I walked though the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibit, AMERICAN COOL, last year. I shoot for a client in Washington D.C. every spring, and usually there’s a little down time when I can walk over to the museums and catch a few.
In the American Cool exhibit, no one was smiling. Well, not no one, but hardly anyone. Many portraits–and they were of musicians, actors, authors, scientists, singers, among others–probably over 200 I saw, and many were not looking at the camera, and virtually no one was smiling.
It was like smiling made it a snapshot. And looking off or not smiling, we got to see what they really looked like. A glimpse of their person, not their smiling self. A magazine portrait. A feature portrait.
So, I’ve made a point recently to shoot more portraits without smiles. And I like the results a lot.
Even my self-portrait, I chose to refrain from smiling.
I’ve heard in the 1800’s, people rarely smiled for photos because of the long shutter speeds needed to make a photograph–it was just too hard to hold still that long with a fake grin. Also, people thought you looked foolish holding a put-on grin.
But seriously, there’s something to the serious face. Maybe like black and white, it’s one step removed from the standard smile we’re so used to seeing, and doing when the camera is facing us, so it takes us away from the realm of “snapshot”.
Dizzie Gillespie and Jimi Hendrix were the only two I can think of who were smiling, by the way. But the others were much cooler.
Try it and see what you think.