Portrait by Gaby of Malcolm A. Campbell features dramatic low key lighting

Portrait of Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm A. Campbell. Photographer: Gaby. Source: 1963-64 MCHS annual

An impressive portrait of Malcolm A. Campbell by a Montreal photographer named Gaby is featured in the 1963-64 Malcolm Campbell High School annual.

When I looked at the portrait, I thought at once: “Film noir, 1940s black and white movies.”

The reason I tuned into this was that a Technology of Film course that I took recently at Ryerson University highlighted the history of lighting techniques in still photography and film.

As I’ve noted in a previous blog, black and white movies from the 1940s were characterized by fairly hard light sources.

The lighting contrast ratio in such productions – the relation between key light (the light that casts the primary shadows) and fill light (the light that fills in the shadows cast by the key light) – yields a low key form of lighting. That is, the dark shadow areas tend to predominate over the light areas.

The portrait of Malcolm Campbell is characterized by a key light that is positioned high above the subject. It’s not a top light – that is, it’s not directly above the subject’s head – but it’s high enough to create strong shadows under the eye sockets and a solid black shadow under the nose.

The photograph prompts me to have a look at other photographs, such as newspaper headshots, of that era. Possibly this was standard lighting at that time, perhaps not. I look forward to finding out.

Low key lighting

The notes from a recent Ryerson film course notes that film noir uses a very low key lighting scheme, creating a shadowy, “contrasty” look. You’re dealing, in this lighting style, with lots of shadows and large areas of darkness, in which there is a large difference between the intensity of the key and fill lights.

In film, this form of lighting is associated with night, emotion, tension, tragedy, and mystery. I don’t see any of that in the photo. What I do see is a sense of drama, provided by the photographer.

With regard to memories of Malcolm Campbell High School, I can see low key lighting for some of the things that happened during the 1962-63 school year in the case of my own graduating class – that is, 11-B. Some things I can picture in a high key lighting frame of mind.

Clyde Fans

Cover to Clyde Fans: Book One (Drawn and Quarterly, 1994)

The protrait of Malcolm Campbell brings to mind a graphic novel entitled Clyde Fans (2003),the creation of an artist named Seth, which is the pen name of Gregory Gallant.

Malcolm A. Campbell doesn’t remind me of any of the characters in the book, but his expression and demeanour has what I would describe as a distinctly graphic novel kind of stamp.

High contrast lighting

The head shots of staff and students in the MCHS manuals that I’ve seen are generally shot in high key lighting. The ratio of key to fill is nearly 1:1. The lighting contrast is low and bright and bright tones predominate, making things appear bright and cheery.

Gabriel Desmarais

The portrait is the work of a photographer who went by the name Gaby (1926-1991), and whose full name was Gabriel Desmarais.  A May 26, 2006 Montreal Gazette article highlights his career.

In Memoriam

Malcolm Campbell greetings students at school opening. Source: 1963-64 yearbook

“In 1960,” the 1963-64 MCHS yearbook informs us, “the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal set a precedent by naming its newest high school in honour of a living man, the very Reverend Dr. Malcolm A. Campbell. He had been the minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Montreal for 50 years, chairman of the Montreal Protestant School Commissioners for 30 years, and had devoted most of his life to helping others. When the school was first opened, he visited us, and managed to shake the hand and ask the name of each of the 1250 students present. Each one of us felt a personal loss at his death on June 26, 1963. This yearbook is dedicated to his memory.”

Montreal Gazette

A March 25, 1959 Montreal Gazette article discusses the career of Malcolm A. Campbell, on the occasion of the naming of Malcolm Campbell High School. The photograph that accompanies the article is the portrait by Gaby that is featured in the 1963-64 MCHS annual.

An advertisement in the October 29, 1956 Montreal Gazette announced an photography exhibit by Gaby.

Gaby, Photograph (2003) is a book devoted to his work.

Quiet Revolution

When I view the photo, I think of the times in which it was taken. It was taken prior to the Quiet Revolution in Quebec – prior to subsequent major changes in the educational system in Quebec.

It’s a great portrait. I’m pleased I happen to notice it in one of the MCHS annuals that I’ve borrowed from Peter Mearns.


2 replies
  1. Robin Hallam
    Robin Hallam says:

    When Malcolm Campbell was shaking the hand of each student and asking their name as described above, he eventually came to a student who replied “Malcolm Campbell”, to which the reverend gentleman admonished “and don’t you ever forget it”. The student was in fact his grandson.


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