Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Space Test

If you were a space alien visiting earth and your first introduction to humanity was the current Moments of Being show at Wallspace, you wouldn't think our planet is very happy. Out of 38 portraits in the show, not one person is smiling. Instead most of us humans look rather bored.

Days That Are Gone, Antonio Ysura

Or preoccupied.

Jack Kennedy and Mardee After the Service, Savannah
Elizabeth Clark Libert

We like to hang around shirtless (16 by my count).

Mark, Leon Alesi

And recline when possible (7).

K, West Virginia, 2010, Michael Sebastian

And sometimes we do all four at once.

Yoni Thinking, Russ Osterweil

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.

Edouard Manet, 1874, Nadar

Of course even back then some managed to flout convention.

Organ Grinder, 1898, Eugene Atget

OK, so a space alien visiting Atget in the 1890s 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?

Pima County Sheriff's Office, 2011

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.

Jared Loughner yearbook photo, 2006

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?

Easter Sunday in Harlem, 1940, Weegee

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.


jacques philippe said...

"I think there's a common supposition in fine-art portraiture that too much emotion can interfere with revelation"

I also think this is an inheritance from painting portraiture. In painting you don't have so much people smiling, and I believe it is originally for a very practical reason (how can you make a model pose smiling the necessary time ?). The Mona Lisa smile is a famous exception to that, which tells a lot.

Another point which is often raised is that smiling is a clue to the act of being photographed, it makes the camera obvious. But this latter reason is probably not a strong one.

jacques philippe said...

... also a smile is generally perceived as a frozen and ephemeral moment in time, as opposed to a passive expression which is much "slower". In other words there is a difference in time dimension suggested by the smile vs. passive expression. I believe lots of portrait artists look for a deeper time dimension, hence why smile is banned. And for greeting cards or family events this is the opposite, the smile is not only a pleasant expression, but also has the very function of marking a specific moment in time.

Mr Harpreet Khara said...

Good observations.

I agree with Philippe, there is a definite connection to history. Originally sitters, for painting/photography purposes had to sit very still for long periods of time. Victorian photographers even clamped the head to stop ghosting/motion blur due to long exposure time. Uncomfortable, certainly difficult to smile consistently for such lengths. Contemporary fine-art photography borrows from this aesthetic legacy.

A smile is not associated with deep thought, or 'heavy' subject matter generally looked at. The not-serious enough connotation is there.

Ok, this may be contentious, but it's also laziness. It's easier/practical to ask someone to just be deadpan, not do anything- the face becomes symmetrical. As opposed to a genuine smile, which is notoriously hard unless you genuinely engage. This takes real effort/emotions, and is difficult especially if you are only given a few moments with a stranger. Don't engage and relax models enough, you end up with a distorted grimace. So many photographers will simply play it safe. No big secret..

Saying all that, I'm a fan of the deadpan aesthetic thoughtfully executed, just that photographers should be honest with themselves. Don't do it simply to conform. Otherwise, it's not a portrait, or a 'record of a conversation' it's a document/still life.

Can you make a portrait of a tree?

I suppose it depends on the definition of portrait.

Twitter @HarpreetKhara

Anonymous said...

I think the place to go for smiles and fun are casual, lo-fi snapshots. Thinking about Ryan McGinley and that type of work.

Of course that type of work comes with its own traps as well...

Citizen Curator said...

So interesting. I never thought about it before...but the deadpan gaze gets really old, I think, and is one of the things that leads me away from portraits in contemporary photography.

Big smiles remind us of snapshots: posed, taken by a non-artist for non-artistic reasons. So what photographer would want to be associated with that? Maybe the blank, somewhat forlorn look will swing that way soon, too, because it's just as formulaic and unsurprising. The camera is becoming more obvious there just as with the smiling portraits.

I do like JP's point about the way a passive expression slows down time.

Susan May Tell said...

Just some quick questions - nothing profound. What percent of any day does anyone spend smiling? laughing? What expression do most of us wear most of the time?

Susan May Tell

Brian R said...

While we're thinking of aliens, I hope they're smart enough to have a holistic view of humanity. I still think we're in trouble though.

How much of your day are you actually smiling? Research suggests it isn't very much of the day for the average human. Kids smile around 400 times a day and adults only 15 - 20.

Robert Norbury said...

I think that most of this deadpan syndrome is caused by jumping on the bandwagon by both photographers and curators. It's also very difficult to get spontaneity when wielding a huge view camera around. Another bandwagon I will not jump on even if I rot in obscurity.

John said...

Adults laugh or smile only 15 times a day. Most of the time we are in a casual, expressionless state. Isn't deadpan less about a photographic style and more about capturing the honest the more common and honest expression?

Put a camera in front of someone and we have been trained to smiled. We are interacting with the camera, not the photographer. The smile represents the staged relationship.

Most photographers looking to have an honest dialog with the subject and capture an honest expression will ask the person to "act natural." When people stop their staged smile, there is a release of tension and the relationship moves from subject/camera to subject/photographer. That's honest and real.

If you are trying to make more conceptual work about the relationship between the person and the camera, then the "camera smile" makes a ton of sense.

Kristen Fecker Peroni said...

During grad school I made an entire series that was informed in opposition to the trend of placing subjects not only expressionless in the photograph, but expressionless in body language as well. The series evolved to take a deeper look at whether or not a subject is necessary at all for a photograph, but that's a very in-depth topic and off the subject.

Two years after I graduated I began to focus on shooting my family - hit by challenging times that resonate still today. The series requires the truth of our daily lives to be told in the expression of the body and expression on the face. I believe that to truly tell the story you must connect on a deeper level with the viewer.

I believe it's possible to connect with the viewer on a deeper level with the presence of a smile or smirk, but it can often bring us back to the history of a snapshot, when we're asked to smile by the person behind the lens. Part of this is ingrained in our psyche, knowing from our own experiences of family gathering or studio/school portraits.

As photographers we want viewers to have a reason to stay with an image, to make connections to the elements within, that tell a deeper story...

Great post and discussion, Blake.

Mike Peters said...

Well, to me, and the reason I opt for people not smiling, is that a smile is often merely a mask that people put on as a means of hiding how they really feel at any given moment.

How many of you have been greeted by a car salesman with a big smile, when all he really intends to do is extract as much money from your wallet as possible?

Or the co-worker who smiles and greets you happily every day, when in the background they are completely undermining everything you do?

Or the grinning idiot with a gun who shoots you in the head?

Or the deeply dysfunctional family who get together every year to make a smiling holiday card that conveys a total falsehood about their reality?

I could go on and on, but I'll just say this, smiles are so often just slick marketing. Smiles are easy, and smiling generally stops the process of looking at a face. We know it, understand it in a nano-second and feel no need to go any further.

Not smiling makes you look further, at the nuances of the mouth and eyes, the eyebrows, you look for the familiar while your imagination speculates about the unknown and the unknowable.

The human face is capable of expressing a broad range of emotions, many of which are true and revealing, and cannot be manufactured or masked. A smile is the most inscrutable of all, except in the most intimate of circumstances. Which is why I believe Leonardo and Mona Lisa had a little something going on behind the canvas.

RichD said...

Smiling, even that big crinkly smile, doesn't necessarily connote or communicate happiness. Happy people don't always smile, and unhappy people don't necessarily *not* smile.

People smile for any number of reasons, and one of the biggest reasons people do it (at least in modern American culture) is to make people THINK they're happy, when they're really not.

The smile has become a social mask, a shallow affectation that people hide behind when they're out in public. The very kind of shallow affectation that a portrait artist works so hard to strip away.

Kate Wilhelm said...

It seems to me that the only portraits that are intended to be about the individual in them are celebrity portraits, snapshots and commissioned portraits (wedding, family, etc.). These are the types of pictures where expression is not only appropriate but sought-after. Fine art portraiture is rarely ABOUT the individual - it's more about what we can glean from the portrait. I think most contemporary art photographers prefer to make ambiguous images. Smiles and other emotional expressions would make for a pretty quick, singular reading. The deadpan expression forces the viewer to look beyond the expression to determine the meaning.

I suspect that if aliens came to earth they would encounter images from a broader selection than just art photography.

Stella Kramer said...

A worthy subject of discussion to be sure. I know for myself, that I feel too uncomfortable to smile for a photographer. It is harder to hold real joy on your face when you look at the camera; perhaps it is only in the unguarded moment that this kind of portrait can be made.
Most of us are a combination of emotions, and maybe to claim our own power we look at the lens, but do not give ourselves away to the camera.

Dana Reed said...

There's an article here ( that discusses this from the view of a portrait painter and the bias against smiling is quite clear. Because this has been the case for centuries in the art world, it has definitely carried over for photography.

A more balanced view can be found here ( also from a painters perspective. This is more what I agree with.

Not smiling doesn't have to mean deadpan. What seem the best portraits to me, that really caught my attention, have the subject really communicating something. Expressive eyes, facial expressions that convey feelings, body language, all make it seem to me that the subject is communicating with you. And smiles would be included in that range of expressions.

I don't see how a person showing no emotion communicates anything revealing about them. I'd say it more allows the viewer to form conjecture, and says more about the viewer than the subject. When I make a portrait, I engage my subject, and wait, and when I choose to press the shutter, I am trying to capture a fleeting moment where they have revealed something about themselves, in their expressions, their body language, that really shows an aspect of their character. And for me, that's what a good portrait is about.

Stan B. said...

I don't think it's so much about "when they're showing nothing," the distinction should be made between non smiling portraiture that is highly emotive (perhaps that's the trick), and the more recent (where am I, save me from myself) deadpan phenomena.

j_castro said...

Hilarious and clever and as most good questions, hard or impossible to answer!

Harpreet Khara said...

Great reading all the comments.
I just posted a blog post about this debate.

Robbie Cooper - Immersion

Check it out.


mort said...

Great post. Immediately made me think of this clip from the BBC's Genius of Photography series where Larry Sultan and his father are discussing Larry's projection of himself onto his father as a subject in asking him not to smile.

ellen said...

Hey Blake.... have you looked at your profile picture?

Luca Sage said...

Ah Ellen (above comment), glad somebody else saw that too.

Luca Sage said...

I read you article with interest, being a portrait photographer myself. My work is indeed more on the contemporary aesthetic side of the fence and you won't find many smiles in my portraits. That isn't to say you won't find happiness or contentment though.

Maybe we should turn this around and ask why family snapshots always have everybody smiling for the photograph? I say this because nine times out of ten the photographer or family member will be telling everyone to smile or say cheese. As soon as the picture is taken everybody relaxes into their natural state again, which may not exactly be as 'happy' as they would like the snapshot to record. What is that actually communicating to us?

Portraiture is about communication and not just via the sitter but also through the photographer and the viewer. We are not born with smiles on our faces, they are momentary expressions (unless you work in retail). What does a smile really tell us? Clowns usually smile on demand but for a portrait I want to treat my subjects with a bit more respect and certainly don't want the image to appear as an American 'greeting card'. In fact I found them quite disturbing. I need a gallery to sooth my nerves.

Altogether now, smile for the camera!

Michelle Geoga said...

Cheesey rhymes with easy...for a good reason.
Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I really enjoyed it.

Blake Andrews said...

My profile picture is now happy. It might look Photoshopped to humans but I think it would fool the space aliens.

Fraction Magazine said...

Brilliant. Thanks Blake.

(ps love the profile pic)

Steve Mepsted said...

Very interesting debate, made me think of how certain events and social settings elicit expressions for the camera which are deemed appropriate. I think we adopt a face in the company of the camera not only per se, but by gauging the social setting we find ourselves in and making a decision. Indeed; to not smile when everyone else is, would be considered 'spoiling' the picture or the series of pictures and certainly the opposite is true. Consider how scant the need for a professional funeral photographer!

Blake Andrews said...

Yes, smiles in portraits often look forced. This can be seen as a reason to avoid them, but it also might be impetus to try to capture the elusive unforced smile. Very difficult task.

I didn't really go into it but I think holiday portraits and fine art portraits actually have a lot in common, mostly because of the preparation involved. Everything from the setting to the lighting to the dress to the pose tends to be considered beforehand, and by the time the photo happens these things will come through strongly in the image whether or not the person is saying "cheese". What a genuine smile might do is crack that facade of planning. It's a fleeting nugget which has to be caught in the act.

I stumbled yesterday on a nonsmiling holiday photo:

Still looking for examples of genuine open smiles in fine art portrature...

jon said...

There is something revealing about a smile, genuine or forced, about a person's chosen 'front' or 'mask'. The way they wish to be perceived.

A blank face isn't automatically revealing. Sometimes it's just blank. I think our faces can be quite animated when not smiling, which, as people have pointed out, is most of the time. Maybe in small, subtle ways, but still. .

I am bored with the (imho) over emphasis on the deadpan, centrally placed subject, medium format stuff. Obviously, some of it is really great, but it has gained the dubious status of a 'fashionable style' (imho) and I suspect is copied rather too unthinkingly.
Not that I could take a portrait to save my life, you understand. . . I just pontificate on forums.

nate said...

masterful editorial here Blake, i'll take this one with me for a while i think-

phil jackson said...

Thanks for the food for thought --- as a documentary/lifestyle photographer i am quick to discard any photo where the subject is directly posing --- genuine smiles caught in the moment, on the other hand, do have their place in my work.

nate said...

and personally i like the "tv watching" expression-

Ross Feighery said...

Great discussion, as a commercial/fine art photographer I've thought about this A LOT. Funny to see how different the implications of the exact same photo can be if someone has a bit more of a smirk. A simple smile in the same image will lead many to call it a commercial or editorial photo and not a piece of art. I am often torn about this too when posing my subjects, I usually don't want their expressions to look too indifferent, as I believe lots of artists use ambiguity as a crutch when they don't have anything to say. Like "Hey, just look into my camera and look sad for me" I think photos that are too somber are often terribly redundant. There are way too many fine art portraits with the subject standing in the center of the frame with blank expressions. Then again, I hate cheesy advertising photos where people are smiling, laughing, and having way too good a time too... I guess I prefer more somber portraits with a bit of implied narrative and emotion, but not obviously staged, it's a tough balance though!

Pamela Reed said...

I think in the process of trying to be 'creative' and make a statement we ultimately reflect ourselves into the image rather than taking a backseat to the posing/portraiture process. It is a very difficult act to balance. The fine line between honest and contrived. Walker Evans' images of the depression era did not require prompting or waiting for a manufactured, destitute look. Those looks were eminent in their manifestation due to the world collapsing around them.

I think one of our worst enemies in the creative arts today is societie's lack of depth; a docility and basic apathy, boredom. You absolutely must feel to be able to capture real honest emotion. And if you have never felt both total elation and devastation you do not harbor the depth of emotions which enables a true artist to create images which sing, laugh, cry. Which actually stop time. Forced emotion is just that, nothing more.

Two photographers can point their lens at a single subject and see two different subjects/moments if you will. A gifted photographer will not aim his lens at the subject and say "look sad please" any more than he/she would say "say cheese please". No he is going to crawl into their skin. Feel their hidden despair or revel in their zest for life.

At one point in our history the photographer spent time with their subject. Maybe just from observing that person in passing every morning on the street. It was an immediate connection tho. If you look to history I think you will find the truly gifted mentors of our past let go of themselves for just a moment and let the lens shine on the inner soul of their subject. Not a false, plasticized mannequin but a real human with multiple layers. By relating in some way to the subject what you capture on film (digital) is a true representation of them. Un-rehearsed. Un-scripted.

I think, personally, that life has become to easy for the youth. They are looking for some meaning but they just haven't found it yet. Often it is the worst tribulations in life that give rise to the best creatives and their work.

I'm just sayin'. Call it what it is. There is a huge change comin'. We can all feel it. We just don't know what it is.

Anonymous said...

Lucky for you nobody reads my blog

Anonymous said...

could it be they are sad because part of there soul is being taken.So they say, maybe the photographers are sad because they are taken part of someone.Thats if you think you can tell what someone feels from a pic!

Marc said...

Great post Blake. A few examples of smiles in contemporary portraiture for you:

This portrait by Martin Bogren (I think the whole series is great).

This by Tomoko Sawada. Most of Sawada's work deals with self-portraits and the photobooth so way more smiling going on here.

As if I needed another excuse to look at Hiroh Kikai's Asakusa Portraits for the 596th time, this was it. They aren't on all of the faces in there, but there are a fair number of smiles. Interestingly most of these aren't toothy grins, but just the faintest of smiles. This isn't the most recent example, but it's a good one.

Not entirely my bag, but Ryan McGinley's Everybody knows this is nowhere has it's fair share of nude smiling too.

I'm going to stop there, mainly because I just can't think of any more examples.