Archival Intervention

I amassed a considerable number of photographs whilst living aboard a boat and sailing from the UK to Mallorca.  The pictures span a period of around four years but not all of that time was spent travelling.  During the winter months when sea conditions are unfavorable, travelling yachts tend to hole up for several months in convivial marinas.

In looking through this archive I noticed that there are distinct classes – photographs taken from the boat, those taken of the boat and those taken ashore.  I have selected thirty or so which are of, and which all feature crew members at the wheel.

Throughout the trip we had amateur crew joining us for up to two weeks at a time.  They got to do most of the boaty things including steering (helming).  In most of the pictures they are aware of being photographed and are grinning from ear to ear.  I’m pretty sure this was an expression of enjoyment in helming ten tons of moving sailboat, but it presents a small but significant conundrum in the realm of portraiture – the smile.

Portraits made by portraitists, whether painters or photographers, tend to eschew the smile.  Anything more pronounced than a faint sneer is generally discouraged, perhaps because such expressions are associated with the family snapshot.  But the question prompted me to consider it further.

The Smile Problem

In Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) the portrait painter Miss La Creevy ponders the difficulty:

…People are so dissatisfied and unreasonable, that, nine times out of ten, there’s no pleasure in painting them. Sometimes they say, “Oh, how very serious you have made me look, Miss La Creevy!” and at others, “La, Miss La Creevy, how very smirking!”… In fact, there are only two styles of portrait painting; the serious and the smirk; and we always use the serious for professional people (except actors sometimes), and the smirk for private ladies and gentlemen who don’t care so much about looking clever.  Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby

There are clear reasons why smiling was discouraged in historical renditions.  It was difficult to maintain a smile for long periods whilst being painted; for longer periods, the face in repose is easier to endure. In 17th century Europe It was considered vulgar to show teeth in everyday life, so it was unthinkable to smile broadly in a painting.  Often sitters wanted to maintain gravitas by appearing serious, even stern.

So why now?

Why this characteristic persists in ‘art photography portraits’ is unclear.  Possibly a smile undermines the seriousness of the photograph, levity interfering the photographer’s intent.  ‘Don’t smile, this is art’.  A smile is also an outward indication of the nature of the relationship which exists at the time of making between the sitter and the photographer.  If a smile is seen, we become aware that the two knew each other – it betrays  a connection an earlier conversation, – perhaps they had discussed the picture, chatted about the lighting – then prepared to make the photo – for the viewing of ‘US’.

A smile undermines the fiction that the sitter has been caught unawares, that somehow they have been persuaded, by trickery or deception, to allow us the viewer a secret insight into the true self, a glimpse of their true personality rather than a façade behind which they hide.   A smile says ‘I know you’re looking at me and I’m ready for it’.  The face in repose allows a degree of privileged access, the sitter is saying ‘ oh hello, I was just thinking about something else you caught me I was miles away’

The viewer is complicit in this fiction because it suits our purpose; we want to believe that we have the power to discern subtle clues to the subject’s character, enabling us to assemble a more comprehensive view of them.

We grew up like this

There is a profound evolutionary imperative involved here.  The ability to read important information from facial and to a degree postural cues, is an important survival characteristic for many species, but particularly for humans.  Considerable mental resources are dedicated to noticing and interpreting facial microgestures and this facility is implemented in an extensive brain architecture dedicated almost entirely to the purpose.  In a societal animal there is considerable value in being able to understand and react appropriately to non-verbal cues.

Photos and paintings

By the time we reach our early twenties we have gathered vast experience of decoding the meanings in people’s faces.  We can tell broadly whether someone is likely to be telling the truth, whether they like us or not, what the chances are of them clobbering us.  Little wonder that the brain, when presented with a photographic rendition of a face, begins its customary assessment procedure, searching for the clues, signs and expressions, drawing the conclusions on which we have learned to rely.

But the photograph is a static object and much of the information we normally read from pose and expression is in dynamic form; crucial detail is to be found in the transitions.  Once having made the preliminary assumptions from the obvious, gross factors, the brain is free to begin riffing on the possibilities – it seeks meaning  from a picture which is unable to provide it.  From this point our personal experience plays a more important role as we rely on what we’ve learned over the years about faces and how they work, learning which is culturally specific.

Here are some photographs which are linked through a number of factors – a boat, a journey, a period of time and new friendships. All of the subjects are at the wheel:





Here’s the unedited group: