Smiling Portrait Photos

formal portrait

When should we smile for the camera? Portraits have been one of the main subjects of photography since the earliest days of it's invention. Even today, when there is a camera in nearly every pocket, there are scores of independent portrait photographers in operation.

But looking at some of the early portraits as we've worked on the 'Rogues' Portraits' project in Chester, you are reminded of how formal and serious many are.

Mona Lisa

Early photos took their cue from traditional painted portraiture, where smiles were only worn by peasants, children and drunks. This was a chance to be recorded for posterity, and that called for gravitas, culture and learning - no one wanted to be seen as a gurning fool. The call to say 'cheese' and smile for the camera came later, but its almost the standard now for most photo's.

Of course the opposite of a smiling expression is not a sad one; between the smiling and sadness lies a huge world of expression - as Leonardo da Vinci showed with the enegmatic Mona Lisa, perhaps hovering between amusement and sadness.

Rogues Gallery

As we came to mix the smiling, contemporary faces from Chester with the formal archive portaits from the city, the juxtaposition was often stricking. at the end of each section the new faces slowly flicker and fade away, revealing the severity of former times.

Detail from our 'Rogues Galley' installation in Chester.

But why is there all this interest in portrait photography? It seems that reading faces is an essential skill for social animals like humans - perhaps its part of our genetic makeup to have an interest in faces, and especially in the reading of them. In fact it is thought that we can each recognise up to 10,000 different faces - although in my case it seems I can only put a name to about 3 or 4 of them.