Do you have a go-to flattering pose you strike when an iPhone rears its camera lens? This is one of many human proclivities that photographer Dr Marcel Sternberger masterfully maneuvered in his sitters during his career in portraiture, in his search for authenticity, revelation and spontaneity. We love Jacob Lowentheil’s new retrospective on his work, The Psychological Portrait, which chronicles images of his (many a famous) sitters that deftly penetrate their public-facing veneer.

Sternberger, whose career spanned the decades 1930-1950, was less interested in the fixed character of a subject’s face than its fleeting expression, and less interested in fame and bravado than humility and honesty. In this way, he presented many icons, such as Frida Kahlo, Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, with rarely seen candour and vulnerability. Wheedling this out of a sitter involves a nuanced methodology that’s detailed throughout the book, with the help of many anecdotes of his time spent behind the camera.

Before sitting for Sternberger, playwright George Bernard Shaw obstinately said that he would not purchase any pictures, but after viewing the negatives, requested 50 copies of a single portrait. In the images, his stern disposition is betrayed by complex flickers of fighting emotions, laughter, pensiveness, bemusement, that carry a true intimacy.

We particularly love the series of portraits of artist Diego Rivera, who breaks free of his controlled facade in a series of absurd and liberated facial contortions, grimacing, rolling back his eyes, and, best of all, nailing a classic selfie-duck-face pout.

The Psychological Portrait by Jacob Lowentheil and published by Rizzoli is out now and available online at Waterstones.

Text by Kinza Shenn