Smile, please!

p1490840Following up some of the discussion about my assignment at the Thames Valley Forum, I have been looking at the position of the Smile in current art photography. A question was put to me about why I had photographed my subjects smiling, and had not asked them to stand still and look blankly at the camera. My response was that I had wanted to capture the individuality and spontaneity of the subjects, but clearly this was considered by some to be incorrect, and they argued that the Smile is a mask which detracts from understanding a person. It was time to do some research and find out where the smile sits in current art photography.

Historically, painted portraits tended not to depict people smiling, and there appears to have been a practical reason for this. The teeth of most people were very poor because of lack of dental care and the majority tended to hide this by keeping their mouths shut for paintings. The advent of photography did not change this much, because for many years people needed to remain absolutely still for several seconds while the image was taken, and it is much easier to hold a straight face than to smile. Added to this, having a photographic portrait made was a serious (and initially an expensive) matter, and not something to be diminished by levity. Thus the serious portrait has traditionally been the preserve of the unsmiling. That is the easy bit; things get more complicated in recent times.

The idea of smiling for the camera only seems to have appeared in the early 20th century, and Dean (2011) has traced it back to public school photographs. From the start it was perceived as being deceitful and untrustworthy; the smile was seen as being a mask which hid the true nature of a subject. By opening their mouths and crinkling their eyes, subjects could pretend that everything was just fine, even when it wasn’t. Morris (2002) argues that the smile has evolved from pre-language appeasement gestures, and that it is now one of the most complex facial gestures that humans make, with a multiplicity of meanings, ranging from happiness to nervousness, friendliness to superciliousness. Correctly interpreting the meaning of a smile can make the difference between a successful and a disasterous encounter with a new acquaintance.Furthermore, the smile is easily open to misinterpretation, and often used as a sign indicating lack of mental faculty .


© Roger Ballen

From early on, art photographers have shied away from the smile, and my understanding is that there are two reasons for this. Firstly, the smile has connotations of snapshots rather than serious photographs, people laughing on holiday for their friends back home, even if they were having a miserable time. Equally, the smile is ubiquitous in advertising, and is often associated with sentimentality, forced bonhomie and superficiality, so for photographers trying to differentiate themselves from this type of photography, a more serious demeanour in their subjects is helpful. I can understand this concern, but have a niggling feeling that there is a similarity between these ideas and the snobbery about colour and digital photography which was eventually overcome, and which allowed a significant expansion in creativity as a result.

The second reason is more complex. Diane Arbus talked about how her photography attempted to capture the gap between what the sitter hoped they would look like and what the photographer observed. Similarly, Joyce Tennison opined “we hide our bodies [with clothes] but our faces are naked and exposed.” Roland Barthes talked about how he became different when in front of the camera, and felt himself starting to ‘pose’, without consciously thinking about it. This makes for a very complex transaction between the photographer and the subject, with as Angier argues, the expert photographer trying to capture the individuality of the subject in an off-guard moment. Trying to sneak a peek behind the mask, as it were. He suggests as an exercise that we find a willing sitter, who should sit facing the camera and just look at it for an hour, while the photographer waits to press the shutter at the exact moment when the mask slips and their true nature is revealed. As an idea, this sounds potentially interesting, but also horribly dull for both participants. There is a feeling , articulated by Dijkstra, that this moment when the mask slips is about purity, something essential about human beings. Her images exude personality so she maybe has a point.


© Rineke Dijkstra

Moving forward, Thomas Ruff is the acknowledged grandfather of the current trend for a blank, expressionless stare. Ruff did his photography training under the Bechers, and consequently his portraits are minimalist and straightforward, in the manner of a passport photograph. This was a quite deliberate harking back to typology and the New Topographic movement, although Ruff has admitted that the images are heavily posed and his subjects prepped about how they should stand and what they should wear, so the concept of them being truly honest portraits is difficult to accept. Ruff argued that the blank expression is the ‘normal’ expression that people wear when they are not under scrutiny, and therefore it is a truer representation of them than any other expression or pose.


Thomas Ruff’s portraits


We now seem to have got to a stage where any sign of subjectivity or emotion has been erased from the portrait. The blank stare is understood to limit any possible subjectivity of feeling on the part of the photographer, and to allow the viewer to make his/her own assumptions about the sitter, based on his/her own experiences of life and any background context that the photographer provides, i.e. identification and projection. Everyone is beginning to look the same and individuality/personality is being minimised in what appears to be an attempt to achieve authenticity, purity and the unmasking the ‘real’ human persona, the essence if you like. (Dean, 2011) However, it is difficult to square this with Bate’s (2009)  observations that the portrait is a transaction between the photographer and the sitter, with each trying to gain supremacy over the other, but with the ball weighted towards the photographer. The whole process is inherently personal and individualistic, and two photographers photographing the same individual are highly unlikely to produce identical work, as each inevitably imbues it with his/her own context and personality.

I have some issues with this view of the world. The first is that a portrait is supposed to be about the sitter, and if all traces of the individuality of the sitter are removed, is it a portrait any longer, or a piece of constructed photography? Secondly, we as humans are innately emotional. To remove any visual traces of emotion from a portrait not only makes it less interesting to view, but also reduces us all to typologies which only have value when seen as part of a set. Finally, can it not be argued that the blank stare is as much of a mask as the smile? Both are covering up the real feelings of the sitter. The smile though, is more mysterious and begs for interpretation, while the stare gives nothing away.

There have been a small number of recent attempts to reinstate the smile in art photography, notably Dean’s work Smile: a polemic on fine art portraiture (2011) and Amanda Smith’s 2012 attempt to curate an exhibition in Texas on the subject of the Smile. Neither was very successful, and Dean seems to have given up photography work altogether. It seems that the art world is not yet ready to shift its perspective on the idea of the smile as a kitsch, superficial hook which is only acceptable in the advertising world. I have just looked through the latest edition (issues 7852)  of the British Journal of Photography, which is devoted to portraiture, and it seems that emotional expression is slowly beginning to permeate art photography again, and in my opinion that can only be a good thing.


Angier, R. (2007) Train your gaze: a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography. AVA Publishing.

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: the key concepts. Bloomsbury.

Morris, D. (1977) People watching. London: Vintage.


21 thoughts on “Smile, please!

  1. Catherine

    thanks for that – I now feel more informed. I agree with your final sentence. Have also been thinking that one might just as well photograph someone lying down with their eyes closed. Good point as well regarding the blank stare being just as much a mask.


    1. Holly Woodward Post author

      I suppose the idea of the blank stare is to make the image general rather than specific. However, it seem to me that the point of a portrait is to be specific, about that person at any rate. One can learn so much more about him/her if emotion and body language are allowed. It goes back to John’s comment at TVF about the portrait being about the photographer, not the sitter. I can’t help feeling that the sitter must feel a bit cheated in this transaction.


      1. Holly Woodward Post author

        Thanks for that. Yet more policing of women’s emotions. Bring on the Stepford Wives. I will pass the reference on to Kate, who has said in another comment that she is also looking at the smile, but from the female submissive point of view.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Kate

    oh this is interesting and slightly weird – my EYV assignment 2 is about smiles and also started out with the title “Smile please” though I’d changed it to either “Grin & bear it” or “Smile love, it might never happen”. I wanted to look at how smiles are often requested on demand, generally from girls and women, and explore around how we smile when we’re not smiling on the inside. It’s such an interesting area, especially if you look at the many musical references to smiling as well. I’m definitely coming back to this blog post, thank you.


  3. Judy Bach

    Great post Holly . Have a look @ Petapixel – I tried to copy the link but can’t seem to do it – series called ‘Smiles don’t get old’ taken in a nursing home .


  4. teresalanham

    Hi Holly interesting blog. I think the most interesting photographs are where the photographer has lived with the subject/s for some time as you then get a sequence of images when hopefully they’ve forgotten the photographer is around to a large extent (like some of Dyanita Singhs work or Nan Goldin. Otherwise even in an hour you must still have a mask – maybe a little more relaxed but that’s all. Also how can one photograpgjh really do justice to someone in any fuller way than the ‘best’ shot you can get on the day even with all the tricks and skill an experienced photographer can bring to bear. Just a thought.


    1. Holly Woodward Post author

      Good points, Teresa. Having just received Bown’s Faces book, it seems to me that most people wear a mask most of the time. It’s only when we feel unobserved that our face and body language is totally natural, hence the enthusiasm for the Unaware.


  5. Pingback: Assignment 1 – tutor feedback | Holly's OCA I&P Blog

  6. Simon Chirgwin

    The best (or at any rate most believable) explanation I’ve ever had for the reason people do not smile in public in Russia is that, if you walk around smiling all day, you’re obviously too stupid to realise the seriousness of the state of everything…

    In photographic terms though, I think you’re quite right about a straight face being as much of a mask as any other expression is, and one that’s harder to undercut, to boot. At least with a smile, you can check if there’s a gap between what the eyes are doing and the behaviour of the mouth. A poker face, if well maintained gives no such clues…

    (And also I wonder if smiling will go out of fashion in the UK again, now that free dentistry has become a thing of the past?)


    1. Holly Woodward Post author

      Lol, Stephen. There’s a lot of truth in the Russian joke. And you may well be right about future British portraits, although I think the selfie generation is not as hung up on looking good for the camera as previous ones were.



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