Monday, December 28, 2009

Phillip Stewart Charis

Portraits by Charis

For as long as I can remember my parents have had these two portraits of themselves hanging in our house. My father kept them lit under spotlights in our living room. Over the years I’ve watch them slowly fade the way old photographs do. Faded as they were, there was something that had timeless, elegant, and yes, a certain dignity about them. I figured the portraits were at least 25 years old and there was little to suggest that those photographs were shot in the 70s or 80s, except for my father’s glasses that may have hinted at the decade. There was something about them that looked liked they could have been created yesterday.

It occurred to me a few years ago that I should try to figure out who took the shots to see if I could get reprints. I had hoped there might be a label on the back indicating who the photographer was. This Christmas I noticed that they had been moved from their usual location to a place I could actually get to. I looked at the back... nothing. I was a little disappointed, but that was pretty much what I thought I would find anyway.

The pictures had faded so much that it became obvious where the image had been retouched since the pigments they used hadn't faded nearly as much as the photographs themselves. Back in the day, before I discovered Photoshop, I did my retouching with paints and pigments too, but that was almost 10 years ago. I stood there and noticed where some of the pigments were applied with a paint brush and saw the areas where an air brush was used. I was studying the technique. The area around the sleeves of my father's jacket and the area around my mother's hair had been painted in with a brush. An air brush was used to darken the right side of the image. I imagine it was a vignetting technique. My eyes followed the line made by the airbrush all the way to bottom right-side of the portrait and it was there that I noticed a faint signature. "Charis ©1979". I looked closer. Event fainter: "Phillip". I couldn't make out the middle name, but I hoped I had enough.

I grabbed my iPhone and typed it in. The first entry on the list: "Charis Portraiture - Phillip Stewart Charis". Wow, that was easy. Had I thought about it longer I would have had little hope that a photographer working 30 years ago would still be working today and have a web site, but there it was.

Today, I called the number listed on the site. I told them that I believed that Mr. Charis had photographed my parents back in 1979 and asked if they might still have the negatives and if it was possible to get reprints. The person on the phone, a very kind sounding woman, said that it was very likely that they still had the negatives and should the negatives be found, it’s still possible to get reprints. She also told me that at 92, Mr. Charis is still alive and working.

Charis’s site described him as a master of photography. Was it true or was it just another photographer tooting his own horn? I decided to google Mr. Charis. Perhaps he wasn’t tooting his own horn after all. He was given a five-minute standing ovation as he stood to speak at the Professional Photographers of America (PPA) annual convention, Imaging USA in 2006, Epson features Mr. Charis’s work on their site, and he was written about in the Los Angeles Times. Some of the people he’s photographed include Nancy Reagan, Joan Collins, Henry Mancini, Michael Landon, and Engelbert Humperdinck

I wonder what kind of photographer he was back in 1979. Was he as renowned then as he is now? How did my parents who had only immigrated from Thailand a few years before find him.

I called his studio again, this time to ask how much a commissioned shot would cost. Prints start at 16x20 and cost upwards of a thousand dollars. Somehow I wasn’t surprised. Maybe, one day, I’ll sit for him too.