Andreas Feininger’s striking 1951 portrait of what, at first glance, might be a cowled cyborg—complete with mismatched lenses for eyes—is one of LIFE magazine’s most recognizable and frequently reproduced pictures. It’s one of those photographs that we feel we’ve known all our lives.
In fact, though, most of us likely know very little about why or how the photo came to be.
The picture first appeared in LIFE in a June 1955 issue of the magazine, a full four years after it was made. The partially obscured face in the photo belongs to a young Army veteran and photographer named Dennis Stock (1928 – 2010), who himself would go on to a storied, decades-long career behind the camera. The brief but telling text that accompanied this and a few other Feininger pictures in that 1955 issue explained why Feininger made the picture:
LIFE photographer Andreas Feininger is a meticulous and patient craftsman who sometimes spends months thinking about a story before taking the first picture. [After shooting the Dennis Stock portrait] Feininger had to set the picture aside to take up other assignments. But in the back of his mind he kept thinking about making a set of stylized portraits to show how the instruments men use at their work and play often become an almost indivisible part of the men themselves.
Whenever he had some free time between other stories, Feininger added one picture at a time to his collection of masked men until he was satisfied that he had done what he set out to do.
Meanwhile, in John Loengard’s indispensable book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw (Bulfinch Press, 1998), the 85-year-old Feininger sheds light on how the picture was made, telling Loengard that he “had to get a picture of this person and, frankly, didn’t quite know what to do.”
But then we played around with lights and [Stock] said, “Why don’t you try just a spotlight?” Okay, so I got a spotlight. And I focused on him and immediately saw the power of this picture. He came up with a camera, and I said ‘Hold it, hold it.’
And there it was. In a way, we did that together. We worked together on getting the picture.
It should have made a cover. Some people at LIFE thought it would be the best cover ever, and others said, “It’s gruesome! We can’t have it.” As usual, the wrong people won.
[NOTE: Click thumbnail above for a larger version of a contact sheet from Feininger’s 1951 portrait session with Stock.]
Andreas Feininger died in February 1999; Dennis Stock died in 2010. Their photographs, including more than a few of the most celebrated pictures of the 20th century, can be found in galleries and major museums around the world.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Feininger’s portrait of Stock did, eventually, make for a great cover. It’s the image that graces the front of Loengard’s What They Saw.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.