Have you seen… [Photo Noir]?


Wandering about, having a drink, or just staring at the wide open, exposed concrete space of the National Theatre foyer is always a pleasure; except during short performance intervals, it is usually very quite – a calming break from the roaring, turbulent, metropolitan pace, it never fails to relax me. This minimal, colourless landscape became the perfect backdrop for Cornel Lucas’ black & white portraits, the beauty of his famous sitters captured forever in time.

Started working at fifteen in a film-processing laboratory, studied photography at the Regent Street Polytechnic, worked at the RAF School of Photography at Farnborough during the war – his life was intertwined with photography. After the war, Lucas went on to work at Denham Studios, in 1945. He made such an impression that the Rank Organisation (the powerful British entertainment conglomerate that controlled Denham Studios) created a specially equipped studio at Pinewood, for Lucas to photograph the major stars they had under contract. Or, in his words, he was handed ”the key to the door”.  Much later, in 1998,  his work was recognised with a BAFTA Award for Outstanding Contribution to British cinema, the first, and so far, only photographer to receive this honour.

Lucas was shot to fame after a successful photo session with a great sitter: Marlene Dietrich. When the diva arrived at the studio “She explained that she knew exactly where to sit, how to be lit and that her best pose was looking straight at the camera,” said Lucas. “She was directing me!

The end result, (1948):


At the opposite end of accidental, Dietrich’s portrait was the result of some of the most meticulous post-production work in a pre-photoshop era:

… the publishing director asked me to show to her rough proofs the next day…  which I did… I went to her dressing room and showed her the rough proofs… and she looked at them and leaned down beside her to her handbag and took out the largest magnifying glass and looked at them. With the other hand, she got black eyebrow pencil from her bag and she ticked and marked the print as she thought she would like it to be retouched… and away it went… and the next day I took them to her and she looked at them again with the magnifying glass and was quite charming and leaned over and shook my hand and said: ”Join the Club Mr Lucas”… Well I didn’t know what she meant by joining the club but obviously it meant that I was on the threshold of doing something different…”

Transcript from a film by Nigel Arthur on Cornel Lucas official website.

Photo Noir
The Art of Cornel Lucas

(Exhibition closed on 29 March 2014)

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Cornel Lucas (1920 – 2012)

Cornel_Large Camera

Photograph: Fi Mcghee

Images by Konstantinos Implikian

London, 22-25 March 2014


13 thoughts on “Have you seen… [Photo Noir]?

    • Digital technology brought a lot of changes, not always for the better. It certainly took away the element of surprise, waiting for the results to come out from the dark room. How will people be talking about photography, say 50 years from now, I wonder?

  1. I agree! And Lucas was a master of b&w photography! Btw, up until the exhibition, I had no idea that Patrick McGoohan had worked with Melina Mercouri!… I looked it up afterwards: it’s the ”Gypsy and the Gentleman, a 1957 film. McGoohan famously did not kiss other women in honour of his wife, but a quick look on youtube showed that he may have done a few exceptions. Who could resist Melina? 🙂

  2. This is really interesting! Those old black and white photos have a mood that cannot be re-created anymore. I could stare at them for hours 🙂 Thanks for sharing Lia!

  3. In an industry in which men famously call the shots and mould women into what they want, especially in that studio era of the silver screen, you have to hand it to Dietrich for controlling her own image. Beautiful photos!

    • The lady certainly knew what she wanted! I found it very interesting that the photographer became famous cause of her and not the other way round. Don’t you love those Berliners!

  4. I absolutely love black and white photos. I feel that you look at the person, not the colors or the clothes. You can see into their personalities. What a great exhibition! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    • Me too! I’m very attracted to b&w still photography, I find the results pretty intense! On the other hand, in the b&w movies, there are times I wish there were colours so I would know what some costumes or sets really looked like! xxx

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