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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Blogger Bryce said...

These images are fantastic. Thanks for the great interview into a bright photographer's mind! Great images are always the best source of inspiration for my own work.

May 14, 2009 12:40 AM  
Blogger Michael Zelbel said...

It's always so nice to hear about successful photographers who work outside the box of the conservative school of photography. Thanks for this interview.

May 14, 2009 3:38 AM  
Blogger Jerome Love said...

Great post! Moshe has a lot of character and you can feel that just with the photograph of Arnold. Very insightful.

May 14, 2009 6:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Moshe's images look to be the progenitors for present-day European glam spreads from Lavazza, D&G, and others (abstract-portraiture-marketing photos, featuring voluptuous color schemes and complicated lighting). Just like how one can see the beginnings of rap, grunge and power-balladry in the Beatles' White Ablum, it is very interesting to see where these modern photographic concepts might have originated. Nice Article =)

May 14, 2009 6:42 AM  
Anonymous Matt Wynne said...

Some really interesting photos on his site. I wish I could get to LA for the show.

May 14, 2009 11:04 AM  
Blogger Gary said...

Great images. Always loved the images of Devo on Hardcore 1 & 2.

May 14, 2009 11:09 AM  
Blogger Sohfian said...

This image reminds me of colorized old bollywood movie posters. Yes, my mum used to love watchin hindi movies. We use to watch it during the 80s. Anyway, I love the saturation. Arnold looks unbelievably young.

May 14, 2009 12:53 PM  
Blogger Debbi_in_California said...

I don't 'get' the shake and bake he talks about. Can someone else explain it?

May 14, 2009 2:07 PM  
Blogger Melissa's Cozy Tea Time Readings said...

Would you/do you ever clean your sensor yourself?

May 14, 2009 2:11 PM  
Anonymous Jamie Maldonado said...

Awesome interview. Interesting reading about trends gone by. I wonder what we'll look back on like that ...

May 14, 2009 2:20 PM  
Blogger FLiPMaRC said...

Simply amazing photos!

May 14, 2009 2:40 PM  
Anonymous CrayonPhotos said...

If I'm understanding correctly, "Shake and Bake" refers to the fact that he uses a combination of long shutter times, continuous lighting of the background, and a dark foreground subkect only lit by flash. Due to the long shutter times, the ambient exposure records a lot of camera "shake" in the background, and then the flash "bakes" the foreground subject into sharp focus.

May 14, 2009 5:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave Hobby gives good blog and Commercial Head gives good light!

Thanks again.

May 14, 2009 5:10 PM  
Anonymous Carl said...

Ah! CrayonPhotos, so that is why there's some "shake" in the chain to Ahnolt's left, but all the foreground chain that's out of the rim light zone is left alone. I dig it now. That's something to really chew on.

May 14, 2009 6:15 PM  
Blogger I2carts said...

Moshe's images look to be the progenitors for present-day European glam spreads from Lavazza, D&G, and others (abstract-portraiture-marketing photos, featuring voluptuous color schemes and complicated lighting). Just like how one can see the beginnings of rap, grunge and power-balladry in the Beatles' White Ablum, it is very interesting to see where these modern photographic concepts might have originated. Nice Article =)
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May 15, 2009 5:17 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Thanks, David, another eye-opener. I like the way he thinks (speaks). As for hard light and "dirty light" - much of it is.

But he apparently has second home in Softbox City, as in this: link:

Ben Madden
PS: Yes, I was born to be a thorn.

May 15, 2009 1:11 PM  
Anonymous Leon Huang said...

Amazing work there. Thanks for posting :)

May 15, 2009 7:23 PM  
Blogger siano photography said...

amazing shots,
we sure did miss the creative freedom they had in the 70's
I love his crazy early stuff, the more recent work, is polished like everyone else's .

still a great photographer with a lot to teach us all ...
thanks david.

May 16, 2009 12:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unrelated to the post at hand, but did you stop Twittering? Last tweet was in Nov 08. Should I take that as a cue to stop following?

May 17, 2009 8:43 PM  
Blogger Jimmy hickey said...

Hrmm interesting stuff. I love hard lighting actually so I will look more in to Moshe Brakha. Thanks for bringing him to my attention...I'm somewhat embarassed I haven't heard of him already!

May 19, 2009 5:34 PM  
Blogger marc weisberg said...

David, Thank for this post. Moshe is a visual genius! This is the first i've seen of his work. For a sneak peek at his exhibition Occupation Dreamer you can also log into his site

and click through at the bottom on stuff and view the exhibit pieces. Looking at his artful use of lighting and backdrops filled my head with a dizzing array of possibilites.

Cheers, marc -

May 30, 2009 9:11 AM  

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