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Philippe Halsman: Focus on Myself [EN]


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Working closely with Philippe Halsman Archive, New York, the Magazine publishes an excerpt from Focus on Myself, a previously unpublished typescript by Philippe Halsman. In this short autobiographical essay written in the late 1960s, Halsman tells the story of his photographic career. The last pages, reproduced here, are devoted to the portrait, his favorite genre and a constant source of reflection on the photographic medium. Halsman addresses the different stages in the making of a portrait, evoking the power of invention, the question of style but also some technical aspects, with the ultimate hope for the photographer that “his photographic interpretation of a great human being becomes the definitive image of this being.”

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It has been very important and beneficial for me that extraneous projects and magazine assignments continually interrupt my portrait work. A photographer gets stale when his work becomes routine. Instead of discovering new possibilities, he repeats himself. Instead of using his imagination, he uses his experience, i.e., his memory. He is bound to lose his incentive, like the French painter whose specialty was painting nude studies of beautiful women. After several years of this enviable work he sighed: “Why won’t anybody ask me to paint the nude of a beautiful horse?”

Work in various fields of photography has permitted me to return to portraiture with new ideas, with fresh enthusiasm and with even deeper understanding of portraiture’s main problems. Most people consider each photograph of a person as a portrait. However, most amateur snapshots or most so-called “portraits” made by professional studios or even striking photographs by famous photographers are either artificial, or empty or incidental likenesses. A true portrait is something completely different.

To explain what it is, take for example, my photograph, “An American Profile.” Elizabeth Arden needed a color version of this photograph for an ad for her “Victory Red” lipstick, but my picture of Connie Ford was in black and white. Because of this Elizabeth Arden asked her photographer to use my picture as a guide and to got an identical shot of Connie in color. Connie posed two whole days for Elizabeth Arden’s photographer, lying on the American flag and trying to look like my picture. To everybody’s surprise, the photographer did not succeed, and eventually a flexichrome (hand painted) copy of my original picture was used.

Would I, the author of the original photograph, have succeeded in making another identical image? I would have failed too. A human being changes continuously. His thoughts and moods change, his expressions and even his features change. Of a piece of sculpture you can produce identical pictures on two different days. But you cannot do it with a living human being.

And here we come to the crucial problem of portraiture. If the likeness of a human being consists of an infinite number of different images, which one of these images should we try to capture? The obvious – although perhaps naive – answer is: the most important one, the image which reveals most completely the exterior and the interior of the subject. Such a picture is called a portrait. If no other likeness remains of a person, a true portrait should, today and a hundred years from today, be the testimony of how this person looked and what kind of a human being he was. The most perfect examples of such portraits are the self-portraits of Rembrandt.

Every photographer has to decide for himself what is more important for him – to capture the essence of his sitter or to make an interesting photograph. Or in other words: “What is more important, content or style?”

Shortly before World War I the Ballets Russes under Diaghilev came to Paris. Diaghilev became the great innovator and patron of the arts, Stravinsky wrote music for his ballets; Picasso, Bakst, Chagall painted stage sets for him. Jean Cocteau came to him and asked: “What can I do for you?” Diaghilev answered: “Étonne-moi!” (“Astonish me!”)

Since then, one of the main objectives of modern art is to astonish the onlooker. The artist of the Renaissance tried to be good. The modern artist tries to be new. Painters, writers, playwrights – and photographers too – want to astonish, to startle and to shock. Photography is now in a state of revolution, in a sudden explosion of different styles. The photographer of today is competing with hundreds or maybe thousands of other photographers. In order to be noticed he wants to be different. He wants to have his own style. He argues: “In painting, the style of the artist is of paramount importance – the subject is inconsequential.” In painting when you speak of a portrait, you say: “This is a Van Dyke, a Velasquez, a Modigliani.” The same should be true in photography. And so the photographer worries whether he has found his style.

I have often heard a young photographer tell me: “I am still looking for my own style.” What it usually means “I still did not find a gimmick that no one has used before.” But a gimmick is only a mannerism, and here I want to draw the line between mannerism and style. Most people confuse the two. Mannerism is something you apply to your work; style is something that you inwardly are.

Tolstoy had style. But he prayed every day: “God help me to write simpler.” It is easy to imitate a mannerism. But in order to imitate Tolstoy’s style you have to be like Tolstoy. You must have his philosophy, his depth, his honesty, his doubts, his emotions.

There is nothing wrong with tricks, gimmicks or mannerisms; they have produced exciting pictures and have sometimes helped the photographer to achieve immediate success. But this presents a great danger. Everybody imitates the successful formula. It becomes a cliché, and seeing it over and over again eventually bores the public to death. The very thing which catapulted the photographer to success drags him down to oblivion. To stay aloft he must from time to time invent a new mannerism. Only a few photographers of great talent have succeeded in doing this.

However, when a photographer who is mainly interested in leaving the stamp of his own style on each of his photographs attempts portraiture, he runs into an impasse. The more his personality permeates the picture, the less you find in it the personality of the sitter. The question arises: What is more important for the photographer, to make a striking photograph or to make a revealing portrait?

There are no general rules in photography. Everyone has to solve his problems alone. All I can tell you is how I solve mine. When I take a photograph of a person I feel that I have the right to use any trick, gimmick or mannerism. But then I don’t have the right to call it a portrait. However, when I try to take a true portrait I don’t try to express my own personality. I only try to capture the personality of the sitter.

The personality of the sitter? The essence of a human being? What makes the photographer qualified to recognize the essence of a human being? We see an interesting paradox. While the professional competence of an engineer makes him a good engineer, the professional competence of a photographer makes him only a good photographic technician. Only if he is an observing and sensitive person can he understand and size up another human being. The deeper you are, the deeper your photography. Therefore my advice to a young photographer is: more important than your development of technical knowledge is your development as a human being.

But let us assume that our photographer has all the necessary qualities. Then arises the gravest problem of portraiture: What is the essence of a human being? The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: “Panta rhei” – (“Everything flows”) – you cannot step in the same river twice, because it will not be the same water. In short, everything constantly changes. Tolstoy did not believe in characterization at all. “How can we say,” he asked “that Ivan is courageous or that Piotr is a liar, when we know that tomorrow Ivan might run away and Piotr might tell us the truth?”

Do I share the opinion of these thinkers who deny the very existence of what I want to capture? To be honest: yes? I believe they are right. Like them, I believe that many of the things that we take for granted are senseless or unfathomable or maybe simply don’t exist.

In physics and in biology, when we probe into the deepest mysteries of life or matter, we recognize that we don’t have the ultimate answer. As in these sciences, the photographer has to make a number of assumptions in order to bring order out of an apparent chaos. Consequently I assume that there is something called character and that its most important features form the essence of personality.

If we could capture these features we would get the perfect portrait. But it is impossible to sum up a complex personality in one single image. We know that Einstein loved to laugh, but it is more significant to show him in serious thought. Churchill, certainly, had his moments of weakness, but it is his strength that we remember.

Suppose I have made my choice and know the character features I want to capture. But how should I proceed? The subject is there: usually tense, self-conscious, unnatural, sometimes annoyed and impatient, sometimes actually frightened. The photographer faces him in a completely artificial situation.

Some candid photographers stay with their subjects for days and weeks. The subject eventually forgets their presence and becomes himself again. However, what I get usually is a so-called “portrait sitting.” It might last from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. It is up to me to relax the subject or to provoke a reaction, which transforms the unnatural confrontation of subject and camera into a natural encounter of two people.

As a rule, I try to be alone with my subjects. Usually a silent assistant – on trips it is often my wife, Yvonne who helps me. In this way it becomes a very intimate situation. Sometimes I am absolutely quiet in order not to disturb a mood. Sometimes I try to be stimulating. Through conversation I try to put the subject in the frame of mind I want to capture. Sometimes I grope, sometimes an accident helps, and I feel the resistance disappear. For a moment the subject forgets that he is in front of a camera. He is there as he really is, caught in a moment of truth.

But here is an important parenthesis. It is insufficient to capture only one single quality. Suppose you want to show that your subject is radiant, but all you get is a happy grin. It might be a strong photograph but it will be a weak portrait. If you hang it on the wall, you will get tired of this grin after a couple of days. You can look, however, at Mona Lisa’s smile again and again, because there is so much besides her smile. And the smile is such that on different days it will mean different things to you. This is the essence of a work of art: you don’t touch bottom. If a picture has exactly the same meaning for everybody, it is a platitude and is meaningless as a work of art. The same is true of a portrait: if it is not deep in character and meaning, it is a poor portrait.

But let us suppose that we have succeeded in some measure in capturing the essence of our subject. The new problem is: How to show what we have captured? The picture that we have snapped is our statement about the personality of the sitter. How should this statement be presented?

I believe in utmost honesty. I don’t want to impose my ideas on my subjects by forcing them into unfamiliar poses, changing the tilt of their heads or arranging their hands. I want them to be as they are. But I want to make my statement also with clarity and strength. For instance, I don’t consider lighting as something one measures with a light meter in order to find the right exposure. I want my light to be so that in a two-dimensional print it gives us the feel of the third dimension, that it shows volume and depth. However, above all, I consider light as a means of characterization. Light can be soft and it can be harsh. It would be foolish to weaken the strength of a face with flat and diffused light or to use dramatic lighting to show a tender and peaceful expression.

The camera angle is another means of characterization. With a high camera angle we can emphasize the brow of a thinker; with a low camera angle, we can emphasize a boxer’s jaw. In a woman’s face we can emphasize the eyes – the symbol of her soul, or we can emphasize the mouth – the symbol of her senses. With a low camera angle we can accentuate the height of a person: with a high angle, his shortness.

Each step – the cropping of the picture, the contrast of the printing paper, the dodging in printing, even the tilting of the picture axis – in short, everything introduces psychological overtones into a portrait. One must be sure that each step reinforces the statement, instead of weakening it.

Michelangelo speaking of his work said: “Quanto sangue costa!” (“How much blood it costs!”). How often, looking at a finished portrait have I – without being a Michelangelo – thought of his words. Most people don’t understand it. What is so difficult about snapping the photograph of a face? They will notice the sharpness of a pore, but not the depth of an expression. Fortunately there are some people who are more interested in the sharpness of the photographer’s perception than in the sharpness of his lens. They recognize that a photographic portrait can be a great human document, and that the truth, beauty and emotional impact of this document can lift it to the level of a work of art.

And sometimes the photographer achieves the greatest reward of all: his photographic interpretation of a great human being becomes the definitive image of this being. A portrait that you have created becomes the very form in which he will live in history for future generations.

Philippe Halsman
© 2015 Philippe Halsman Archive

Exhibition “Philippe Halsman. Astonish Me!” at Jeu de Paume, Paris
Halsman : the selection of our bookstore
Philippe Halsman Archives, New York