Fairly often, as a photographer working with cosplayers, it feels that each person has their own domain of responsibility.
It’s the easy way out, for me to say that I am responsible for the lighting, camera controls, timing and composition, while the cosplayer is responsible for her expression and her pose.
But of course, that is not how real portrait photography is: in this genre, as in fashion, unless the goal is candid, the photographer is required to be the director in the purest sense of the word: to direct.
Thus, in moments of startling clarity, I recall my responsibilities, and tremble before the monolith of learning yet awaiting me. It is not enough to learn the photographic crafts of apertures, shutter speeds and lighting.
I must extend my learning to all those other parts: my relationship with people to better draw out their characters, my ability to direct without being dictatorial, and my knowledge of poses and expressions with which to paint the emotional canvas.
Which brings me to this post’s topic, prompted by the great film photographer Rodney Smith’s post on smiling. In a succinct paragraph towards the end of that post, Rodney dissects the smile (that smile, the one that is put on in front of a camera) in that devastating, understated way.
“…a smile is a false sentiment…It is a way of saying to someone (not that I am approachable) but rather quite the opposite, that I have something to hide. That behind this fictitious sentiment something else lurks that I do not want to share with you…Rather than inviting the viewer in, it is standing them off.”
The smile in photos has always struck me the wrong way. Rodney’s treatment of it resonates with that innate feeling, that the smile is an artifice, a mask that automatically manifests when the camera is seen.
What happens when one, as Rodney does, tells the subject to not smile? We take away that mask, and in that instance, when the subject drops that smile (and before they reset to an expressionless mask) the face defaults to a more natural, emotionally-transparent expression, be it wariness, or contempt, or vulnerability. Any of these things would be better than that stiff caricature of friendliness — I’d take a real emotion over a construction any time.
How does this relate to cosplay photography? I am not sure. But my hunch in recent times is that we could elevate the emotional substance of cosplay photos by letting go of artifices, not just of the smile, but the innate need to look “cool” or “pretty” or “cute”.
I don’t want my photos to just look pretty.
Like an actor, to let go of the self, and for a moment, take on the role of the character; to dispense with the smile, and make visible that character’s fears, self-confidence, and brashness. For me, as a director, to have the confidence and relationship with the cosplayers to push past the mode du jour and together create something with depth, where everything contributes to that emotional impact.
To be sure, it’s all theoretical at this stage. Implementing such an approach will be a challenge — it would actually involve building a deep profile of a character as an essential part of shoot preparation. Given the depth usually afforded to these characters in the original material, a lot of their emotional being will need to be projected and derived from their actions.