Recreating 1930s Photography on a Television Set [NSFW]

Recreating 1930s Photography on a Television Set [NSFW]

This article contains media that the editors have flagged as NSFW.

To view this content you need to create an account or log in.

Ron Jaffe is the stills photographer for a multitude of popular television shows, and occasionally, he’s asked to recreate images that could have been taken decades ago. I asked him what process he goes through to take us back to pre-war USA.

The likes of Jaffe are the photographers who help build a backstory in a TV show. As he explained it to me before: “if a scene is in a mother’s house, then you’d expect to see pictures of her kids.” Getting these pictures can often require setting up a studio beside the regular TV production in order to get quick turnaround shots with the busy actors and actresses.

Julie Newmar (who famously played Catwoman); Julia Kruis in the center.

The Inspiration

Jaffe’s main aim when creating a dramatic, vintage feel, is to concentrate on the shadows, trying to bring high contrast and sharp lighting to the image. This complements the softer image that is expected from that era.

His inspiration doesn’t lie in modern photography either. “[George] Hurrell is my mentor, most viable influence by a photographer,” he mentioned. The parallels between Jaffe and Hurrell are apparent in the lighting, which can often be harsh. Then there’s more traditional art forms, like painting, that Jaffe pulls ideas from: “the great painting masters, Caravaggio and Rembrandt, who controlled shadows as well as the light superbly.”

These images are needed to set the scene for television shows.

The above image from "Castle" is a stunning example of these ideas. Jaffe tells me that the writer needed to see the face of a murdered man and wanted to show the floor to place the scene in that space. As such, the angle is remarkably high: “I lit the scene, strobes, with directional scrims, honeycombs, to narrow the beams of light to specific areas, creating the timely shadows, a stronger, more dramatic scene versus flat lighting.”

His crew for this shoot also included the usual cohort of assistants, two makeup artists, hair, and wardrobe, then lighting and grip, as well as the second assistant director to coordinate the style of the scene. The lighting was left to Jaffe’s imagination.

Jaffe likes to test different materials for his background, achieving surreal images.

Not overcomplicating things is part of Jaffe's modus operandi.

Achieving the Look

In his eyes, this look relies on the elongated shadows and contrast. “I like to use honeycomb scrims on the front of my reflectors to narrow the light focus and often will use black tape to narrow even more so the scope or span of the light on subject's face or an area on the wall or floor.” For the face, he uses a narrow beam of light focused on a preferred area. Then, to prevent the body from being underexposed, he’ll set up a very soft umbrella fill light about two or three stops below the key light.

The point is to try to emulate the available lights and style from back in the day. There aren’t any soft LED panels or parabolic reflectors. This is about putting yourself on an old-school Hollywood set and imagining how it should be lit and then moving forward from there.

Jaffe doesn’t always strive for sharpness here. Part of what makes the shot is countering the detail that we’d expect from a DSLR. Why not shoot with a camera from the 1930s then? Jaffe still needs to bow to the stress of a modern set, and the reliability of a modern setup as well as the ability to work in post production is needed for the fast turnarounds.

A shot from "Castle"; Shelley Hack in Tamara, a play that ran in Hollywood for nine years.

Posing the Subject

It’s not an overly technical feat that Jaffe is achieving. A lot of the style comes down to set design, wardrobe, and how the subjects act within the scene. The body language in particular “oftentimes can be exaggerated, leaning, turning, contorting, to enable a bit of drama,” Jaffe told me. “Keeping in mind this often too can lend itself to a greater surface to extend the shadows while still flattering the individual. Sometimes, an extended shadow can also enhance the drama."

Julia Kruis wearing an original Oleg Cassini dress, portraits of James Woods.

Perhaps if you are attempting to recreate this style, Jaffe’s advice will save you a couple of steps and even provide inspiration. For me, it’s projects like this that would require more foresight than most. In fact, I’d usually attempt to copy elements of an idea exactly before testing out the shot on other subjects. Knowing the technique is one thing, but I’m glad Jaffe’s explanations give us a concept of where to aim. Has anybody else tried to recreate this style?

Images used with permission of Ron P. Jaffe.

Log in or register to post comments

3 Comments

user-186898's picture

James Woods uses a photo from the Ron Jaffe shoot for his Twitter profile photo

Great article. One question, does Ron employ the set designer and dresser or does the studio supply them?

Simon Carter's picture

I regularly shoot this style. For me the real challenge is adapting it for modern tastes. Hurrell, Bull, Ghergo and others were quite happy to let nose and eye shadows fall in all sorts of places we wouldn't be happy with today.

here's one :)

https://fstoppers.com/photo/308059