The artifice of the smile

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.


  1. Furinkan

    Re: applying this thinking to cosplay photography. I like this idea. Amendment: I _love_ this idea. I think it has a lot of potential, though it’s pretty clear it won’t be an easy journey to get there.

    This said, I have some concerns (thinking out loud, not specifically aimed at you) about the basis for this thinking. The way I read Smith, he suggests that smiles are a universal facade, always a falsehood. This to me seems disingenuous. Would he, for example, tell his daughter to not smile for a photo on her wedding day?

    The desire for some sort of emotional truth is a noble one, and I think it’s fair to say that great portraits manage to communicate the subject’s character. I may be mistaken, but I also interpret from his writing an implication that by dropping the smile we’ve suddenly stripped away the mask of false personality that we held, which is clearly wrong. Pushing this train of thought, it would be folly to believe that any of the classical work cited is any less meticulously composed and constructed than a sentimental, smiling portrait.

    (Let me introduce you to my friend. Her name’s Mona, Mona Lisa.)

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that it’s wrong to attack the smile as the problem; that irks me. It’s *a* problem, sometimes, but it’s not *the* problem.

    The effect is a bit more pronounced in Japan than in the west – their cosplayers don’t smile, and there’s a lot of emotionless photographs out there…

    If you’re committing to this challenge then I wish you the best, and hope the outcome is rewarding.

    • Furinkan: Great comment!

      In my reading, Smith’s position is critical of the default smile that gets plastered on people’s faces in photos — he uses it as a distinction (not *the* distinction) between a snapshot and a more formalistic type portrait. It is important to note that for me, there is no absolute position for or against the smile. It’s simply a different way of doing things which could yield results, or an introduction into a larger topic of artifices.

      The smile is not the only mask there is, of course. I mentioned that shortly after the initial smile being taken off, the face resets to something expressionless, from which there is little chance of a return to any sort of emotion at all. It’s the instance between those masks that reveals true emotion.

      With paintings (and, as many critics of the “anti-smile brigade” mention, the Mona Lisa), the sitting process means the painter is able to observe the subject in their natural state, since if they are having to sit still for minutes or hours, that smile facade drops.

      In the case of the Mona Lisa, her smile is debatable, and certainly much more enigmatic than the spontaneous “here is someone taking a picture, CHEESE” version that we get with photography.

      In any case, comparing portrait paintings to photos is not very useful — painters can (and do) paint the expression of the subject as they interpret it (as mentioned, over a period of observation). Photographers must be content with the results they get out of the subject in that instance (sans Photoshop, of course).

      There are obvious difficulties with applying this concept to cosplay, because we are not trying to photograph the personality of the cosplayer, per se, but rather a constructed character.

      The technique of wiping the smile is one which destroys a facade, of revealing a truth within.

      Unless the cosplayer is a great actor, the character is but a shallow facade, destroyed along with the smile. The best we can do is to elicit real emotions that correspond with that of the character. If I want to do this, my current way is to make up a back story on the spot which hopefully results in the emotions I need.

  2. So much easier said than done. Being a good director to bring out the right feeling in photos is probably the most difficult aspect (to me). Having inexperienced actors doesn’t help, but I think it’s really more on the director to guide them into the mood.

    While also I created a dA group largely around the idea of promoting an emphasis on characters’ emotions:
    Sadly, rarely do I produce anything worthy of the group I founded, and ~80% of others’ submissions don’t make the cut either. And related making that cut, Note me (spooky-epiic) on dA if yo’d be interested in moderating the group.

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