When I do a portrait shoot, I’m aware of the struggle between how people want to present themselves – usually smiling, and what I want to get – usually a picture of someone not smiling.
Why don’t I want people smiling in my portraits? When someone is smiling it says ‘I am non threatening, open, friendly’. In a photograph, if the subject is smiling, this is easily and quickly read and then we can move on to the next picture. If someone isn’t smiling we have to look for longer to try to figure out who this person is. What are they about? It adds a layer of mystery or at least uncertainty, and the photograph dosen’t say just one thing. It becomes more open to other interpretations.
I recently discovered it was Kodak who introduced the idea of smiling for the camera. In early photography exposure times required it’s subjects to be still and expressions and poses were borrowed from the painted portrait. In 1900 when Kodak introduced the affordable box brownie with their famous slogan ‘You press the shutter, we do the rest‘ their marketing and advertising campaigns showed photos of people smiling for the camera capturing the ‘Kodak moment’. Kodak was the market leader at this time and a dominating force in photography. Smiling became the social norm in picture taking, at least within the developed world.
Now that I know this, it feels easier for me to ask people not to smile in a photograph. At the start of a portrait I usually wait to see what the person will do. I use this as a starting point, get the smiley one out of the way, before I direct them in any way and get down to what I want to get. Now I’ll feel more comfortable and less like I am directly them in a specific direction when I ask them not to smile. I will be taking it back to a neutral starting point when I ask people ‘don’t smile please’.