The photo behind Columbia Pictures’ iconic ‘Torch Lady’ logo

The iconic lady holding the torch logo you currently see at the start of every Columbia Pictures film was born in the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Orleans photographer’s apartment. Kathy Anderson in 1991.

The final version is a painting, but few people know that it was based on a photo of the photographer’s colleague, captured during a portrait session in a small space using very simple props.

The story behind the photoshoot

It all started when Anderson’s friend, the talented illustrator Michael J. Deas, who designed 16 commemorative stamps for the US Postal Service, asked the photographer to take a reference photo for a painting. At the time, she had no idea how iconic the artwork would become.

“Michael had a vision for the play,” says Anderson PetaPixel. “I created a soft light that would accentuate every crease in the material and flatter the model.

“My penchant for large softbox light modifiers [a Chimera softbox on Dynalite strobes] turned out to be perfect for the mission.

At the time, Anderson was working at the New Orleans newspaper The Times Picayune. Deas needed a model to pose for the Lady of the Torch, and he decided to ask the photographer’s colleague at the newspaper, Jenny Joseph, to model.

On the day of filming, Deas arrived with a box of hot croissants from his favorite French Quarter baker along with an assortment of props that he thought would work well for the reference image. There were sheets, fabric, a flag, and a small lamp with a light bulb sticking out of the top – a lamp that vaguely resembled a torch.

A studio apartment with simple accessories

“After moving my dining room table and turning the living room into a studio, I installed a heather gray backdrop. I placed a few boxes on the floor to let the fabric drape. I put a Polaroid back on the Hasselblad camera to start with some test shots.

In the days of cinema, a kind of early “chimping” still prevailed, especially on 120 shoots. Many Hasselblad shooters, including Anderson, would drop Polaroids to see or show the customer 21/4x21/4 proofs.

Several Polaroids were shot during the “Torch lady” photo shoot, and the sheet also had to be readjusted around Joseph, who has never modeled since that day.

This is part of a contact sheet of photos of Jenny Johnson posing for a reference photo to be used by illustrator Michael Deas when he painted the Columbia Pictures logo, July 17, 1991, © 1991 Kathy Anderson

“Jenny was wrapped in a white sheet,” Anderson recalled. “We shot with the flag draped over the sheet and some with the blue fabric draped over the sheet. Finally, we chose the blue fabric.

“The materials were carefully arranged. Lights were placed to accentuate the folds of the fabric and create a light effect in Jenny’s eyes. We started a couple hours of fun, creatively merged shooting.

“During the shoot, Jenny asked if she could sit down for a minute,” says the photographer. “I took an image of her sitting down, which is perhaps my favorite image from the shoot. But after chatting for a minute, she confided that she was pregnant. After congratulating her, we resumed the shooting, but I was worried about her standing on the box.

seated lady in toga
Jenny Joseph sits to rest during the ‘Torch Lady’ photoshoot behind the iconic Columbia Pictures logo. © 1991 Kathy Anderson

The ‘Torch Lady’ portrait that has become an iconic logo

Anderson was thrilled with the images she produced that day. The photographer has taken many reference photos for Deas over the years, including book covers and commissioned portraits. However, none have matched the fame of the film’s logo.

The “torch lady” photo of Jenny Joseph by photographer Kathy Anderson which was used as a reference photo by illustrator Michael Deas to create the famous Columbia Pictures logo. © 1991 Kathy Anderson
Columbia Pictures logo featuring artwork created by illustrator Michael J. Deas from reference photo by photographer Kathy Anderson
Columbia Pictures logo featuring artwork created by illustrator Michael J. Deas using reference photo by photographer Kathy Anderson.

By comparing Anderson’s original photo to Deas’ finished logo illustration, one can see how faithful the artist has been to the original portrait. Details such as the arrangement of the fingers of her right hand when she grips the lamp/torch, the blue fabric a little lower on the lady’s shoulder, and the fabric when it spills over the boxes/steps at the bottom resemble much to the camera image.

A side-by-side comparison of the original torch photo with the Columbia Pictures logo

“Even if the ‘Torch Lady’ painting hadn’t become famous, the photo shoot would hold a special place in my heart, perhaps because it took place in my living room, with my good friends and with these perfect croissants “, says Anderson. . “I will always remember this day fondly.”

A long and successful career in photography

Anderson first picked up a camera in college and never looked back. She says she is happy to have been part of the glory days of print journalism when she was a photographer at The Times Picayune newspaper for 28 years. In 2006, his coverage of Hurricane Katrina was included in the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for the newspaper.

Anderson is still an active photographer who divides her time with commercial work, portraits, a few weddings, and a decades-long personal project on New Orleans culture.

When asked which picture is the most difficult picture ever taken, her response is a photo she took inside St. Paul’s Church shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s because it was part of my children’s school and I spent every morning in the chapel with the students,” explains the photographer.

church, hurricane Katrina
Father George Walker Jr., rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans, walks among the tangled pews with Senior Director Bruce Edrington in the Lakeview section of New Orleans. The church and school were flooded and remained under water for four weeks. Roland Wiltz, parish administrator of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, retrieves a vase from the parlor of the church. October 10, 2005 © Kathy Anderson

And “the most surprising use of a news photo” Anderson has ever made? An image of a state representative being strangled by a policeman during a demonstration against a racist monument. The 1993 photo was part of a year-long race relations project in New Orleans. In 2016, 23 years later, the image was turned into a poster and held high during the Black Lives Matter march.

    riot, new orleans
“The History of Battles”. New Orleans police officers restrain longtime civil rights leader and state representative Reverend Avery Alexander during a scuffle during the Liberty Monument rededication ceremonies. Alexander led an effort to disrupt the ceremony celebrating an 1874 battle in New Orleans in which a White League militia defeated forces loyal to the biracial Reconstruction government. The confrontation came amid a dispute over whether city officials should remove the monument commemorating the battle. Many African-American leaders say the monument is a racist and offensive symbol, March 3, 1993 © Kathy Anderson

Anderson hopes people will feel something when looking at his work, whether it’s sadness (Hurricane Katrina) or smiles (Columbia Pictures logo).

“If they engage emotionally, I’ve made it,” she says.

You can see more of Anderson’s work on her website and Instagram.

About the Author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera courses in New York at The International Center of Photography in the 1990s. He was the director and teacher of Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days workshops. You can reach him here.

Picture credits: All photographs are by Kathy Anderson. Columbia Pictures logo illustration by Michael J. Deas.

Jack C. Nugent