such things, the subject would comfortably settle down, and I could tell from the natural posture of their body whether they were relaxed or not. Then, finally, we would agree on a date and time when they would be free not for minutes but for long hours.
And then when the time came for the photograph to be taken, we would greet each other like old friends without any awkwardness. If I noticed while the photograph was being taken that their body posture was not as relaxed as I remembered it, I never said anything but instead would offer them another chair, some coffee and a cigarette, and then as we talked, their stiffness would go, while I, without interrupting our conversation, would move the tripod to a position from where I felt a good photograph could be taken. I never moved the subjects out of their comfortable position, but instead moved the lights and the camera. I could take photographs from any angle and had several home-made backgrounds on rollers, which I could pool behind the sitter with one move of my hand. The camera would be behind me and I would stand in front of the client while holding a long exposure cable, continuing our conversation, and when they had the expression I was after, I took an exposure.

My clients, apart from local people, included prominent heads of Swiss and international organizations and politicians. For ten years, I was court photographer to the Saudi royal family.

At that time both dress and behaviour had strict rules, and when leaving home people had to present themselves according to expectations. It had been like that for centuries, up until the 1960s.
Although portraiture was already popular in the 1880s, when we look at the photographs of the time, it seems that all the studios of the world were the same. In most cases we can only tell by what is written on the photograph which country and city it originated in. The costumes, decoration, furniture and seating were always the same and determined the posture of the sitters. Of course the low sensitivity of the film also limited the possibilities.

But a century later suddenly everything changed. The interior of the studio had to adapt to the age, to the new freedoms in fashion and behaviour.

There are many of us who can still remember those gatherings of family and friends where we had to suffer through the unending slideshow, then the 8mm film and, finally, the video presentation, and we have already started to get bored with the amount of photos that swamp us via the internet.

If the amator-photographe can find the one photo that he like among the thousands of examples taken by inexpensive but high-quality, digital small cameras, then why should he go to a professional photographer? Even though there are still a few people around who wish to be photographed in a studio, this will soon disappear.

I believe that if colour photography had been invented before black-and white, then it would be now that we would be at the point of that fantastic abstraction where we would remove the colour from everything in front of us.

Let me tell you how incredibly exciting and creative it was taking photographs in black-and-white. We would select our photographic materials from photographic supply shops as we would cakes in a patisserie: a such and such sensitivity negative, which we put into a particular developer depending on the result we were after, we overdeveloped, we underdeveloped, and finally from the innumerable positive materials and developers, we picked the ones which would make our photographs more unique.

But who knows, one day somebody might decide, like the alchemists following ancient recipes, to start making their own films and photographic paper once more at home.

I don't believe that everything passes, there will always be something that remains behind, and there will always be someone who revives it.

Suzan Farkas Adair

webdesign: Györgyi Havas | easyweb