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Moshe Brakha's "Dirty Light"

Photo ©Moshe Brakha

Photographer Moshe Brakha has come a long way since the late 70's, when he hit the Hollywood scene like a runaway train. But he would feel right at home in a parking garage Strobist meetup.

Even with such high-horsepower subjects (and photos) he was all about small, battery-powered strobes and hot lights. As of this week, he has a retrospective show that just landed at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

Inside, a conversation with an A-Lister that any Strobist can appreciate . . .

Light as a Language

Brakha has always considered light an integral part of the photo -- just as important as the subject, the setting -- everything. He preferred hard light sources, even when everyone else seemed to be going for soft boxes.

"I spent many years shooting only with a Norman 200," he said, referring to the battery-powered Norman 200B flash. "First, I didn't have the money to buy a big flash, and second, it became like, by nature."

Later, he added more Normans to the mix, and started experimenting with different dishes for a different look. That combination of multiple sources and dishes gave him the ability to create more complex lighting.

He has been a seat-of-the-pants lighter from way back. He never uses a meter. Never used modeling light with strobes. (The Norman battery modeling lights left much to be desired, like most portable modeling lights.)

"It is all to your eye," he said. "Polaroid and eye."

His inspirations were Guy Bourdin, Brassaï and Weegee -- photographers who worked with hard lights. "I'm not coming from the school of Avedon," he says. "That's not my school at all."

At one point in his career, he eschewed strobes altogether in favor of "movie lights," as he calls tungsten lights. He later combined the two, working with tungsten lights and strobes:

"That's the style we used to call it -- the shake and bake, you know? I used to shoot everything half a second, full second. Even when I used to shoot strobe outdoors, at nighttime, it's always one-second exposure -- to get the shake, you know?"

Brakha brings careful planning and an eye for detail to his props and settings. "Everything I do, I am pre-planner -- I am a Capricorn," he said. "I do every bit of thinking before, you know? I never go cold to a shoot. I know everything I am doing, how I am going to light -- everything. Then you chase. You chase your idea."

Arnold Schwarzenegger, c.1985

For the portrait of Schwarzenegger, above, Brakha went with one hard strobe in front and multiple hot lights in back.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger was in the shake and bake period. Everything had to be shake and bake. You shoot with the tungsten light in the back, and you always shoot with the strobe in front. The front is always dark, and the back is with light.

You have a long exposure, and you can shake the camera, you know?Then the front doesn't get lit."

In Arnold's case, the strobe was the battery-powered Norman 200, which is of course balanced for daylight. The hot lights would normally be much warmer than the strobe. To fix this, you either have to gel the hot lights with a blue (CTB) gel, or warm up the strobe (CTO) and shoot on tungsten balance.

All of the light from the back is tungsten, and the camera movement (slight, in this case) paints not only the chain movement but also shimmies the rim lights on his face.

Brakha has come full circle and now shoots mostly with tungsten hot lights. And he is embracing imperfection, too.

"Now, I don't care about flare, I don't put on the sun shade, I like to be really free. I love all this dirtiness that comes through the lens. I love it, you know? Now, even if I do strobes, it is always very dirty. I am a dirty light -- that's what I call myself."

I am very free about light. But, at the same time, I know what I am doing. I know what the light is going to do before I do it. It is gorgeous. It is sick, it is so beautiful. And that is what drives you to do great pictures. Those kinds of things -- what's next, what's next?"


A retrospective exhibit by Brakha, "Occupation Dreamer," opens at the The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, this week. It features many of the icons of music he shot early in his career. Check it out if you are local to the area.

If you won't be getting to L.A. this summer and would like to see a different version of the show online, Digital Fusion did a great display of an earlier show in New York from June 2008.

For more of Brakha's work, visit his website.


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