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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