The Deadpan Gaze

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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.

via B: The Space Test. Thx Ross.

There Are 22 Comments On This Article.

  1. I blame bad teachers in art schools preaching the gospel of Richard Avedon’s “In The American West” project as the standard by which modern photographic portraiture must be measured, and two or three generations of photographers then pushing the blank aspect of those faces further because it is the third easiest intellectual takeaway from “In The American West”. The stark white background and the almost shadowless lighting being the first and second easiest.

    But in reality, the faces in Avedon’s character studies aren’t blank, they are the faces of people who have been, in Avedon’s world view, slightly to seriously twisted and deformed by what he saw as the insanity of America in the early 1970s.

    What is missing now is Avedon’s sense of compassion for people.

    • @Ellis Vener, Excellent post, Ellis. I remember being taught that it takes courage to take a bad picture. The idea of courage may have lost it’s meaning over time as many modern photographers believe it’s necessary to insult their subjects as a reactionary way to differentiate “fine art” portraits from mainstream commercial portraiture.

      • @Mike Moss,
        It doesn’t take courage to take a bad picture, it takes courage to cull it out despite one’s emotional ties to the subject matter and circumstances it was made in.

        • @Ellis Vener, nah. that’s old school. No student I know refers to Avedon. With the young photographers, it’s what I call the “Sothian” effect. An unsmiling quirky person in the center of the frame. As fro smiles, check out Ryan McGinley’s work. Plenty of smiles (and naked people being happy naked) there.

          • @JM,
            No new student may be referringdirectly to ASvedon but their their teachers use it as a touchstone, so it just iterates.

            it’s more than Avedon’s influence of course. And more than photography really, it’s the zeitgeist. Photography is more like a mirror t osociety than a winodw into somethign different. Especially editorial and commercial photography. People don’t have to look like “Smilin’ Jack ( or Jill) the Salesman” either — that is an even older and deader standard. I just want people in my work to be and look engaged, either with me or what they are doing.

    • @Ellis Vener, I have to agree with you. I recently saw a cover image of a prominent actor and his expression was totally dead pan. I don’t think the dead pan expression was taught solely in art schools. I think that you would have to include modeling too. I would also say that not all of them are expressionless. One of the images if it is included in the show that is include in the originating article the gentlemen seems to be admiring his accoutrement’s.

  2. Back in the 80’s, I once had a photo editor tell me that she didn’t take my work seriously because my portfolio looked ‘too happy’. She went on to say that she believed the soul ‘didn’t smile’ and neither should my subjects. She never hired me.

    As far as I know she’s now living in New Mexico or Montana or Arkansas while I have managed to eek out a career and occasionally allow the people on front of my camera to crack a fucking smile every now and again…

  3. Definite cliche. One I also overuse. But it’s also the position in which my face is in most of the time. Smiles are rare even for the smiliest people. Camera smiles are inauthentic anyway, and it takes a pretty good connection to get a real one, and sometimes subjects haven’t come to smile naturally for you. I’m much more comfortable with the default human non-smile than a ok-now-smile-for-this-one picture. I understand the good photographers are going to get the real smile in the contrived situation, but so far I haven’t proven myself to be one of those.

    So I think that’s an excellent introduction for aliens. They learn about smiles and tears later.

  4. I always tell my subjects that a REAL SMILE has a tiny shelf life, and that everyone can spot a fake smile. So, don’t worry about holding it. Looking and feeling happy doesn’t always need to be accompanied by a (say cheese!) smile. Humans are super keen on picking up the subtleties of body language. So, I tell them to relax and feel how they feel.

  5. Guilty as charged, I briefly mentioned my own issues with this in my last blog post. I’m actually partial to people looking at me intensely, whether it’s when I’m behind the camera or looking at someone else’s portrait work. You’d never know what a cut up I am.

    • @Brooks Ayola, I hear you but people looking at you intensely is a different cup of tea from people looking at you with a totally bored & disengaged expression.

      • @Ellis Vener, :-) I’m admittedly guilty of that too. LOL My problem is that when looking through my work, I find that almost all of the portraits I have of people smiling or laughing are from commercial shoots that never fit with the rest of my work.. I need to work on that a bit more, I know.

  6. I have found, depending on the overt nature or the lack there of of the subject, you only need about fifteen minutes to get a great natural smile. You know what I had to stop for a second. Some of the comments about smiles above is pure …well I don’t cuss on the web.

    I can walk up to a complete stranger, and talk with them and ask them if I can shoot their portrait and I can get a completely natural smile. so whats the deal about dead pan and do people have to look unhappy to be real? What!

    Maybe it’s the person behind the viewfinder that is unhappy and drives the subject to be unhappy and stoic and dead emotionally.

  7. I would also like to point out most of the non smiling examples he posted are more like documentary photography instead of a sit down portrait shoot. These are two different styles of photography and it will create very different results. As you can see, all the photos with smiles are all staged. With exception to Weegee’s photo. Weegee’s photo was a documentary photo of a Easter celebration, of course there would be people smiling!

  8. Can we add to this the whole idea of trying to make our subject look weird or odd. It’s basically unkind. We like to pretend that we are progressive caring photographers but then we strip our subjects of what little dignity they might have had. The masters were able to reach the soul and somehow make the subjects even more dignified. Loengard’s photographs comes to mind.

  9. Isn’t this the mysterious skill of a good photographer rather than once who plays it safe? Isn’t this the mysterious skill of a good model rather than one who’s got no guts?

    The blank expression of safe laziness is very different from an introspective gaze that looks almost like a blank expression.

    The slightly different millisecond to click the shutter is why a whole lot of photo assistants have a portfolio full of well-lit, well-composed but not quite there images that lack a certain connection and charisma and something that’s so hard to express…

    It’s not smile-or-stare, it’s a million slightly different expressions in between, and the combination of sincerity and a bag of tricks is the biggest tool in a good photographer’s toolbox.

  10. I look at this again and again, and I live in Chicago, have been to Rockford a number of times…. my feeling is that Alec Soth,the photographer didn’t bother to really connect to the people he was photographing, and in a way the images seem to show that he literally went over their heads, angle-and-attitude-wise.

    It’s not a beauty pagent, not a stare-out-the-window heavyness contest, it’s looking like the process and difficulties overwhelmed the need of the photographer to connect, or maybe he didn’t want to….

    I keep a notecard in my pocket when I’m on a big production shoot, it says “connect” so I don’t forget the main idea when I’m busy thinking of details….

  11. The Soth photos in the NYT really miss the mark for me. They look to me like his attention was on getting the images for his project, rather than establishing any type of relationship with the subject first. I may be totally wrong on that — maybe he did sit down with these people and build some trust, but I don’t see it in the results.

    I don’t like all of these, but here’s a neat collection of “The New Breed of Documentary Photographers” as presented by Verve. Some of these images really show for me the photographer/subject relationship perspective:

    http://vervephoto.wordpress.com/

    RJ