Smiling Is Superficial

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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.

Rodney Smith

The End Starts Here via, wizwow

There Are 49 Comments On This Article.

  1. stupid hogwash, nice job Rob, got my attention!
    Is there a “dislike” button? I gotta fry my turkey – Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. I think it’s in “At Work” when Annie mentions how contrived she feels asking people to smile, and hates it. Personally sometimes it makes me feel a bit like an organ grinder, “Dance monkey! Smile!”

  3. ha! maybe it’s a postmodern thang… attention to the construct is half the point…

  4. So not true. A good portrait evokes emotion. The last time I checked, happiness and joy count. Though that does tend to go against the hipster grain. @Shane, I couldn’t agree more.

  5. I think I have about 2-3 smiling photos on my entire website. I don’t dislike smiling, I just seem to like non-smiling photos. Maybe it’s because I hate pictures of myself while smiling (ok, I hate all pictures of me).

    But, it’s pretty silly to suggest that a smiling picture has less substance.

  6. This theory is… interesting. Seems like a pretty huge stretch to make the generalization that all smiles are superficial and shouldn’t be the focus of portrait photography. At least that seems to be what you’re saying.

    Example: you’re going to tell me the ear-to-ear smile of a happy kid, spontaneously photographed while playing in the yard or something like that is superficial? Might be more correct to say “adults who smile for formal portraits create something that is superficial; we need to go deeper.” Then you’d be onto something. :-)

    I’m sure this post will get a lot of attention / lot of discussion, though.

  7. Absolute statements like that just show the ignorance that people have with regard to art. Art is what Art is. The only absolute is that there are really no rules. What’s more, if we had to obey the thinking done hundreds of years ago as what Art should be then there would be no reason to create anything new.

    Maybe simply, subjects didn’t smile in portraits done by Rembrandt, Titian, Goya, Velasquez, Sargent, Vermeer, DaVinci, etc., because it was extremely difficult for them to smile naturally for hours or days on end while someone painted their portrait?

    • You have it spot on. My thoughts exactly.

      I also agree with Shane on making people smile- put a thought in their head instead of commanding it. The best smiles are actually the ones that are true reflection of the subject’s mood rather than a practiced or forced one.

      • Not to mention it’s an inaccurate statement. DaVinci’s most famous work (if his best is highly debatable) is the Mona Lisa. I believe people have commented on her smile from time to time.

  8. Like all generalizations about arts that involve depictions of the various emotional and states of human expressiveness, this “truth” is false from the get-go.

  9. No smiles. I couldn’t agree more. In fact – MOST major magazines put that requirement in their photo guidelines; no cell phone props, no sitting behind a desk and no smiles. If I’m not mistaken – Outside promotes – “No Smiles please…..unless it happens naturally.” Too many “portrait” photographers get caught up in the decisive moment of a smile – more often than not that “decisive moment” occurs during a more somber, quiet moment (i.e. the Mona Lisa). I’d never force a subject to smile (unless my client is in the Dental Industry) – our subjects received enough of that at their wedding – but if a reference to their underwear or “who farted” doesn’t make them giggle and reveal a natural smile – well then – a tough guy look always works. My experience and two cents.

  10. Cameron Davidson

    We are going into production on a new piece on portraits and just about every person is looking direct into the camera and the smile was natural and not asked for by me. It was how the person responded to my photographing them.

    Interesting concept about smiling and value, but the B.S. radar is squawking a protest quite loudly.

  11. P.S. Before many of you go “making statements” – review, investigate your own work/websites. I have found – at least 70% of your sites have – little if any smiling faces; unless you are a wedding portrait photographer. Keep shooting.

      • Which part Jeff? Magazine requirements or the percentage of smiling images on photographers websites? I once had a very established and respected art producer comment – “if you can get a (real) smile great, but considering you only have 5 minutes with our subject between a board meeting and the end of trading – good luck.”

        • I find both parts are untrue… I can give you 30 images I’ve shot for Outside Mag with people smiling. ( including covers) I agree that smiles have to be unforced and real. Even if you only have 5 minutes. Pulling emotion from a subject is part of the skill.

          • Jeff – This isn’t a pissing match between photographers. You create great imagery by the way, but would you consider your “first image/flash page” a smile? Looks forced to me; Would love to have seen the more serious outtakes. My point was 70% of the sites that I took time to look at – were mostly serious if not downright moody imagery; not happy stock-style smiles. Art is a matter of personal taste. Thankfully – not all clients want happy, smiling faces – or dead pan serious – all the time.

            • Follow Up: Why did you pick such “serious images” as your first – Celebrity Images, Vogue images and Advertising images on your website? (Shawn White snowboards for aliving and always smiles so that image doesn’t count.) LOL. It appears most of the images on your site are more serious than smiling. Just pointing out what I observe. Again – much respect.

  12. WTF! Tell some one to smile! Here, hold these wires while I switch on the power. I agree and disagree about smiles. It is about how the smile is evoked. is it about saying I need to to smile, I hate to say it but most people don’t know how to smile naturally. You get this grins like from a cow or Cheshire Cat….. Drives me nuts thinking about it.

    To me a smile evoke the sense of joy, happiness, etc but getting it is much more work than most who are behind the lens want to invest. It takes a lot of conversation and questions, and insight into the person who is in front. You only get a few precious moments to make the portrait with the smile. I was fortunate to get a young girl who is now playing European women’s basketball to smile by asking her what she would say to her heart throb celebrity. It worked, it was also at the end of our time together.

    Back to holding the wires while I turn the power on… the point is if you really do that with someone, it will evoke a reaction or emotion that could desirable, or not. The idea is to find or figure out how to get what you are looking for. I think it is easier to try avoid the smile then it is to try and find it.

  13. William Mortenson described four different kinds of smiles and only considered the fourth one to be “pictorially tolerable.” First, there is the the zizzy smile which is joyless and violent. Second, there is the grudging smile that occurs when a photographer insists on a smile but the subject only goes along by lifting an upper lip. Third, there is the solar-plexus smile which is a belly laugh created by a sudden explosion of animal joy. Finally, there is the controlled smile which can be considered acceptable only if it appears to be spontaneous and joyous without resorting to violence.

    I agree with Rodney Smith that smiling is superficial but that’s exactly why it’s useful for most commercial work. Mainstream audiences (and most photographers) rarely understand subtlety and can only respond to the “obvious.” What kind of success could a wedding photographer achieve if he never photographed the subjects smiling? What customer would buy a tube of toothpaste if the model in the ad didn’t appear to be exploding with animal joy?

    The fact that smiling is generally associated with commercial photography could also mean that any photographer that deliberately avoids it might be reacting against kitschy mainstream audience expectations. This might be a reactionary position, but it would definitely appeal to a small audience that enjoys the avant garde.

  14. 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.

    Smiles are also different from laughs.

    I have a great amount of respect for Mr. Smith. I just think he over reached here. He is one of the very best PHOTOGRAPHERS in any genre working today.

  15. The problem with a true smile is, it often expresses an inner happiness that offends people who don’t have such feelings. Most likely because they’re obsessed with all the problems in the world or their lives–all the drama–to even know what a true smile is. I’ve always felt that a lot of people would rather see “poverty porn”–so they can get mad about it–than a happy, smiling person in a slum like Dharavi. A smile is an assault on their worldview, as in, “how dare they be happy, don’t they know life sucks?”

  16. Rodney Smith is welcome to his personal opinion about whether smiles are good or not, but he shouldn’t drag historical painters onto his side saying that they also chose to forgo smiles based on artistic beliefs. I’m with Frank Veronsky above who points out that many painters painted live portraits and people couldn’t sit there smiling for days on end. This same idea translates directly into early photography. Pretty much nobody is pictured smiling in early photographs. It wasn’t because every photographer thought smiles were stupid. It wasn’t because everybody posing was unhappy. It was because exposures were long and people move more when they are smiling. Simple technical constraint.

  17. Nobody smiled in classical paintings because they had to sit still for 4+ hours at a time.

    As long as we’re throwing stones here, images of guys in bowler hats are superficial too, not to mention cliché.

  18. “so wont you smile for the camera
    I know they gonna love it
    and when you smile for the camera
    I know Ill love you better… Peg”

    Lets not get too serious

    But the OP seems to be having a King Canute moment

  19. Mark Davidson

    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.

  20. Great theory.

    I love the Mona Lisa scowl.

    A smile is just more difficult to catch than a serious expression. It’s a very light and fleeting expression, like breathing out when you feel life more intensively.

    Smiles can be met at all occasions, including good byes and executions. With context, it can be a very complex expression.

    It’s the photographer who has to seduce the photographed to a real expression. A real smile, this slight flicker of light going across the face – I welcome it, if it is the real thing.

  21. First off, you are apparently unfamiliar with much of DaVinci’s works of the Madonna (Benois Madonna, Madonna Litta, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne), because alot of them have smiling in them. Also, the Mona Lisa, is well known for her smile. And then there’s the famous artist you’ve left out, including Frans Hals who painted “The Laughing Cavelier” and Rembrandt’s “The Prodigal Son.” Secondly, much of the reason the work of historical artists had more to do with what they were painting (scenes that told a story, for example), who they were painting, and when they were painting. Then, to generalize pop culture art as all smiling and superficial would also be incorrect.

    Lastly, the generalization you make that smiling in portraits in itself is superficial and misleading, is also a generalization. What about portraits isn’t missleading? Trying to find the perfect pose, the perfect look, the perfect clothes, the perfect lighting, and then doing the perfect editing is far more missleading than a simple emotion, an emotion that may not necessarily be forced but just from the fact that whoever is being photographed is excited about a camera. Just as missleading is the emo tortured soul culture we have now, of deprived souls drinking coffee and wearing skinny jeans and edward cullen hair while reading books about why no-one else in the world understands them. To say a smile is missleading, that it’s just a front one puts up, you could say the same for any emotion portrayed. Perhaps all those men in historical art didn’t smile because they didn’t want to be thought of as the vulnerable smiling type. Perhaps the famous piece Andy Warhol did of Michael Jackson is exactly what you say, someone smiling superficially while dieing on the inside, but that in itself, capturing the confliction would be a stunning work of art imo. Smiling is just as much an important emotion to be conveyed at the proper time in art and photography as any other emotion.