I’ll Never Ask You to Say, “Cheese!”.
Instead of trying to coax her subjects into a natural or typical position, they are encouraged to be awkward—that is, to pose. – Susan Sontag.
I’m not against smiles and laughter in a portrait-when it’s real. Someone that is being themselves, reflecting their sense of humor and happiness is a beautiful thing. On the occasion I did catch true laughter (and we all can tell the difference), I would quickly take the portrait. But I had to be ready, actually anticipating it. But know this, I’ll never ask anyone to say, “Cheese!”
Ugh! School portraits! In the late 70s and early 80s, the darker, thoughtful cameo picture within a picture was trendy. With hands folded angelically, staring dreamily off into space, these were thought to be the ideal portrait. Oh, how I hated those. These pictures were not really me. Mom would buy them even though they weren’t good, then distribute them throughout the family. I would have rather brought home a bad report card than that paper envelope with the clear cellophane window revealing my horrible picture. To avoid embarrassment, I would turn the top picture around so the window would be filled with nothingness, which I felt was a more accurate portrait of myself.
Looking back, I can’t remember any school picture that I liked. The 5×7 was surrounded by (always way too many) wallet sized pictures that would sit in a drawer forever. I didn’t have enough Grandparents to give them too. And guys didn’t want a picture of of another guy in their wallet. These pictures were a horrible likenesses, expensive, and whatever time we spent in the chair in front of the pastel blue/ grey cheap background, was not long enough for a real representation of me. I didn’t like the process, the photographer, or the day.
No genuine portrait should be a fake smile that quickly droops off with eyes glazed into something static and entranced.
Cheesy smiles, we see them everyday. It’s a put-on face. No one is always that happy and bubbly. I want to see many more emotions in a portrait. I want a glimpse of who someone is when no one is watching, in their weakest and strongest times. When I see a really good portrait, it makes want to talk to that person, I want to get to know them. They have allowed me entry into a more real part of their life, even if it’s but a glimpse. I want to explore them further- what are they thinking? How do they feel?
The whole idea for a portrait is supposed to be more than just an an image of a human. It should be a representation of a human that has goals, responsibilities, thoughts, ideas, good times and bad; who they are everyday, not just on “picture day”. There shouldn’t be a fuss over what is worn, the hair that must be perfect, the clothing and colors that match. It has to be more than someone placed into an uncomfortable pose, head turned, chin down, arms here, eyes there. Now say, “Cheese!” No genuine portrait should be a fake smile that quickly droops off with eyes glazed into something static and entranced. Yet, we accept (and pay for) these fraudulent pictures, then hang them in the family room for all to gaze upon.
I’m interested in the portrait of the person that is approachable, natural, genuine and that shows depth. The portrayal of a person, it’s a skill to do it well, and many photographers do represent the subject as they ought to be; as they are, but there are still those who chase only what will sell- the close-up, big cheesy smile.
I want to see the real person who is maybe like myself, and I don’t mind seeing the face of the person who is lost, who is nervous, who might have been down, or depressed, relaxed or calm. It shows me they are real. There is no facade facing the truth in their lives.
The act of posing is not natural, it is acting, and the portrait becomes like a movie poster – the cast of the movie that is portraying characters. I want reality, and not everyone can be an actor all the time. The real person has to come through. I must see them in similar situations to my own to make a connection with them through the image. Sometimes solemn, thoughtful, seductive, even hateful, but always real, and any of these are acceptable as long as it’s authentic.
Some 30 years after I sat for my school pictures, my youngest son sat for his college graduation pictures. In front of a green screen that would be horribly turned into a digital background, he posed in his green cap and gown. I saw that nothing has changed in school portraits in all these years. There was this grin on his face… that might have even been acceptable if his glasses didn’t have a hard glare on them from a flash that fired soon after the photographer called out, “Say cheese!”
Son, it wasn’t your fault…