One of my favorite photographers — not just portrait photographers, but photographers, period — is Richard Avedon. His work, of course, is incredible. But what I might appreciate even more than the work itself is his philosophy and perspective toward photography and portraiture.
Avedon believed that you can’t possibly show or reveal the “trueness” of a person in a single photograph. Instead, you are capturing just a small fragment or piece of that person.
The “truth” is a fallacy. No, it would actually be more accurate to say the “truth” is a construct. A good portrait photographer will come to a session with an idea or concept of what they’re trying to bring out of the subject. The photographer should be trying to show, reveal or elicit a particular response. It’s almost like an orchestration on the part of the photographer, and, in a sense, a performance by his or her subject.
This is not to say that the photograph should be a fabrication. But it is a creation, and it’s a creation rooted in something inside the subject. It’s the photographer’s job to identify that something, and reveal it in a way that’s photographically interesting. The portrait, moreover, is the work and product of the photographer, not the subject, Avedon felt.
So while a good portrait might provide a true glimpse of someone, it’s not “the truth.” There is no single, standalone “truth.”