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Portraits in Film Noir

Since I was a child, I have always admired those Hollywood movies in black and white, and I was did the directors manage to achieve such dramatic scenes that inspired fear or suspense? During my studies at university, I discovered that these kinds of movies were called "Film Noir", a cinematographic genre that was characterised precisely using lights and shadows. The term 'Film Noir' was first used by French film critics after World War II, since apparently during the Nazi invasion of France, the French were deprived of enjoying Hollywood cinema. When they finally had access to the movies, they noticed that something have changed in the films, there were more gangster movies where the atmosphere and thematic had darkened.

According with the autor Paul Duncan and Jürgen Müller, (2017) the darkness of these films reflects the increasing pessimism and disillusionment in the American society during the Great Depression of 1930s and the Second World War that followed...reflecting the corrupting power of the government and press, the propaganda, the Hollywood blacklist, among other social problems of this time. They also describe the psychological profile of the main character as a cynical, hard-hearted, obsessive, criminal, violent and misogynistic. Very often he is a war veteran or detective who is repeatedly tested, interrogated, and persecuted. Male characters use to wear suit and ties, fedoras and hats, and they are always smoking.

The female character was represented by characters completely opposite to each other. we can find the stereotype of a dependent and submissive woman, whose only goal in life was to marry and have a family. And, on the other hand, we can also find characters that are transgressors of the social norms because they are independent strong women who had to use their beauty in order to survive in this masculine world. These female characters are listed as 'The Femme Fatal', a dangerous female who lures, tempts, and seduces the hero. They are gorgeous, mysterious, and sometimes amoral and double dealing.

Visually, Film Noir has its roots in the German Expressionist cinematography. Robert Wiene's film 'The Cabinet of Dr. Calligari' of 1920s contains one of the best early examples of the lighting techniques used to inspire the genre: the use of the lights to create long shadows, distorted perspectives, unusual angles as we can see in the next pictures:

The emergence of the Nazi regime meant that many German and European directors, who were part of the Expressionist Movement, went to the United States as exiles. Directors such as Fritz Lange, Robert Siodmak or Michael Curtis brought to Hollywood the new lighting techniques that were intended to illustrate a psychological state and a new way of approaching the staging.

Among the most important films of this genre stand out: The Matese Falcon (John Houston, 1941); The Shangay Gesture (Josef Von Sternberg, 1941); Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944); Laura (Otto Preminger, 1944); To have and have not (Howard Hawks, 1944);The Killers (Robert Siodmak, 1946); The Postman always ring twice (Tay Garnet, 1946); The Lady from Shangay (Orson Welles, 1947); Out of the Past (Jaques Tourneur, 1947); Key Largo (Jhon Houston, 1948); Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950); Strangers on a Train (Alfred Hitchcock, 1951); The night of the hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955); The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956); Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958) among others.

To learn about the lighting techniques of this genre, I decided to make my own 'Portraits in Film Noir'. To achieve the visual style of this genre, I had to do a collaborative work with other students such as make-up and hairdressing artist. We had different meetings to talk about the style of the hair and the make-up we needed, the cloth and garments we needed for each character. It was really helpful to have a photo book with the different scenes I wanted to imitate during my photo sessions, to know exactly what do we want to achieve. It was useful as well to explain the models what kind of characters they were playing, and help them with their own gestures, postures, and feelings they had to express in front of the camera, something that in the cinema world is called 'actors direction'.

The corrupted cop

To achieve this photo of the film 'Touch of Evil' by Orson Welles, where the director represented the corrupted cop. He seems he was trying to catch someone who was laid down on the floor. So, to get the point of view of this person, maybe another criminal, I had to lie down on the floor and use a Dutch angle pointing of view with my camera up, trying to get a medium long shot.

I had to use three lights: one main light positioned 45 degrees camera right with a brolly reflector and barn doors to get a strong light pointed it straight ahead to the right side of his face, and leaving some shadows on the left side of his face. I used as well two backlights as a rim lights to separate the character from the background, so we can see these line of light over his arms and shoulders.

The Femme Fatale

In this picture I made my own version of one of the scenes of the film 'Laura' by Otto Preminger. In the film she is afraid to be discovered with the rifle and tries to hide it. However, in my version, my model Anabel uses her own jacket to hide the gun...she is also determinate to kill someone who is out of the frame, adding some drama and suspense to the scene. For this picture I used three lights. One main light lighting the right side of her face while the other side is in shadows. This is a common resource used to emphasise the dark side of the character, the good and the evil. The other two lights placed on both sides of the image are used as a rim lights for her head and shoulders.

The murderer on the door

In this other picture I wanted to play with the idea of the gangster who comes to murder his victim. To make the scene more dramatic, I placed the lights outside the room, pointing it to the white wall behind the character, and leaving him on the darkness. With this purpose, I place myself inside the room, taking a lower point of view that helped me to enhance the presence of the murderer who appears completely in shadows, with a threatening and dangerous aspect.

The Boss

Another nice example about how to play with the lighting technique to create strong lights and shadows. For this picture I only used two lights, one behind the character pointed towards the wall with a brolly lamp, and the other light over the boss head to illuminate as well his shoulders and arms, leaving his face completely in the shadows. We can only see his big and threatening hands full of veins adding more drama to the scene.

I always take my pictures in RAW, in colour, and during the editing process in Lightroom I turned all of them to black and white, where I had to change a bit the exposure, contrast and shadows until I get the effect I was looking for.

I hope this explanation has inspired you to make your own photo session imitating the style of Film Noir, and play with the different narrative elements to tell stories through photography. And now tell me...what story do you see behind each photograph? What is the story of each character?

I hope you have had a great time reading about my experience with the Film Noir Photography. Big hug!



  1. Aumont J., Bergala, A., Marie, M., and Vernec, M., (2020) Estética cinematográfica. Ed. La Marca Editora.

  2. Duncan, P., and Muller, J. (2017) Cine Negro. Ed. Taschen.

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