Following 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.