A Smile Is Just A Smile

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"So!  Did you like any of the pictures?" I asked.

"He's not smiling," she replied, sounding somewhere between surprised and disappointed.  The response startled me.

I thought, "This is portraiture.  Have you noticed that no one smiles?"

In classical paintings, including those by artists into the twentieth century, the subject is almost never portrayed as smiling.  And, the same is true of the subjects in most of the world's important photographs.  We can all call-to-mind Karsh's image of an almost petulant Churchill, or his somber Hemingway or serene Einstein.  And I'll bet nobody looks at the Mona Lisa and says to himself, "If I were painting her, there would be a real smile!"

There is a short explanation.  Anyone who is serious about creating portraits is greatly influenced by the cultural force of thousands of great images.  And, unconsciously, when creating, the artist paints using the language which formed him.

So how did it get that way?

Portraits must have been influenced by the lengthy creation process.  Before fast film and strobe lights, sitting for a portrait took time.  In fact, for painting, a sitting could be broken into several sessions, with each session lasting at least an hour.

It's impossible to hold anything like a genuine smile for more than a few seconds.  There is a certain animation required to support a smile.  As soon as a subject settles into comfort, the smile will dissolve into a serene gaze.

Even the early days of photography were limited in that way.  Subjects would be expected to stay very still for twenty or thirty seconds.  A good smile under those circumstances would challenge the best of performers.

Of course, we can guess that, in centuries past, people who wanted to look good took care not to show their teeth.  Only the science of modern dentistry has given all people white shining smiles.  Our ancestors suffered from rotting, discoloured, misshapen teeth, regardless of their social standing.  So they learned to be pleasant without smiling.

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Self-Portrait by Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun

Élisabeth-Louise Vigée-Le Brun (16 April 1755 – 30 March 1842) was a French painter, and is recognized as the most famous woman painter of the eighteenth century.

We have to remember, also, that social behaviour is influenced by cultural factors which may be subtle or even hidden from us.  In the period just before the French Revolution, the talented and famous artist, Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun, painted a self-portrait showing a warm toothy smile, and with that painting she scandalized French society.  One contemporary wrote "[This is an] affectation which artists, art lovers and persons of taste have been united in condemning and which finds no precedent among the ancients, is that in smiling [Mme Vigée-Lebrun] shows her teeth." And, "This affectation is particularly out of place in a mother."

One might argue that dentistry has changed our appearances and social forces have changed what is considered to be appropriate behaviour.  These days, smiling is important, even expected, at least in North American cultures.  It seems, however, that cultural forces still strongly influence portraiture.

That guy in the advertisement for the Armani suit!  Why is he not smiling like the cat that swallowed the canary?  And why is the girl in the similar ad, looking out, or away, almost balefully.

One theory is that the person in the ad is to be envied.  And, it is assumed, the reader aspires to be envied.  An unfocussed look indicates that the model isn't paying attention to you--she's too important to do that.  If, however, you buy the product, you too can become important and enviable.  The distance between the onlooker and the image can only be closed by acquiring enviable things.

Certainly there are many advertisments which contain photographs of models who are smiling.  But look at the products.  When they are not children's products, they are inexpensive, and often totally unenviable.  Of course you have to smile to sell soap.  The guy holding the expensive crystal glass with vodka, on the other hand, is to be envied.

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Samuel Beckett

This is Richard Avedon's shot of Samuel Beckett. 

I have several books of Avedon photographs; I can generally say that his photographs are not of smiling people. 

Especially later in his career Avedon used a stark white background almost exclusively.  He philosophized that by stripping away every distraction, and using no neutral support tones, he was challenged to produce a shot that really represented his subject.

Another theory is that smiling indicates submissiveness and lower status.  Timothy Ketelaar, in a blog entry entitled, Solved-The-Mystery-of-TheMiserable-Models, writes, While we typically think of a smile as displaying our emotional state (happiness), it also appears that smiles convey information about the signaller’s status.  Specifically, lower status individuals appear to smile more than higher status individuals.  I suspect that this is due, in part, to the fact that there are several different types of smiles, including a true happiness smile and a true embarrassment smile.  The latter smile, the embarrassment display, is often seen as an appeasement display in primates."

Also, in this vein, even less artistically savvy viewers will see a portrait with a serious-looking subject as being more substantial than a work in which the subject is smiling.  A smiling subject reduces the status, the substance and the value of a work.  Or so our cultural sub-conscious tells us.

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This shot always reminds me of Richard Avedon's shot of Samuel Beckett. 

For photographers, these understandings can be distilled in a few guidelines.  Remember that you have the cultural forces of centuries leaning on your to use your language of imagery in a certain way.  When you photograph smiles, remember that we are still treading on uncertain ground.

Having said that, we know the practical side of doing a shoot.  When shooting a portrait, give in, at least for a little while, to the expectation that you are going to take pictures of smiles.  That will get it out of the way. 

Then spend time trying to get the good stuff.  Serenity in a gaze has all the warmth of a smile, and maybe more.  While a smile is one expression in a repertoire, there are many more expressions that will have at least as much meaning and be more enduring when the photograph is on the wall.

Posted September 30, 2010 at 12:15 pm.