Smiling In Portraits: Yes, No Or Maybe?

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A recent post by blogger Rodney Smith is currently making the rounds on the Internet. In his post, Rodney shares a thought that smiling in portraits is superficial:

“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.”

What do you guys think? It can be argued that a portrait without smiling seems more timeless, or that people smiling in portraits makes one think of stock photography, but at the end of the day, does it really matter? Isn’t it up to the photographer and/or the subject to decide whether to smile or not? A counter argument to Rodney’s thoughts, as pointed out by a commenter on PetaPixel, states: “The historical reason behind the lack of smiling in paintings is simply that, unlike photography, painting is not instantaneous.” Let us know what you think in the comments!

Via PetaPixel.

Author: Francois W. Nel
  • Erna Odendaal

    People have been wondering for years at the Mona Lisa’s smile. Not much of an argument.

  • Matthew

    I believe a portrait should be natural. If the person smiles they smile, if not then that’s fine. 

    Nothing is worse than a fake smile. 

  • Mikejlaurie

    I agree with Mathew, a portrait should be natural, but also consider that a dead pan carboard face can be terribly boring.  What you want to be able to do is connect emotionally with the portrait to make it interesting, so either the face should have unusual or appealing features, or it should portray some kind of emotion.

  • Gregor Rohrig

    I agree with Matthew – whatever is natural will always work. It is quite a conceited viewpoint to try define or isolate the meaning or cultural significance/history of the act of smiling, and also trying to define it as not being an expressive emotion. Not all smiles are fake or are lies… Also, I would like to challenge that argument: so what if the smile is fake, if the person you’re shooting encompasses a phony personality, perhaps the fake smile would be appropriate….it’s all pretty relative.

  • Nicoleminnaar

    It is the reason that I’m not a huge fan of studio photography, it all seems a bit staged and natural moments of gaiety are not easy to come by.  I love catching people in a moment where they are unaware of the camera

  • Eric Uys

    I think people can smile now, as no one in their right mind would sit for a master painter for five hours and smile continuously while they are being painted, a smile is best captured as a fleeting moment in time, posing with a smile is def a no no, but capturing a natural smile can be beautiful. it all depends on the brief of the photo..