“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.