by Fred Stein
The camera makes no distinction between famous people and a nobody, between a good friend and a complete stranger, when the shutter opens. But the man behind the camera is influenced by the great moment when he is eye to eye to the important person. Then, the atmosphere acts upon his behavior, forms the kind of conversation, and, consequently, determines the expressions of his subject, too. Sometimes, with celebrities, you are just a spectator of a performance that goes on without even noticing you. All the better!
Must you get an assignment to approach people who are in the spotlight? Or, is it even better, in a certain way, to have the complete freedom of working as it pleases you to do, not dependent upon an editor’s frozen standard, and, thus, eventually getting a “different” picture?
As a free-lance photographer I made the following portraits, none on assignment:
Thomas Mann. The Nobel Prize winner of Literature was honored to become a consultant to the Library of Congress in Washington. Hearing that he was coming to New York, I call upon his former Berlin publisher to be introduced. I am. Conversation, of course, is an inherent part of my efforts to loosen the atmosphere. I make a few close-ups so the subject feels something is being done. I start building up a representative pose, sitting him at his desk. Then I induce him to go through the different motions of writing and reading, watching what and how I may make use of it. This knowledge is translated immediately after into a selected pose.
As Thomas Mann’s motions are very measured, I use for most of the pictures floodlights. For the one shown here I use the light from the window (another opposite light source is a window to the left of the desk, opposite to Mr. Mann, not visible in the picture) and one No. 2 floodlight, to the left of the camera, to brighten up part of the head and the right hand. I use the full opening of the lens (Zeiss Tessar F:3.5 for 1/5th of a second on Kodak Super XX. Automatic Rolleiflex).
The head, I carefully centered in the window, like a kind of framing, in order to draw his characteristic profile clear enough even for a bad newspaper reproduction. I was sure that the effort and the material expenses going into the making of such pictures – besides the excitement of the creative activity and the close contact with an extraordinary personality – are a good investment. A few days later I sold to Alfred Knapp, his American publisher of “Magic Mountain,” the picture for use on a book jacket.
Arnold Zweig. By a chance I find out that Arnold Zweig on a European trip has come to Paris, where I then lived. Zweig is an internationally known German novelist, now in exile in Palestine. The most famous of his works is his anti-war novel “Sergeant Grisha.”
I get in touch with him, referring to the previously done portraits of other well-reputed writers, and I make a triple promise: It will not take much of your time; none of your money; and on the contrary, you will get a few pictures for nothing. (But I must mention that these gratuitous pictures carry a stamp on the back that excludes any publication or reproduction without my written permission – otherwise I would make an unfair competition against myself.)
Armed with my Leica (Summar F:2) and a few floodlights on lamp-stands, I arrive. But nothing doing. Arnold Zweig was almost blind. His glasses terrorize me. It is impossible to use the lamps – he is unwilling to step out into the street. I have to use the daylight streaming through the window of his hotel room. But either it is too dark or the reflections of the window show in the glasses. There is no way out. That determines me to make full use of these reflections – to build the glasses into the composition of the picture, thus giving a hint to something very characteristic for Arnold Zweig.
There is another part of the composition I should like to dwell upon. I have time to influence the subject, unlike in a meeting where I have to take what offers itself, eventually visualizing in advance a certain action, and then patiently waiting for it. I brought along a few photographs of people I knew Zweig will know. Thereby I get good contact with him. I watch him holding them very close to his eyes to study some details. That gives me the idea to make him write a few lines. His head bends down more than usual, giving still more importance to his forehead, emphasized by his baldness. I use this and the cropping – to show nothing but his head – that people shall feel: Here is one of our greatest minds. (F2, 1/8th of a second on Panatomic X). To show a man is a thinker, emphasize the head in your portrait. If he is a farmer, or a worker, emphasize his general build.
Louis Fischer. At a public meeting in the New York School for Social Research in New York, I present myself to the Chairman, asking permission to take photographs during the meeting. (For that purpose, it is good to have a recommendation, if not by another person, then carry samples of your own work.) I choose my seat so as to have headquarters close to the platform. Before actually starting making pictures I study the different personalities in order to acquaint myself with typical attitudes. All of a sudden, I am aware that Louis Fischer, the renowned editor of The Nation, (author of “Empire,” “Men of Politics,” the man who stayed a week with Gandhi), has left his seat on the platform to sit down in an almost hidden corner where he takes a little nap. After a few minutes I follow him there: This seems to me so human – the tired, overworked reporter who sleeps in a chair. At a distance of about three yards, my flash goes off. He wakes up, I apologize; he smilingly asks me to forget this picture. He continues sleeping, unmolested now. That has a good effect on him, he returns to his chair, listens attentively to another speaker, like an Indian I approach again, and that is my second shot at four feet. Finally, it is his turn to speak. He fulminates, I watch him quite some while from my seat and I am almost decided to make one of those shots from below where you get an exaggeratedly mighty body, but I instantly feel that it would result in an extremely unimportant small head and shouldn’t be done unless I wished to make a caricature. Therefore, I climb on the platform.
After the end of the meeting, somebody calls upon me. He has watched me making the third picture of Fischer and criticizes: “You were too much to the side, almost behind the speaker – if I had had a camera, I would certainly have done better.” I explain to him: Fischer didn’t gesticulate much; mostly he kept his hands on his back. That gave a strong emphasis to his words. And to show this, I had to be almost behind him, waiting for his face to turn somewhat in my direction, so as to get both his hands and his profile in my field of view.
All three pictures were made with a Rolleiflex (automatic), synchronized flash – Press 40- one bulb off the camera, lens openings in relation to the distance, according to the manufacturer’s instructions. For this kind of work I use the fastest film (Kodak Super XX or Agfa Superpan Press).
Romain Rolland. This master of French, of World Literature – now believed dead after having been taken to a Nazi concentration camp, a patriarch of far more than 80 years! – used to live in Switzerland. One day in 1936, I read in a newspaper article that he is incognito in Paris and, the evening before, attended one of his plays getting a powerful ovation. I try everything to find out his address, without success. In the evening, before going home, I have an inspiration: to contact the director of the play.
After being told a lot of stories, I finally get him to confess: Romain Rolland has promised to come up to the stage again this night before leaving Paris in the early morning. I see my chance, especially glad to have the stage spotlights at my disposal as my equipment consisted only of my Leica with Summar F:2 lens, a tripod and cable release, a piece of about seven exposures of Panatomic film still in the camera. As the director really did not know when Rolland might come and as, above all, I should not miss him, there was no other way than to stay patiently. I was afraid the small piece of film might not be sufficient, but there were no stores open any more.
Time went on. The end of the play. The theater empties. I get hold of the director: Sorry, Rolland was among the spectators, but now he is in the foyer with the leading actor, for a few moments. I rush there – I am desperate. Not only no spotlights there, but it must be the darkest spot of the whole building where he is sitting. In the case of any other person I just would have stepped close to him, asking him politely to facilitate my taking the picture at a more opportune place. But this was the first and only time I did not dare mutter such a request. Around this man I felt a fine atmosphere of something that must be saintliness. Everybody is whispering. All I can do is bring the camera as close as possible. I try to focus, but it is not light enough to use the range finder. I have to make a guess of the distance, put it on one meter, wait for the propitious moment when Rolland listens instead of talking, expose for a second with full lens opening. Every time he moves his head before my second is up I am likely to become crazy. I just gamble with a certain feeling for the length of time I can expect him not to move. Sometimes I win. Let us try it again. Sorry, infinitely sorry, my Leica says. I cannot wind it up. I forgot I only had a small piece of film left in the camera (I had not been prepared to take pictures of him that day).
Desolate, I return home. I develop the underexposed film, convinced only to find confirmation of my bad chance. But there is the picture that again and again was to be published in newspapers and magazines, that is carried –a giant enlargement – as a banner in parades of the French workers, a picture to which contributed an inspiring atmosphere, a patient will, good luck – in spite of a very poor technique.