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Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait
  
 
Laszlo Bencze
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p.1 #1 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Congratulations to Laszlo Bencze for winning Feature Thread of the Week with 5 votes - View Previous Winners






Do any of us doubt that flattery trumps truth when it comes to making a living at retail portraiture? Edward Weston, in his early days, disagreed and did very poorly with his Carmel portrait studio. His clients mostly did not want to see themselves shown as they were but as they wished to be.

But what if the purpose of the picture is not to sell it to the subject but rather to tell the truth about our subject for the sake of the historical record, or, as many of us might say, for the sake of art? The first picture I post below is of a friend I have known for nearly forty years. Let's call him "Sam." Sam does not like you. Even after all these years, he barely tolerates me. We used to compete in weightlifting together back in the 70s and Sam continues to do very well in age group competition. He is disciplined, intense, suspicious, tough, and curt. I wanted to show these attributes when I asked him to pose for me in his front yard. This he reluctantly agreed to do. The picture was ridiculously easy to do. Canon 5D3, 135mm lens at f2.0 under a cloudy sky. When I showed it to him he said, "I'll make a poster of that and put it outside my house on Halloween to keep the trick or treaters away." I think he was kidding.

Obviously Sam did not like the portrait. He would never have paid me a penny for it. Yet I was capable of taking a flattering portrait of him. It would have demanded more effort, more time, more cooperation; but a smile can work wonders. So can soft box lighting with a reflector under the chin. So can a warmly modulated background. Sam might have liked that picture. (But he still wouldn't have paid me a penny for it.) Had I taken that picture, you would never have known Sam. And my goal was to show you Sam, the genuine Sam not some dolled up avatar from a parallel universe. My goal was truth because truth is far more interesting than flattery and the older I get the more important truth becomes.

The picture right below Sam is a portrait of Adolf Hitler taken by the most influential photographer in history, Heinrich Hoffman. He was Hitler's personal photographer. He received high accolades and respect from Hitler because his flattering images transformed the rabble rouser from a flatulent little bore into the heroic savior of the German nation. Were it not for Hoffman's photographic exaltation of him, there is real doubt as to whether Hitler could have won the adulation that propelled him into dictatorship. Was there ever a photographer who wielded flattery with more profound results than Heinrich Hoffman?

Donít get me wrong. I find no fault with flattering pictures in their proper place. I certainly want my wedding pictures to be simpatico. I like taking pictures of my wife which are kind to her. (So does she.) But even in that realm I want to keep the flattery restrained. Letís go easy on smoothing out skin and let the person be recognizable to her friends. But when it comes to those pictures which are trying to tell us something important about our world, let the truth shine through.






© Laszlo Bencze 2014


My Ugly Portrait







Adolf Hitler by Heinrich Hoffman




Feb 26, 2014 at 10:14 PM
Michaelparris
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p.1 #2 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Love your writing and photography.....Good sound advice. We are neighbors. I also live in Roseville.


Feb 26, 2014 at 10:48 PM
Lisa_Holloway
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p.1 #3 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


I'm with Michael - I love reading your posts. You always have some amazing tidbits of wisdom in there.

That is a great portrait of your friend. I struggle with this concept in my own work - it ultimately depends on what I am doing. Clients all want flattery, which does get boring after a while.



Feb 26, 2014 at 10:51 PM
tonyfield
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p.1 #4 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


The portrait is quite fine indeed. It seems to reveal the characteristics that you have ascribed to Sam. It is probably a true representation of him when I read your image and look at the portrait.

It could be argued that you have captured his "personal representation of himself" that is an image that he wishes to project - he may be wearing his "mask".

Possibly a harder task for the portrait photographer is to capture a portrait that reveals more subtle aspects of the person that are not willingly given since they are normally hidden I have many portraits of my friends .. once in a while I manage to capture a part of their hidden (and maybe more important) selves.



Feb 26, 2014 at 11:05 PM
Abwkbw
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p.1 #5 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


I enjoyed reading your post. Your last two lines really stuck with me.
"Letís go easy on smoothing out skin and let the person be recognizable to her friends. But when it comes to those pictures which are trying to tell us something important about our world, let the truth shine through"

Thanks for sharing.



Feb 26, 2014 at 11:06 PM
canerino
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p.1 #6 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


I absolutely love this post. I apply these very same principles to the documentation of my family life. I strive to create images of how life actually was, warts and all, in everyday mundane moments. I don't document a life I wish I had, I document the life that I live. I know for certain that I will look back and miss the mess, the clutter, the imperfections.

Thanks for the reminder!



Feb 27, 2014 at 12:45 AM
Achilles2010
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p.1 #7 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Thanks for the post! I agree with all said above!

Best,

Arthur



Feb 27, 2014 at 01:27 AM
swordfishphoto
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p.1 #8 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


threads do you need


Feb 27, 2014 at 01:47 AM
swordfishphoto
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p.1 #9 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


topic


Feb 27, 2014 at 01:47 AM
GeorgieGirl
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p.1 #10 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


I don't agree that every picture tells a story about a person. It's the captions and dialog and information and history that create a fabric and aid to try to tell a story of who the person actually is.

A portrait is a mystery of who a person may be or has evolved into by the time that image is captured. It's very fluid and subjective and superficial.

For example the author may know Sam. I for example don't and do not find the image of Sam to be off putting by any means and I don't know Sam at all to consider this flattering either.

It is however a nice portrait of a random man that without verbal insight would have told me nothing about Sam.

Hitler without any photo to visual aids at all but by dialog and insights would have created an internal image of a person that was unkind.

Skin smoothing can be flattery in many instances, but it never goes directly to the reality of a person or their true soul just as the absence of manipulating a persons appearance can be effective in identifying how horrific a person can be under their skin.

Portraits in this sense are illusions.









Feb 27, 2014 at 02:01 AM
 



swordfishphoto
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p.1 #11 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Also, more to the point, while I understand your point about a person's personality or character being present in the way the photograph is shot, I can't really say that Hitler was hideous. We might think of physical characteristics belonging to Adolf as being hideous now, but only because of what the man did, and the toothbrush moustache died a very quick death after WWII. But I digress.

I couldn't really call yours ugly, for whatever reason, either be it because the person is physically unattractive based on modern or personal standards, or the fact that whatever sort of "ugly" emotions or character traits that the person might have, regardless of how they're portrayed. Maybe if it was a picture of him beating a kitten, or setting an old woman's house on fire. Maybe if he was making a face and you caught him off guard and his skin rolled up under his neck and his eyes were half-closed so you could see only the whites.

To me, that's just some guy. And I think I spy a little kindness in those eyes, perhaps hidden behind a tough outer shell for fear of being hurt. Or maybe I'm being too sentimental and the guy really is an asshole. haha

Anyway, decent job, DOF is a slight bit too shallow for me (and I love shallow DOF), but at least you nailed the focus. Contrast is good, could've left just a little bit more space to the camera-right of his head, to make it more symmetrical. Good job on BW conversion (I still can't get the hang of it).



Feb 27, 2014 at 02:01 AM
glennh56
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p.1 #12 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Interesting read.
I like the portrait of Sam.
Sam did not like the portrait of Sam.
Or maybe he did.
Sam I am.



Feb 27, 2014 at 02:43 AM
Nexu
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p.1 #13 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


To give a differing opinion if I may.

While I try to appreciate the rough and ruggedness of the man in the portrait I find myself conflicted by the shallow depth of field and softness around the man's neck, cheeks, ears, top of head.



Feb 27, 2014 at 03:18 AM
Jim Rickards
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p.1 #14 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


You write a good story and I look forward to your posts.

That said, this latest one needs the words to help us out.

Like Nexu, I found the shallow DOF didn't really work well in this one. The dark eye sockets are another aspect of this photo that prevents us from enjoying the glint of light that didn't reach his eyes.

Keep these coming. We may not praise them all (or all of us may not praise them all), but each one will get us thinking photography.



Feb 27, 2014 at 07:43 AM
Wildcats_Fans
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p.1 #15 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Great shot and writing. It is definitely fuel for thought. Thank you for sharing your profound insights. I have always loved photography but only recently made it more of a serious hobby. I love learning, gadgets (watch out wallet) and capturing great photos. I have an engineering background and love understanding the pure technical aspects; therefore, I started the technical side of photography. I then started focusing on what truly makes a great photo. The more I started studying other photographers, hearing their stories and watching their videos, I realized that photography people is truly about the people. I know that sounds like a "DUH DUDE!". I mean that it is more about connecting with them, understanding them, having an appreciation for the psychological aspects of the human psyche. I like Peter Hurley's quote "I'm 90% psychologist and 10% photographer." In one of his videos he talks about photographing Ms. Universe and she told her boyfriend that she did not like her face. After looking at our own mugs, we often just see the flaws and problem areas. We have a difficult time see anything else. I think that is part of why people come to photographers, for we find a way to minimize/hide those areas and accentuate the better areas. They like being reminded of how beautiful/handsome that they are. My 15 year old son is a primary example. He is a typical teen with acne that comes and goes and he works hard to control it the best that he can. He was a very reluctant model because of his acne. After I showed him a retouched photo that greatly reduced the appearance of acne, he was absolutely thrilled. His comment was "Wow Dad, I AM handsome. I can never get past seeing the acne when I look in the mirror or at my photos." Now, he is my willing test model.

Sorry for the long write up. I have been thinking a lot about this topic this week and this post hit home for me.



Feb 27, 2014 at 04:05 PM
Danpbphoto
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p.1 #16 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Lisa_Holloway wrote:
I'm with Michael - I love reading your posts. You always have some amazing tidbits of wisdom in there.

That is a great portrait of your friend. I struggle with this concept in my own work - it ultimately depends on what I am doing. Clients all want flattery, which does get boring after a while.



Lisa and Michael state the truth. Your life's philosophy as well as photography's philosophy will benefit us all in real life.
Portraits should reflect character not caricatures.
Well done!
Dan



Feb 27, 2014 at 04:35 PM
Squirrely Eyed
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p.1 #17 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


I enjoy both the write-up and the portrait. By no means would I call it "ugly." My interpretation, though, is that while Sam may say he does not like me he is just kidding and is a very nice guy.


Feb 27, 2014 at 05:06 PM
Sharona
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p.1 #18 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Agree with much of the above. Love the post and commentary and I think the portrait of Sam is very, very nice. Thank you; I will look for more of your posts!

Sharon



Feb 27, 2014 at 06:11 PM
David Baldwin
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p.1 #19 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Thanks for this thread, I hadn't thought about how significant Hitler's personal photographer must have been in creating the myth and its awful consequences. A sobering reminder of how important photography can be.

Bearing in mind the terrible human consequences of WW2 it seems odd to be concerned with judging photographs of Hitler, but the Hoffman image you post is really strange, what worries me is the line from his left eyebrow, left eye and nose, its as if a "C" shaped cut has been taken out of the edge of his face. Perhaps its just wishful thinking on my part.

I loved the portrait you made, I hope you won't mind my suggesting that if you lighten the eyes a little in post the whole image would really sing out. Great image, not ugly at all.



Feb 27, 2014 at 06:22 PM
John Caldwell
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p.1 #20 · Flattery or Truth: My Ugly Portrait


Laszlo's question regarding an artist's role in offering truth vs. flattery seems to me as central as any question of our time - maybe close in importance and complexity to the debate over privacy vs. security that is likely to occupy public discourse for next decade.

The Truth question has parallels, possibly, with notions of a university professor seeking favorable teaching evaluations so as to please his Dean instead of refining his curriculum for what will best serve his students' future; a hospital system striving for top patient satisfaction surveys instead of improving care; a fitness instructor's decision to install new mirrors and lighting in the fitness studio instead of learning more about exercise physiology. Adolph Hitler's portrait reminds us that this is an old topic, much older than Hitler would be today were he alive. And like Hitler's photographer who would probably have paid a price for failing to flatter his subject, today's portrait artist probably faces decent commercial risks in being fully truthful with his or her audience.

Laszlo's depth of field in his portrait offered here is beautifully metaphoric for this discussion, as I see it. Our eyes certainly do not see at f11 when we view a friend in low contrast light. The aperture used here is probably very close to our own visual physiology in this light. With factual sharpness that is limited only to the man's eyes, we read what is closest to his core, and fill in the areas that aren't annunciated with our imaginations.

Great discussion- as important a subject as anything we face today, have faced in the past, or will face in the future.

John Caldwell



Feb 27, 2014 at 08:06 PM
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