It’s drummed into us from the first time in front of the camera – “Smile!” And if you can’t smile, say “Cheese”. One photographer finally says “No!” Is this a Truman Show moment that lifts the veils on a photographic convention? Or the Christmas Grinch getting in some early bad tidings?
Photographer Rodney Smith recalls in his blog The End Starts Here how his teenage daughter Savannah reminded him that as a young child, he always asked her not to smile in front of the camera. While all her friends wear smiles in their photos Savannah looks resolutely neutral.
And Smith remembers why, in all his portraits of executives and Captains of Industry, their first instinct was to smile, while in his sittings of artists, poets writers and the like he would tell them that smiling is a “false sentiment.” That while smiling is part of the general vernacular culture of America, and actually most shop retail encounters across the world (“enjoy!”) it is a misleading expression of emotion.
“Laughter is real.” he writes. “Anger, joy, resentment, frustration are powerful and meaningful sentiments to be expressed. But because of this people do not want to share what lies within, so instead let’s lie without with a smile.”
Smith cites great portraiture in the history of painting, from Titian to Rembrandt to Velazquez, where the sitter is strictly neutral.
Yet there may be practical and cultural reasons as to why facial expressions in great portraits are so unexpressive: ranging from the number of sittings a subject might have, to the number of hours keeping the same expression, to the equivalence we make between a serious face, inner wisdom and emotional honesty.
In his 1891 work “The Studio and what to do in it”, H.P. Robinson refers to sculptor John Gibson who considered a smile as frivolous.
“The old masters represent men thinking, and women tranquil; the Greeks the same. Therefore, the past race of portraits in paint and in marble look more like a superior class of beings. How often have I heard the remark, ‘Oh! he looks so serious.’ But the expression that is meant to be permanent should be serious and calm.”
Robinson continues, “This is true enough of the expressions of men, but I cannot help feeling that the cheerful expressions of ladies and children are their best, especially when they are educed with such art as to appear perfectly natural; indeed, some of the most delightful portraits of children represent them in a very happy frame of mind.”
So women, and children, are best when looking cheery? Men are serious? The history and politics of the ‘smile’ in portrait photos. Rodney Smith is taking on the history of portraiture in the photo of his daughter.
What do you think? Have we confused ‘seriousness’ with ‘honesty’? Is the ‘smile’ a fake expression? Or is it simply a social currency that helps spread a little human warmth?
Thanks to A Photo Editor