Smiles in portraits? That’s so cliché!

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 🙂

Update: Blake Andrews post something along these lines a couple of days after I wrote this post.  Also, see the Utata thread where other utatans discussed the issue.


10 responses to “Smiles in portraits? That’s so cliché!

  1. You pose an interesting question. But your arguments seem really wilful and wayward.

    We smile for the camera because we want to. We want to invite and engage the viewer. It is a very natural response. And it has been the aim of many fine photographers to capture that positive, fleeting response for a long, long time.

    A smile, of course, is a reaction and non-smiling portraits sometimes can seem more inward, reflective, soulful. They can seem more truthful or authentic. If you look through the archives of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize (judged from the National Portrait Gallery, London) you will see almost no smiles, except the Steve McQueen’s exaggerated grimace for Chris Floyd (2008).

    If smiles become fixed, they not only feel like a grimace but they will look like a grimace. But even the cheapest modern camera equipment makes truly relaxed and even great candid portraits quite easy to achieve – provided the photographer has the necessary people skills.

    There is a “pressure to be happy” and much of life (weddings, holidays, but also much of everyday life) might seem organised with the aim of producing an impressive “album” for public consumption.

    But don’t denigrate the mystery and beauty of a simple smile…

  2. Denigrate the beauty of a smile? Far from it! 🙂 I treasure it and that’s why think its ubiquitousness cheapens it in portraiture.

    “We smile for the camera because we want to” – that’s where I am trying to go; explore why we actually want to. Not everyone from every culture or time period wants it. So it’s not really a natural desire.

  3. I agree with you. Not every portrait need be ingrained with a fake smile. Although know what I love? Capturing the beauty of a real, genuine laugh. That ALWAYS makes me smile when I see it captured.

  4. Yes 🙂 But that wouldn’t be a formal portrait 🙂 It would be candid, no?

    Thank you for stopping by and I am glad that I discovered your blog! There aren’t many photography blogs that also have great words in them. I am starting a blogroll and am going to list yours in it!

  5. comment by Shirley Wajda elsewhere:
    Here’s what I’ve written about the smile in my forthcoming book on portrait photography in the United States:

    Scholars and others have attributed the paucity of smiling sitters in extant nineteenth-century daguerreotypic and photographic portraiture to fear of the process, or to lengthy exposure times, or even to bad teeth. All are to varying degrees and in various examples true. Nevertheless, news of daguerreotypy was quickly and broadly spread in the 1840s; Americans read of its invention and processes in popular periodicals and newspapers, attended lectures and demonstrations, and visited daguerreotypists’ rooms, if only to marvel at the specimens. If visitors elected to sit for their portraits, they found, in the 1840s and 1850s, that the once-lengthy exposure times had been greatly reduced, due to improvements in lens, chemicals, and daguerreotypists’ expertise—even when it came to bad teeth. Some daguerreotypists attended to portraiture and bad teeth. The sciences of daguerreotypy and dentistry coincidentally rose in common practice in the 1840s. In 1845, Dr. S. C. McIntyre informed the “Ladies and Gentlemen of Pensacola” that he had prepared rooms in their city in which to take “colored Photographs in the latest and Most improved style.” The editor of the Pensacola Gazette, endorsing Dr. McIntyre’s “perfect specimens of the beautiful art,” not only advised his readers to visit his rooms, he recommended “to those who may be suffering from decayed teeth, &c., to give Dr. [] an early call, we can from personal knowledge recommend him to the public as a scientific Dentist.”

    Scientific innovation and popular knowledge did not, however, result in an immediate change in notions of human beauty as conveyed through portraiture. Art historian Angus Trumble observes that beauty before the invention of photography did not include a consideration or rendition of the condition of one’s teeth. If teeth (or the intermittent lack thereof) were captured in portraiture, their owners were, using Trumble’s inventory, “dirty old men, misers, drinks, whores, gypsies, people undergoing experiences of religious ecstasy, dwarves, lunatics, monsters, ghosts, the possessed, the damned, and—all together now—tax collectors, many of whom had gaps and holes where healthy teeth once were…. On the whole,” Trumble concludes, “the great traditions of portraiture, eastern and western, tended to conceal most skin ailments and keep the sitter’s mouth firmly shut.”

    So, bad teeth and missing teeth and false teeth did not always ugliness make (although teeth were difficult for artists to draw). Nor may we assume that the condition of one’s mouth prevented most Americans from sitting for their daguerreotypic likenesses (although the condition of one’s mouth could prompt a visit to the daguerreotypist who used his chair for both portraiture and periodontics). What seems a more satisfactory explanation of all the temperate visages in the thousands of extant daguerreotypes is the emphasis on character and the widespread belief that a smile could be as deceitful as it could be friendly. A forced smile was—and is—a false one. “A smile is an evanescent thing, the play of the moment,” “W.T.”, a earlier Ithaca, New York, writer on daguerreotypy, observed; “now dimpling, now filling and re-dimpling; hold it fast, freeze it on, keep it there for forty seconds, and it is the grin of the idiot.” Psychologists point out that of all human facial expressions, the smile is the one most easily volunteered, no matter a human’s emotional state. To force a smile for the camera was to betray the truth of the moment and risk misunderstanding by viewers of the finished portrait.

    Then again, the use of the smile is linked to an historical culture’s code of decorum: “the smile has always been associated with restraint, with the limitations upon behavior that are imposed upon men and women by the rational forces of civilization …” observes Trumble. “A decorous smile, a smile of restraint, is therefore an important ingredient of good manners, just as the lewd grin has to do with the bad. It can be a kind of mask.” Rather than the spontaneous, broad, teeth-baring smiles made popular in the United States through advertisements in the 1890s and especially after the moving image in the 1920s, the nineteenth-century smile in polite society—and certainly the daguerreotypic portrait was a presentation of the public self—was close-lipped. What modern eyes are blind to in nineteenth-century photographic portraiture is the fact that its subjects were to present, in the era’s code of decorum, a pleasing countenance, the sincere expression of pleasure—the very definition (along with amusement) of the smile. As historian C. Dallett Hemphill observes, advice writers in this period “called for genuine smiles rather than contemptuous expressions, but cautioned against excessive laughter. They warned against distorting the face in any way. … while it was never appropriate to stare at others, one needed to look at those with whom one spoke in order to read their true feelings and intentions. At the same time, one needed to conceal one’s own emotions or, as one author put it, to have ‘perfect command over the utterance of the countenance.’” These portraits present self-possessed individuals—not grinning, nor laughing, nor spontaneous, but calm. Indeed, staring was the problem more often addressed in professional periodicals. Until late in the nineteenth century, Americans portraits in general—whether in oil, pastel, ink, profiles cut by hand, or photographs—overwhelmingly depicted subjects, even children, as self-possessed.

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