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Studio Harcourt

Notes on illusion and what that means for truth.

Life’s a Bowl — photo by the author

Yesterday, with everyone else watching either Cannes or the Grand Prix in Monaco, I went to Nice.

A photographer friend wanted to see the latest exhibit of B/W celebrity portraits shot by Studio Harcourt using a particular technique that he wanted to emulate. The blurb — paraphrased — stated that you haven’t made it as an actor if you have not been immortalised by the Studio — photographers to the gods of stage and screen — maker of dreams.

And here they are:

Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Rampling, Jean Dujardin, Cate Blanchett, Catherine Deneuve, Keanu Reeves, Laetitia Casta — in spot lit B/W, head and shoulders glory — beautiful people lining the walls of the Photography Museum, gazing out at the viewer with perfectly posed panache.

They are perfect. Too perfect… Something is missing, and it takes a while to realise that it is the humanising element of imperfection.

These are pictures of plastic dolls. An accompanying film explains how the deifying illusion is created — basically, a powerful light is directed at the face of the subject, blotting out any background or extraneous detail like laughter lines…

The celebrities sit, gazing at the camera as the light focuses on the central point of nose, brow, cheekbones — then radiates out, sculpting jaw lines and softening ears and hairline.

The effect is of two invisible hands sweeping from the bridge of the nose, around the head — knotting any inconvenient baggy skin, moles and blemishes behind — out of sight — like the too large dresses pegged roughly behind mannequins in shop windows, so that we only see the slim version.

I wonder what is bugging me — after all, we have been fed a diet of touched up images, wholesale, for half a century at least and, as an artist, I deal with the creation of illusion daily.

Something about walking through this Hall of Mirrors though, makes me wonder whether we haven’t crossed a tipping point in our phone-led realities? Where the illusion of our bubble certainty isn’t distorting actual truth? Where we are pulled into defending banners that are shaped into our reality, our truth, to an extent that it is too exhausting to check for the ugly facts hidden behind that may challenge our developing understanding of what and who we are?

What if our truth, carefully crafted — is simply wishful thinking?

What if the spot lit perfection of our authentic self hides the unspeakable reality — the knowledge that we are simply human — ordinary — not heroes?


Surely, we can all project ourselves into the lives we know we deserve if we focus, form good habits, work really hard and keep posting — right?


Maybe it’s time to loosen the bunch of hidden frailties tucked away — wear them proudly — own them?

Maybe simply accepting who we are and doing the best that we can is the way forward.

Maybe it’s too late in the comfortable West — so that we are ok with basking in the spotlight of our illuminated screens, confidently facing off the non-believers as we thumbs up our own tribe?

Maybe I should have simply gone to Cannes…



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Nicola POWYS

Nicola POWYS

Artist, activist and writer using words and paint existentially. Find my artwork here: htpps//