Elizabeth Clark Libert
We like to hang around shirtless (16 by my count).
And recline when possible (7).
And sometimes we do all four at once.
But a genuine eyes-crinkled openmouthed smile? Humans don't smile. Humans aren't happy.
These portraits make an interesting comparison to greeting cards received over the recent holiday season, which tend to take the opposite approach. Out of 35 family photos we received this year, every single one shows the subjects smiling.
By my count, only one shows a person reclining.
And two cards show people shirtless.
I don't think my examples are exceptional. Each is representative of broader trends. The recent show 100 Portraits — 100 Photographers curated by Larissa Leclair and Andy Adams offers only slightly more cheer than Moments of Being. By my count, 5 out of 100 of these portraits show smiles, most of them thin Mona Lisa smirks that could go either way really. And I'm sure that anyone looking at their own recently received holiday cards will confirm for themselves that smiling is a widespread greeting card strategy.
There seem to be two separate standards. The standard for fine art portraiture is to show an expressionless gaze, while for holiday greeting cards mouths must be upturned. So what's going on here?
I think there's a common supposition in fine-art portraiture that too much emotion can interfere with revelation. To get at someone's true character one needs to dig beyond flitting moods like happiness or brooding. Those get in the way, and in fact it takes work to avoid them. To get the shot you hang around a person. If they happen to be laughing you wait it out, and you certainly don't ask for a smile. Finally when the moment is right, when they're showing nothing, you have them stare at the camera and the image magically shows who they are. That's the idea anyway.
Of course the deadpan gaze isn't new. It goes back to the early days of photographic portraiture (and if you want to drag painting into it, even further back). In the 1800s, it could be excused by the fact that exposures might last several minutes. It was hard to hold a genuine smile for very long, so a blank face became the default.
Of course even back then some managed to flout convention.
OK, so a space alien visiting Atget in the 1870s might think humans are happy. But he's an outlier. By and large the empty gaze was dominant then, and has remained so through the contemporary era. It can't be excused any longer by technical considerations, since cameras can operate faster than thought nowadays.
So why has fine art portraiture remained so stoic? Part of the reason is that maybe there's something to it. Emotion can interfere with revelation. Not always, but sometimes a person is revealed best while expressionless.
But I think the larger reason has to do with cheesy snapshots. Artists want to separate themselves from the common rabble. Since smiles are what you see in greeting cards and yearbooks and weddings, the best way to show that your work doesn't belong with those is not to show smiles. It's the age-old dilemma of photography. When everyone's a photographer how do you keep low-art and high-art from mixing, or, if you're going to mix them, how do you ensure the mongrel still qualifies as high-art? In this case you axe the smile.
But at what cost? What about a shot like this one, which I think is one of the more revealing portraits I've seen in years?
It's a simple mugshot, definitely low-art, but there's something in the photo itself which sticks, which is real. It shows that even a casual grin can sometimes be powerful, more so in this case than a more traditional portrait.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not claiming that cheesy greeting card grins are always expressive. Most smile-for-the-camera snapshots tell very little about a person and I certainly don't think fine art portraiture should copy that style. But must it steer so reflexively toward the opposite extreme? Can't a portrait show genuine warmth, a happy person reflecting on life?
This one is 70 years old. Quickly, off the top of your head can you think of a well-known contemporary portrait which reveals so many happy teeth?
I suppose the space alien standard isn't totally fair. It's not necessarily the responsibility of any curated show to "reveal" humanity. Not even Family of Man could do that. But I think photographs —straight ones anyway— should tell something about the society that made them. I suspect these are the photos which will prove most interesting in 50 or 100 years, whether they're holiday cards, fine art, or mugshots. And humans in 2011 have been known to smile. Just saying.