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