November 15, 2011

Smile

 

“Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you.”
- Words by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, Music by Charlie Chaplin

On this late fall day, in the month of November, in the 2011 year of our Lord, I realized the same is true today as it was 300 years earlier. Although, it took my teenage daughter Savannah to remind me of this.

Let me start at the beginning. I have the sweetest, nicest, cutest daughter around; at least I think I do. You see I rarely have the opportunity to know this for sure. As our daily ritual proceeds, Savannah will quickly pass by me, dashing off a quick “Hi Dad,” and then slam her door behind her.

If I happen to chance an entrance to her chamber I am immediately confronted with an exclamation of “OUT,” and a long hand and finger pointing to the door. She protects her territory from her father like he was a dangerous predator, and rarely does she have much to say to yours truly. I know there is love there somewhere deep, deep down in her soul for her father, but mostly there is embarrassment and disgust at the fact that anyone could be so stupid or so old.

Imagine my surprise yesterday when out of the blue, she tells me a story about when she was a little girl, she remembered that as I was trying to get her to be still to take her portrait I would often say, “Don’t smile.”

She thought this odd as all the pictures she saw of her friends were with them smiling and she had never forgot that I had asked her not to smile.

Now that she is older, she told me that she had mentioned this to her friends and they had told her that they felt that that made sense to them knowing my pictures.

Now, what is the meaning of all this? America has always had it’s own perculiar fascination with perception, particularly other people’s perception of themselves.

Somehow along the convoluted way of history, the mass of men and women felt it imperative to be viewed with a smile.

Smile for the camera, smile for your grandparents, smile for your friends, smile to your teachers? It is a wonder that people’s faces are not frozen in a smile.

I know many women who have had face lifts can’t possibly smile, their face is so tightly strung, but this is a whole different matter.

Where does this fascination, this personal sense of how we want to be seen come from? I have an idea.

For years when I was making portraits of the chieftains of industry, commerce, celebrity, or politicians, their first inclination in front of the camera was to smile. Interestingly enough this was not the case with poets or writers. I would tell them as I am telling you a smile is a false sentiment. I guess one could even refer to it as sentimental. It is a way of saying to someone (not that I am approachable) but rather quite the opposite, that I have something to hide. That behind this fictitious sentiment something else lurks that I do not want to share with you. Whether they realized it or not, it connotes to go away. Rather than inviting the viewer in, it is standing them off. I feel this is the difference between a casual photograph and a portrait.

History has told them otherwise. Everyone (including their friend’s) smiles in photographs. The truth is no portrait of substance has people smiling. Look at the history of painting, Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, Velasquez, Sargent, Vermeer, DaVinci, etc., the subjects gaze to the viewer is neutral at best, neither inviting nor forbidding. It is there for the viewer to see and feel.

Smiling is like much of American popular culture, superficial and misleading. It is part of our vernacular, but it should be expunged in photographs.

Laughter is real. Anger, joy, resentment, frustration are powerful and meaningful sentiments to be expressed. But because of this people do not want to share what lies within, so instead let’s lie without with a smile.

 

Comments

33 Comments »

  1. Now, this is a big truth!! I have always thought smiling very “artificial” when it comes to portraits..Feel much better now that your opinion is on the same line.
    And you are right again, she IS absolutely gorgeous!!

    Comment by ST — November 15, 2011 @ 5:19 pm

  2. Oui I couldn’t agree more, and it’s really a good question – Why do many of us want others to smile when we take a picture of them ? This quest for smiling faces and positivity is probably a bit more true in the US however. French don’t smile so easily ahah!

    PS :I love what you do

    Comment by Etienne Capelle — November 16, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

  3. I am reminded of the movie koyaanisqatsi in which several still shots are shown of people – I seem to remember astronauts and such – not smiling. Revealing indeed.

    Comment by inge madeleine cauwenbergh — November 16, 2011 @ 5:33 pm

  4. I will disagree. Although this is true in many cases and I have found it very difficult to get pictures of people including my wife because of the cheesy smile her mother taught her to put on anytime a camera was pointed at her. There are many people for whom a smile is the most genuine of statements.

    Comment by Kyle Pearce — November 18, 2011 @ 9:31 am

  5. [...] The End Starts Here via, wizwow [...]

    Pingback by Smiling Is Superficial — November 21, 2011 @ 11:59 am

  6. What about the Mona Lisa?

    Comment by Lou Noble — November 22, 2011 @ 9:02 am

  7. [...] Rodney Smith, Photographer, via his blog, via A Photo Editor This entry was posted in Fine Art and tagged Portraiture, Smiling, Smith. [...]

    Pingback by No portrait of substance has people smiling. — November 22, 2011 @ 10:15 am

  8. [...] via Rodney Smith [...]

    Pingback by STEFAN RADTKE | PHOTOGRAPHER — November 22, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  9. [...] Smith of The End Starts Here has written an interesting piece on the topic of smiling, and argues that smiling is a “false sentiment” that separates [...]

    Pingback by Want to Shoot a Portrait of Substance? Leave Out the Smiling! — November 22, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

  10. Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that not smiling is just as fake as smiling if it’s not organic? Meaning if people smile naturally because there was something amusing happening why is that less authentic than anything else?

    Comment by Josh R. — November 22, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

  11. I agree totally…except your relationship with your daughter. Who raised this little heathen?

    Comment by Jim D. — November 22, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

  12. Oh how hipster…

    Don’t smile, it’s too mainstream. It doesn’t show a real emotion. It’s oppressive.

    How many people will greet you with a smile? Happens to me all the time. Most people are happy to meet you and want to put you at ease. A smile does that.

    Want to be unapproachable? Don’t smile.

    Ohhhh, I get it know. It’s part of the hipster “stay away from me” ethos. Got it.

    Comment by Walter — November 22, 2011 @ 4:39 pm

  13. [...] brings me to this post’s topic, prompted by the great film photographer Rodney Smith’s post on smiling. In a succinct paragraph towards the end of that post, Rodney dissects the smile (that smile, the [...]

    Pingback by The artifice of the smile | Light Scribbling — November 22, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

  14. That’s a remarkably stupid commentary.

    Comment by John Kantor — November 22, 2011 @ 8:56 pm

  15. A smile may or may not be genuine, but the blank face is a blank canvas: one to which you can ascribe any feeling or depth you wish.

    A reaction like this says more about the viewer. Who would be proud of being so suspicious?

    Someone separated from the subject by more than a piece of glass.

    Comment by John Kantor — November 22, 2011 @ 9:06 pm

  16. @Walter: The topic is smiling in photographs, not in real life.

    Comment by Chris Hensel — November 23, 2011 @ 8:57 am

  17. I actually think that the Mona Lisa is a perfect example of what I am talking about. I guess the debate would be whether she is smiling? To me the painting succeeds so beautifully because of the enigmatic quality to her look. She gazes back at the viewer, almost neutral, but yet somehow there are huge questions voiced. Is this a man or a woman or both? Is it human kind? Is she hurt or happy? Confused or content? And the list goes on. I know some might think she is smiling, but to me the gaze lies way deeper than a smile.

    Comment by MisterS — November 23, 2011 @ 10:22 am

  18. [...] Rodney Smith recalls in his blog The End Starts Here how his teenage daughter Savannah reminded him that as a young child, he always asked her not to [...]

    Pingback by No “Smile For The Camera” Says Expert » IMSO - Insights for Image Users. From Image Source. — November 23, 2011 @ 11:23 am

  19. [...] Don’t smile [...]

    Pingback by Don’t smile | Sharp Wide Open — November 23, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  20. There are not many smiles in the history of painting because a smile is so difficult to accurately capture when drawn or painted by hand (actually there are some, David Hockney comments on this in his book Secret Knowledge). One of the beauties of photography is that something as fleeting as a smile can be captured.

    Comment by Andrew Shaw — November 23, 2011 @ 11:53 pm

  21. Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder.

    My family portrait clients want a smile to prove to the world they are happy and friendly. My corporate clients want to prove they are human (but not smug).
    My editorial clients often want non smiling images as they look less like marketing images. My high school seniors do not want smiles (except for the one for Mom.)
    Whatever. I get paid. I smile.

    Comment by Mark Davidson — November 25, 2011 @ 7:52 pm

  22. There are different types of smiles of course. From the sardonic & evil to the glib & insincere ranging all the way up to the transcendently giddy and joyous – a whole range of expressive possibilities just as the Inuit have dozens of words for snow Sorrowful expressions are more limited in range.

    Years ago I came up with a “trick” for seeing more deeply into the emotive quality of a portrait: cover the top and then the bottom half of the face with your hand. See if you read the emotions expressed by the both halves the same way.

    Thank you for starting your blog; I always enjoy seeing what you have to say.

    Smiles are also different from laughs.

    I have a great amount of respect for you Mr. Smith. I just think you over reached here.

    Comment by Ellis Vener — November 26, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

  23. [...] http://rodneysmith.com/blog/?p=2853 [...]

    Pingback by Ugly Photo « Ultimate Dammation — November 27, 2011 @ 4:00 am

  24. I have spent enough of my life in France to be wary of fake smiles. Nevertheless, a poker face is no more or less authentic than a smile since the American smile or say, the French lack thereof are both culturally conditioned ways to mask what’s going on inside. Maybe the smile feels more aggressive (not just in some primitive baring teeth sort of way) because it tries to force an interpretation (i.e. “you are to see me as happy”) on the viewer. As for the polemical statement that “no portrait of substance has people smiling,” I don’t buy it, and I bet you could come up with a dozen if you were so inclined.

    Comment by marc — November 28, 2011 @ 1:22 am

  25. From somewhere, long ago (paraphrasing): Politicians (and other public people) try like mad to appear normal on the outside, while keeping the craziness bottled up and hidden inside.

    Artists wear any weirdness on the outside, like costumes, and although they often look strange, are sane, normal, and well-adjusted because they are not trying to hold demons in secret.

    Not strictly true, but close enough.

    Smiles: Mark Twain always called it “rictus”. I like that word.

    Comment by Dave Sailer — November 28, 2011 @ 11:17 pm

  26. But wanna remark that you have a very nice internet site , I like the pattern it really stands out.

    Comment by coffee maker — December 2, 2011 @ 8:18 pm

  27. [...] intriguing blog posts that usually have nothing much to do with photography yet they do…)His SMILE post was particularly intriguing. “The truth is no portrait of substance has people [...]

    Pingback by Best Of | Brooke Snow — December 3, 2011 @ 8:16 am

  28. Completely agree!
    The most incredibles photographs are the natural ones, when you notice that there´s no lie behind it.
    There´s only the reality of emotion. It´s a second that the person just forgot about you there taking their photo but firstly, forgot and detached about themself.
    Without that wouldn´t be possible to see the truth.

    Comment by Carol Rosa — December 4, 2011 @ 3:33 am

  29. Poignant words. In the few entries I’ve read, I’ve learned quite an astonishing amount. Thank you.

    Comment by Thomas Ahern — February 5, 2012 @ 4:42 am

  30. [...] themselves as serious and considered. A smile would be considered frivolous, perhaps forced. A portrait photographer, Rodney Smith, offers this explanation, followed by a lively [...]

    Pingback by Study of a 17th century Dutch family portrait « Churchmouse Campanologist — March 23, 2012 @ 6:15 pm

  31. [...] cara chamado Rodney Smith publicou recentemente no site dele um texto bem legal sobre o sorriso nas imagens. Em resumo, ele [...]

    Pingback by Queimando Filme | Sorria… #NOT! — June 21, 2012 @ 3:44 pm

  32. [...] Sunday, November 4, 2012 Sourced from PetaPixel.com’s article linked to below. The truth is no portrait of substance has people smiling. Look at the history of painting, Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, Velasquez, Sargent, Vermeer, DaVinci, etc., the subjects gaze to the viewer is neutral at best, neither inviting nor forbidding. It is there for the viewer to see and feel. Smiling is like much of American popular culture, superficial and misleading. It is part of our vernacular, but it should be expunged in photographs. Read more at http://www.petapixel.com/2011/11/22/want-to-shoot-a-portrait-of-substance-leave-out-the-smiling/#y5Yxy7lpHCVuzbco.99 or you can read the original full article here. [...]

    Pingback by Creating Portraits With Gravity : Photography Studio Rentals Dayton Ohio – Studio Dayton! — November 4, 2012 @ 12:27 pm

  33. [...] Smiling is like much of American popular culture, superficial and misleading. It is part of our vernacular, but it should be expunged in photographs. Laughter is real. Anger, joy, resentment, frustration are powerful and meaningful sentiments to be expressed. But because of this people do not want to share what lies within, so instead let’s lie without with a smile. [...]

    Pingback by Smile | Gorski vodnik, fotograf alpinist Marko Prezelj. — May 10, 2013 @ 8:19 am

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