We automatically associate the snap of the shutter button with “Say cheese!” Smiling in a portrait is taken for granted; even more, it’s required. Just look at all the pictures uploaded on social media and you’ll recognize what we now call the “facebook picture” genre: people looking into the camera with an unabashed, full-fledged display of happiness. They feel obliged to smile even on their passport pictures, to the point that the State Department currently forbids smiles in passports as they distort features and create difficulties for facial recognition software.
But it wasn’t always this way. And not because people had just not discovered the smile yet. It’s rather that our idea of portrait photography has changed – and I’d add, our idea of self has changed, too.
If you look at paintings from the Renaissance (when the portrait genre was practically invented) up until recently, you’ll rarely see anybody smiling in them. A portrait was a dignified representation of one’s identity and was supposed to show who that person was, through expression, pose, clothing, and objects surrounding him or her. The main goal was to represent the sitter exuding power, confidence, depth, wisdom, beauty, significance. Those were the most important qualities in a person – of the higher class, that is – and somehow smiling was not useful for that, just like any other facial expression, e.g. frowning. Those were considered just fleeting reactions to something happening in a random moment and not the real, lasting traits of a person’s character.
Since photography followed the visual art that came before it, smiles were nowhere to be seen in early photographs either. Yes, it is true that exposure times were rather long. They required the use of arm rests and special contraptions to which the sitter’s head was strapped to make sure no body part moved during the 30 minutes it took to “snap” the photo. A smile could not possibly be held by anyone for that long and they would’ve caused a serious case of blurry face anyway.
But it’s not just the technical difficulty of holding a smile for a long time that prevented “happy” portraits. And it’s not that the lives of people in those times were so hard they couldn’t possibly smile. Or that they had bad teeth. No. Having your portrait done was a serious deal. It was an image that had to represent the calm, dignified, permanent you.
With the advent of lighter, easier cameras, available to every consumer and not just professional photographers, we got the snapshot: the capture of a fleeting moment. Portraits were not a record of someone’s true self anymore, they were records of life in its spontaneity. People could snap pictures of their friends and family in unplanned situations, in which “grimacing” such as smiling or frowning was only to be expected. That was now considered natural.
You’d say that candid pictures snapped with a Kodak or a Brownie are not the same as planned portraits. One was a fleeting moment in someone’s life, the other was the official idea of what a certain person was. Indeed. Formal portraits were still smileless, even though some smiles here and there started to appear. However, the full-force smile-in-a-portrait movement came after WWII, in the 50s.
Two important things happened at that time that changed the concept of a portrait. First, formal portraiture started to imitate spontaneous candid photography and required people to appear as though they were caught in the middle of life. So smiles gradually became a must. Another important change was the commanding place that happiness took in society. The pressure to be happy and, moreover, to display your state of happiness, grew so much that a smile was now considered a normal, permanent trait of a person and not just a reaction or a fleeting moment.
That’s not really natural, in my opinion. Try to hold a smile for a little longer and after a while it does feel like a grimace. Like a grotesque torture. It’s OK in a candid, spontaneous picture, but I have the feeling people in formal portrait are highly uncomfortable with those smiles, frozen forever in their faces through the resulting portrait. And the pressure to be happy is nowhere more evident than around the holidays, so here we have the cliché Christmas photos.
Let’s try to believe that people are happy even if they don’t smile in their portraits 🙂