The class smile : Portrait photography and the culture of expressivity

Abstract. Although frequently debated, the phenomenon linked to the development of the smile in twentieth-century portrait photography has always defied explanation. The present article draws on the conventional aspect of the portrait to describe this evolution through the prism of an historical adaptation to a social norm: the shift from a culture of restraint to a culture of expressivity spanning the 1930s to the 1950s. This transformation was underpinned not only by the reflexivity of media representations but by the consecration of an ethos of authenticity in self-presentation, fostered by amateur photography and the cinema. As the standard bearer of this evolution the toothy smile was to establish itself as a photographic sign in its own right, a modernist embodiment of the sociability of the middle classes as they rose to become an unprecedented subject of historical research.

André Gunthert, «Un sourire de classe. Le portrait photographique et la culture de l’expressivité», Transbordeur. Photographie, histoire, société, n° 6, février 2022, p. 136-149  (French version).

In his renowned article ‘Le message photographique’ (1961), Roland Barthes defines mimetic representation by the absence of code.1 In response to this analysis, Umberto Eco, together with art historian Ernst Gombrich, recalls the conventional nature of ‘imitative codes’. Among these cultural conventions, the semiotician evokes the ‘codes of expressivity’ developed in the field of the figurative arts.

Eco’s brief comment did not carry enough impact to kindle any real curiosity. On the cusp of the 2000s, however, a number of publications relaunched the debate on photographic expressivity by taking a more direct slant: why had nineteenth-century photographs produced such an array of severe faces compared to the joyful expressions that flourished in the following century? This enigma has returned to haunt specialised journals ever since, with images to prove the point. Over-hasty researchers have readily assumed that the answer lay in circumstantial obstacles such as the length of pose or poor dental hygiene. Behind these contingencies however, a riveting situation was being played out: as the conventions of the portrait evolved, they were met by the emergence of a new expressive culture, reflecting the upsurge of the middle classes. And photography was to play a key role in appropriating this culture.

The enigma of the photographic smile

The diagnosis had always been accepted as a given. If the question of expressivity in the realm of photography had never bothered anyone, it was simply because there was an obvious answer: the serious demeanour of nineteenth-century portraits was an inevitable offshoot of the lengthy poses, which made it impossible to capture the fleeting facial expression of a smile.2 Needless to say there were exceptions, such as the famous photographs featured by Charles Darwin in 1872, in The Expression of the Emotions…, but this prowess was due to the art of Oscar Rejlander and could not conceivably be reproduced in an ordinary studio (fig. 1).(( Swedish photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1813-1875) was well known for his ability to capture emotions and feelings. Darwin used several of his portraits, together with the reconstituted facial expressions conceived by Guillaume Duchenne de Boulogne (1862).))

Using these incontrovertible technical constraints to recreate the enigma stemmed in fact from the reformulation of the question. American culture historian Fred E. H. Schroeder, followed by Australian art historian Angus Trumble, both focused on a specific facial expression, the toothy smile, a reference to the expanding magazine industry in the 1930s, and pinpointed an unexpected causal explanation: the improvement in dental hygiene as a result of developments in dentistry. If the canons of deportment in the nineteenth century advocated closing one’s mouth, it was simply to prevent displaying the population’s appalling teeth, riddled with decay.

Many an objection can be raised to this material approach. The antinomy between a period featuring serious portraits and another highlighting the smile actually relied on global ‘connoisseurship’ rather than detailed analysis. No substantiated evidence was offered based on local corpora, which would have gauged the temporality of the phenomenon and enabled a closer examination of the exceptions. A more recent work, which also takes up the idea of developments in dentistry as one of the reasons for the advent of the smile, shifts the issue back an entire century, placing the expressive revolution in the late eighteenth century, its benchmark being Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun’s self-portrait with her daughter (fig. 2), a large canvas featured in the 1787 Salon de Peinture, in which the artist parts her lips to reveal her teeth.

Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, Mme Vigée Le Brun et sa fille, 1786, musée du Louvre.

In both painting and photography, numerous examples of smiling portraits prior to the twentieth century do indeed exist. In the realm of painting, one merely needs to stand back from the studio portrait to find miniatures featuring a whole gamut of facial expressions more in line with modern sensibilities. The toothy smile is admittedly rare – but one should add that right up to the 1930s its figurative depiction was interpreted as a laugh and not as a smile. Focusing on the open mouth obliterates the stages of a more complex process and opens up the pitfalls of anachronism. Furthermore, advocates of the dental hygiene argument overlooked the fact that the portrait is never a mirror. Both painters and professional photographers were well used to retouching works and covering over dental imperfections, assuming there were any, would have presented no problem.

In photography, the constraints of lengthy poses did not preclude the introduction of the smile in erotic portraits, dating back to the daguerreotype (fig. 3). In the second half of the nineteenth century, it was also to appear frequently in the portraits of actors – and particularly actresses. Conversely, although the implementation of dry processes in the 1880s now enabled poses to be held for less than a second, it was only in 1920-1930 that the smiling portrait really took off – a discrepancy incompatible with the hypothesis that attributed sole responsibility to the length of pose. Lastly, a less fleeting appraisal of nineteenth-century photographs shows that renowned portraitists such as Nadar or Carjat found no satisfaction in reproducing a lifeless copy of an inanimate face. The laugh or smile may have been rare occurrences in their repertoire but their palette of expressions were as diverse as they were intense, frequently inspired by pictorial models (fig. 3-4).

As Angus Trumble and Colin Jones do not fail to point out, the choice of expressivity is not simply dictated by the material conditions of representation. By delving not only into the psychology of the expression of emotions but into the cultural history governing their manifestation, the two historians link the existence of the smile in the portrait to a number of factors, in which social norms and figurative conventions are interwoven. By taking cultural influences into account the plot thickens: the development of the smile could well be attributed to a cloning of celebrity portraits or magazine advertisements.

In the same vein, in 2005 Christina Kotchemidova cited Kodak advertisements as the main source of the proliferation of toothy smiles. In accordance with the precepts inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s cultural hegemony theory, amateur photographers seem to have adopted Kodak’s illustrated adverts or instruction manuals as the basis for their models. Professionals then jumped on the bandwagon, anxious to preserve their market share.

From the standpoint of these conclusions, a data mining study was carried out by the University of Berkeley to measure the evolution of the smile among American high school students throughout the twentieth century, based on a corpus of 38.000 portraits taken from almost one thousand yearbooks. (Ginosar et al, 2017) The chart collating this research reflects steady progress until the 1950s when the expression levels out, showing a marked gender difference: during this period, women’s smiles were approximately 20% wider than their male counterparts (fig. 5). The study provides no explanation for these variations.3

Although Christina Kotchemidova sees Kodak as a highly significant influence, by her own admission this is not backed by any specific source. Unlike the famous instruction ‘Say cheese’, traditionally addressed by professional photographers to their sitters, none of the Kodak manuals or advertisements contains explicit instructions on how to adopt a smiling pose. The researcher compensates for this by highlighting the prescriptive role of the illustrations.

The influence of Kodak’s manuals, like the hypothesis regarding the imitation of other dominant models, is therefore linked to an unverifiable premise. Once again, indeed, a closer examination of the iconography contradicts the assumption. A study of the corpus of photo albums produced by French amateur photographers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for instance, shows an abundance of smiling faces, despite the fact that at that period and in that area the hegemonic position of the Rochester firm had not yet been established.4 From a chronological perspective it would appear that Kodak did not in fact dictate contemporary photographic culture, following instead in the wake of the latest developments and borrowing images from the pages of family albums to create its illustrated guides (fig. 6). (Gunthert, 2015)

Regardless of whether they stem from practical constraints or cultural influences, none of the proffered solutions to the enigma of the smile appears truly convincing. Should the question have been formulated differently? Its recent following relies on the visibility of a deceptively simple indicator, often associated with the classic formula ‘Say cheese’, set against a backdrop of increasingly easy access to substantial collections of images from ancient and modern times. The contrast between two periods characterised by the absence or presence of the smile, however, despite its overall pertinence, only bears analysis if one refrains from turning the result into the cause, or in other words presupposes that the smile represents the inexorable horizon of human representation. For this perspective is undoubtedly the consequence of an evolution that imposed this facial expression as a new expressive norm.

Even a superficial examination of photographic output reveals that smiles cover a wide spectrum, and that a variety of situations and intentions exist beyond the confines of this simple antithesis. In the nineteenth century, patently joyful expressions often went hand in hand with specific groups, such as women and children or actors, or with specific genres like the erotic portrait or the family photograph. Studio portraits for their part did not discount expressivity but preferred to offer a range of manifestations of human representation, rooted in the tradition of the painted portrait. The issue should not therefore be reduced to the presence or absence of the smile but focus instead on the substitution of one expressive norm for another, its conditions and reasons.

A new culture of expressivity

When examining the expressivity of the portrait, the image sometimes comes across as a neutral vector while the smile is seen as a manifestation of the ‘natural’ language of emotions. An analysis implies deconstructing both these fallacies. As a quintessentially social image, the portrait has never represented a simple restoration of facial appearance. Spanning a wide spectrum of different applications and contexts, the genre raises the question of who is being targeted by the image, what function it fulfils and what conditions its visibility. The tombstone uses a single image to depict the individual within the public space. Sidestepping the random, its aim is to sum up a life, focusing on ethos and permanency to the detriment of pathos and ephemeral emotion with regard to the facial traits, and building a narrative by means of attributes, such as dress or setting, to express a successful career (fig. 7). These characteristics are the cornerstones of the tradition of the ‘portrait de condition’, the genre usually associated with portrait painting. (Allard et al., 2007)

Other representations and practices exist however. In the realm of the miniature they belong in the private domain (fig. 8), their small format making them easy to transport and present as a gift to close relatives and friends as reminders of a loved one. The smile that often lights up these faces is a clue to their sentimental, romantic or family nature and is reserved for their nearest and dearest. Contemporary strictures regarding such niceties, however, led to damning judgments of self-portraits such as that of Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun, whose subject and rendering conjured up the private sphere: ‘A preciousness reproved not only by artists but by amateurs and people of taste, and which finds no example among our forebears, is the laugh that reveals her teeth, a particularly unseemly affectation in a mother: in so doing, she relinquishes any control over her movements and abandons herself without restraint to the excesses of her sentimental enthusiasm.’ (Mouffle d’Angerville, 1787)

Similarly, the history of emotions demonstrates that their portrayal is inextricably linked to social convention. Although Romanticism had lifted the taboo on turbulent manifestations of the soul, nineteenth- century social mores relegated this freedom to the private domain, imposing self-control in the public space. (Courtine, Haroche, 1988) According to this 1820 account, written by a Prefect from Marseille: ‘The head [of the family] has to deal with complex business issues all day long and is only able to relax on his return home. Everyone runs to greet him. He smiles at the sight of his children at play.’ (De Villeneuve, 1820)

Nevertheless, many examples of more demonstrative forms of expressivity crop up in popular illustrations, cartoons, the music hall and children’s literature. A spontaneous reportage carried out by photographer Charles Lansiaux in 1914 in the streets of Paris confirms the existence of an expressive freedom among the working classes within the public arena, at a time when the conventions of bourgeois propriety still carried considerable weight (fig. 8). (Gunthert, 2014)

The expression of emotions, however, was dictated even more by divisions of class than by the dichotomy between public and private. ‘The noisy manifestation of emotions (mainly in the form of tears but occasionally associated with laughter) was judged with disdain by the elite, who saw it as the hallmark of those who had relinquished all self-control by allowing their instinct to take over.’ (Walch, 2016) Although expressivity was not lacking in the public space, its manifestation nevertheless erred systematically on the ‘wrong’ side: towards nature rather than culture, animality rather than humanity, childhood rather than maturity, femininity rather than masculinity, the working class rather than the elite, the primitive rather than the civilised, folly rather than sense. It became necessary to read beyond the smile and question the value system permitting or prohibiting its depiction. The jovial laughter portrayed in advertisements for Banania (Giacomo de Andreis, 1915) and La Vache qui rit (Benjamin Rabier, 1926), for instance, found its justification through its comical mise en scène and a reliance on low-ranking figures, aimed at a childhood audience (figs 10-11).

Gisèle Freund describes photography as an instrument for the democratisation of the portrait: ‘The photographic portrait corresponds to a specific moment in social evolution, when broad strata of society began climbing the social ladder to achieve greater political and social significance.’ (Freund, 1974) The advent of this new technology did not however make any marked indent on tradition. The subjects who made the most of the opportunities offered by the photographic industry continued to maintain the upper-class conventions propagated by painting and above all the need to restrain one’s emotions in public.

It was not until the 1890s, when amateur photography really came into its own thanks to dry plate processes and the standardisation of photographic equipment, that an evolution in representational codes could be perceived. On the one hand, the rapidity of the operation, together with the sensitivity of gelatin silver bromide, paved the way for the spontaneous snapshot; while on the other the appropriation by its key players influenced the scope of situations and subjects. In the intimacy of his own surroundings, the amateur photographer made the most of the relaxed atmosphere generated by gatherings of family and friends. ‘The considerable advantage of his friendship with his models, and the precious familiarity he had nurtured with them’, (Chambertrand, 1937) enabled the photographer to record genuinely interactive situations, in which expressivity was given full rein (figs. 12-13). It was against this specific backdrop that a new conviviality began to leave its mark on family albums.

Was this turning point sufficient to explain the generalisation of the smile in portrait photography? (Smargiassi, 2020) The slow dissemination of amateur photography in the social fabric makes it difficult to provide an unequivocal answer to this question. To say the least, it would seem that amateur photography failed to bring about a rapid sea change in the portrait’s expressivity.5  In the realm of the painted portrait, after all, the miniature and portrait de condition had already permitted the co-existence of different expressive choices, by virtue of their respective sizes and practices. Amateur production was not moreover in direct competition with the studio portrait: in the early twentieth century, more often than not, the subjects, composition, quality and size of the images made it possible to differentiate between the various genres.

It took much longer for the role of amateur photography to get a mention in specialised publications. It was only in the early 1930s that one began to see critiques such as those of photographer Marcel Natkin in his L’Art de voir et la Photographie: ‘How often, when opening a newspaper or admiring photographs, have you been struck by the spontaneity and vivacity of their subjects’ expressions? And how often, on the contrary, have you regretfully contemplated the portraits executed by professionals in which, despite all the clever lighting, the figures are so static and the poses so forced that the works can only conceivably satisfy their creator? In recent years, however, professional photography has fortunately been given a new lease of life, precisely thanks to amateur photography. And as public taste has gradually become more educated, it has resisted the deployment of a superior technique at the expense of the natural.’ (Natkin, 1935)

Two years later, in his appeal for a ‘modern’ portrait, photographer Gilbert de Chambertrand took up and expanded this analysis: ‘Until recently, the portrait photographer would do his utmost to bestow upon his client a stance that not only failed to resemble a human being but made him look more like a statue. Everything about it was petrified, stiff, irrevocable. […] Today this has fortunately changed. The outdoor life, sport and the cinema have pointed us in the direction of more faithful representations of the human figure; we no longer see wrinkles as an irredeemable infamy because we have learned that they disappear just as they appeared, in accordance with one’s emotions, and that their aim is precisely to express such emotions’ (Chambertrand, 1937) (fig. 14).

Although the causes may be differently formulated, the repetitious phrasing and stereotypical nature of the diagnosis raises suspicion. Although the cinema and amateur photography did influence the photographic portrait, their respective chronologies fail to establish any flagrant correlations. Citing a crisis in photographic tradition is on the other hand typical of 1925-1935 modernist criticism, brandishing its hallmark belief in a ‘New Vision’ following the demise of pictorialism.6 This period also witnessed the renewal of photojournalism and the documentary image, inspired by methods of political communication, which turned the facial expression into an essential instrument of the iconic narrative. (Amao et al., 2018)

Grounded in advertising and the magazine culture, which prioritised the image, this renewal of the narrative tools of photography echoed the expressive revolution of the silent movies at the turn of the century. By rekindling the resource of non-verbal languages, mobilised by the graphic arts, this working-class theatre without words relied on pantomime and visual exaggeration to guarantee visibility. The invention of the close-up, which used the face and its expressive repertoire to shine the spotlight on the story, epitomised the reversal of codes currently pervading the iconographical landscape. Buoyed up by a burgeoning communication economy, the encounter between the narrative bias of an ever-increasing expressivity and the recording media heralded a new image culture, perceived by its peers as more authentic, more reflexive and more modern than graphic representation.

This new culture of expressivity also bore the mark of powerful social evolutions. The shift from the strictures of bourgeois convention to greater freedom in public behaviour ran parallel to the gradual instauration of the middle classes as a new historical topic. Whereas at the turn of the twentieth century, the advertising world was still focusing on upper-class models to generate desire, the years 1930-1940 clearly favoured the aspirations and values of the new emerging class. The smile radiating from these faces contrasted sharply with the reserve connected to elite social standing. The expressivity of amateur photography, the cinema and photojournalism became a class signature, encapsulating the visibility of the new protagonists.7

A photographic sign

In his essay Believing is Seeing, film director Errol Morris carried out an investigation into one of the images taken in Abu Ghraib prison in 2003; it featured soldier Sabrina Harman posing, thumb raised and with a broad grin, next to the corpse of a prisoner (fig. 13). (Morris, 2011) This incongruous juxtaposition, which lent even more weight to the scandal triggered by these photographs, inspired Morris to analyse the reasons behind the young woman’s pose. For her part, Harman claimed it was a reflex reaction to having one’s photo taken. When questioned by Morris, psychologist Paul Ekman confirmed that a physiological analysis of Sabrina Harman’s expression indicated that this was indeed a ‘social smile’. The contraction of the muscles surrounding the eye, which combine with the zygomatic muscle to produce a spontaneous smile, is effectively missing here.

Morris sees this as proof that the soldier’s expression is not one of glee but simply a sign devoid of significance dictated by the photographic pose, which he equates to the facial expression generated by the injunction to ‘Say cheese’. This demonstration also suggests that the conventional nature of the photographic smile is not a commonly received fact, to the extent that an image professional actually needs to seek the opinion of a non-verbal communication specialist to establish it.

This conventional aspect was still clearly perceptible at the beginning of the early twentieth century. The earliest references to the photographic smile, back in 1900, criticised the ‘forced smile’ imposed on the model in the context of studio portrait.8 In the interaction between operator and subject as the pose is struck, the habit of warning the subject that the shot is imminent goes back as far as photography itself. The expression ‘Don’t move!’ is cited as a ritual formula as early as 1853.[30] During the first decades of the twentieth century, numerous examples in the French-speaking press and in literature allude to yet another injunction: ‘Don’t move!… Smile!…’, a photographer’s cliché that went on to become a butt for jokes: ‘The dentist used to be a photographer. He’s brought the habits of his old job with him. That’s why he says to his patient before every operation: “Don’t move!… Smile!…”’ (Le Masque de fer, 1908)

The same applies to the English-speaking world and its expression ‘Say cheese’. According to Trumble, this stratagem which implies turning up one’s lips in a facial expression imitating a toothy smile, dates back to the 1910s and stems from English public schools – but the historian provides no sources to uphold this theory. (Trumble, 2004) The expression recurs however in 1943, in an American journal, which heralds it as a novelty. (Coons, 1943) In the 1920s, the widespread use of another stereotypical expression, ‘Smile please’, became in its turn a photographic cliché. (Anon., 1928) The artificial nature unanimously associated with these approaches explains why instruction booklets by Kodak and others, aimed at amateur photographers, lack any recommendation to smile.9

This data, however, would appear to contradict the culture of expressivity agenda targeted by photojournalism and advertising from the 1930s. Partisans of expressivity effectively made a point of distinguishing between modern taste and the studio expedient. ‘One should not believe that the hackneyed injunction to “Smile!” is enough in itself to light up a face’, claimed Gilbert de Chambertrand (1937). Despite the confusion between the forced smile and expressive culture,10 it appears viable to separate the quest for the natural from its simulation, the two models being entirely different: the convention of the smiling pose was indeed established before the consecration of expressive sincerity. This new recommendation, however, modified both the meaning and the social impact of the smile, creating a watershed in the evolution of photographic convention.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the live recording of a spontaneous gesture, as idealised by the documentary, the use of the pose encouraged the development of specific interaction, the photographic subject not only being aware of the process but through his or her performance playing an active role in its successful outcome. Within the framework of this contrived exercise and assuming the model was prepared to accept the conventions of appearance, the introduction of the smile to animate the portrait constituted a solution that was not only easy to implement from the photographer’s point of view but proved generally satisfactory to the customer. The forced smile did away with cumbersome studio accessories while creating a formula that could be easily standardised in the context of the rapid pace of the local photographer’s production.

Another advantage of this calculated expressivity is to resolve the iconographical hurdle of the smile’s polysemy. While this facial expression constitutes a universal and easily identifiable sign, its meaning always relies heavily on the context. A sign of contentment between a mother and her child, a sign of reciprocal affection between close friends or family, a sign of a satisfactory agreement between business partners, a sign of collusion between two accomplices or a sign of conventional courtesy between two strangers, the smile requires a substantiated situational framework to be interpreted. This trait is a cornerstone of the famous ‘mystery’ surrounding the Mona Lisa, a smiling portrait which unfortunately fails to give any explanation for her expression. The forced smile of the photographic portrait, like the Mona Lisa’s, is a facial expression whose only contextual legitimacy comes from the pose (fig. 16).11 It was in this way that the expression gained new meaning and became a photographic sign in its own right, the symbol of the subject’s consent and active involvement in the operation.

The significance of this negotiation with the pose comes with the realisation that it has transcended the world of professional photography to become a key element in amateur photography. The constraints of having one’s photo taken, now a banal everyday experience, have seen subjects reacting in a similar way to the spontaneous pose struck by soldier Sabrina Harman. The reflex of freezing in a deliberately controlled posture appears to be the most acceptable compromise if one wants to avoid the risk of a detrimental image.

However minimal, the subjects’ contribution to the procedure grants them the status of actor. Inter-media influences apart, it is probably at this point that the link can be restored between professional practices abetted by wide visibility, like the cinema, advertising and photojournalism, which ensure the renewal of visual language, and more modest practices, such as self-produced photography or studio portraits, which stand as the guardians of self-representation. The convention of the smile enables each and everyone to access the culture of expressivity.

The reception given worldwide to the expression ‘Say cheese’, which probably dates back to the 1940s, attests to a shift in the norm. Whereas in the early twentieth century the encouragement to smile for the photograph equated for the most part to a facial expression involving closed lips (fig. 17), with additional instructions to ‘Keep absolutely still! Just give me a discreet smile’), (Emery, 1908) the English catchphrase implied revealing one’s teeth, a more blatant sign of happiness (fig. 18). The statistical data mining survey carried out by the University of Berkeley, (Ginosar et al., 2017) which focuses on a coherent corpus of posed portraits, illustrates the success of the new convention. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century, the photographic smile became broader, leading Edgar Morin to describe it as a ‘synthesis of the laugh and the smile’ and suggest that it was in fact the definition itself of the smile that was being transformed. (Morin, 1957) Perceptions also changed. The 1960s put an end to teasing and references to the artificial nature of the smiling pose. As the acknowledgment of the convention took hold, the compulsory smile became a ritualised component of the photographic experience.

A specialist in the anthropology of communication, Erving Goffman describes non-verbal interactions as ritualised acts, their informative value being based on relative uniformity and shared forms. In the photographic version of these behavioural patterns, when deliberately highlighted by advertising, he observes an increased emphasis on the standardised, exaggerated or simplified implementation of this lexicon, which he terms ‘hyper-ritualisation’. (Goffman, 1977) The signals’ reinforced visibility mechanism seems to fit the description of the expanding smile, making it possible to pinpoint a conventional dimension relating to its own iconographical manifestation.

The photographic smile is able to reproduce the facial expression’s social messages when used in context – satisfaction, seduction, hospitality, etc. It can also serve as an all-purpose indication of any kind of successful interaction. Smiling at the camera, however, is a photographic adaptation of the social ritual and produces its own autonomous significance as the shot is being taken. As the smile is first and foremost a way of exchanging, using it to address the viewer in the form of an interactive mime bestows on self-presentation an indication of sociability and honesty, the modernist expression of egalitarian accessibility. The perception of this communicational value is borne out by examples of calculated refusals to comply with the smiling norm: the so-called cool pose for instance, the embodiment of Afro-American masculinity, or the deliberately haughty attitude adopted by fashion models. (Boulton, 2007) A fairly recent example underlines the extent of this mutation, which even touches upon the hallowed echelons of tradition, demonstrating how the expressive portrait has reshuffled the lexicon of self-presentation. In 1974, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing implemented in symbolic form his aspirations towards modernity by breaking with the series of official presidential portraits and asking photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue to create a new image of power (fig. 20).

There are four clues that distinguish the new incumbent’s portrait from those of his forebears: the shift from full-length shot to close-up, from a staged setting and formal dress to a decontextualized environment, from a scenography that isolates the object of the gaze to a frontality that seeks interaction with the viewer, and finally the transition from an expressive neutrality to a smile. From the portrait-monument to the expressive portrait, the theatrically-inspired narrative evolves into a self-presentation in which the conventional nature of the pose is masked by the sociability of the facial expression. Like the cinematic close-up, the face has become the essential space for the visual narrative.

The smile is no more a stable expression of a universally recognisable emotion, guaranteed to survive by virtue of its iconographical legacy, than the photograph is an image without a code. On the contrary, the evolution in its perception and representation, the culmination of a fascinating interchange between social norms, expressive codes and iconographical conventions, heralded the establishment of a new culture of self-presentation which ultimately altered the definition of the smile itself and in the space of a few decades caused it to shift from its connotation as a discreet expression of interiority to a public sociability norm. As a new iconographical sign, the toothy smile also represents the performative acknowledgment of a new society. The crux of this mutation lay in the rise of the middle-classes, swept along by the expanding consumer society but also by the radical novelty of a recording imagery that guaranteed their reflexivity in a burgeoning media landscape. The convergence of the visual arts around a more authentic rendition of the human being implied abandoning a conventional bourgeois demeanour, not in order to introduce an absence of code into the image but to feature new rituals with which the middle classes could identify. Instead of a sociability based on reserve and distance, the aspirations conveyed by the expressive portrait mirrored a progress in individual autonomy and an egalitarian endorsement of new social visibility. Alongside film and amateur photography, and reflecting the world of advertising and photojournalism, the photographic portrait has guaranteed the dissemination of this visibility within the very heart of the social fabric.

Translated from French by Caroline Taylor Bouche


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  • Barthélemy Mouffle d’Angerville, Lettre I sur le Salon de 1787, cité par Louis Petit de Bachaumont, Les Salons de Bachaumont, F. Faré (éd.), Nogent-sur-Marne, Librairie des Arts et métiers, 1995.
  • Marcel Natkin, L’Art de voir et la Photographie, Paris, Tiranty, 1935, p. 58.
  • Fred E. H. Schroeder, «Say cheese! The revolution in the aesthetics of smiles», Journal of Popular Culture, septembre 1998, vol. 32, no 2, p. 103-145.
  • Philippe de Séran, Les Maîtres de la photographie, Paris, Simonis Empis, 1900, p. 13.
  • Michele Smargiassi, «Breve storia del fotosorriso», Sorridere. La fotografia comica e quella ridicola, Rome, Contrasto, 2020, p. 13-47.
  • Angus Trumble, A Brief History of the Smile, New York, Basic Books, 2004.
  • Varin, Saint-Yves, Bureau, L’Amour au daguerréotype. Vaudeville en un acte, Clermont, Impr. A. Daix, 1853, p. 15.
  • Giorgio Vasari,
Vies des artistes (1568, trad. par L. Leclanché et Ch. Weiss), Paris, Grasset, 2007, p. 189.
  • Christophe de Villeneuve, préfet des Bouches-du-Rhône, Marseille, 1820, cité par Edward Shorter, Naissance de la famille moderne, trad. S. Quadruppani, Paris, Seuil, 1977, p. 281.
  • Hugo van Wadenoyen, All About Portraits And Your Camera, Londres, The Focal Press, 1945, p. 11.
  • Agnès Walch, «De l’âme sensible à l’avènement scientifique des émotions: la densification des émotions dans la sphère privée», Alain Corbin (dir.), Histoire des émotions II. Des Lumières à la fin du XIXe siècle, Paris, Seuil, 2016, p. 203-226.
  1. «Thus can be seen the special status of the photographic image: it is a message without a code», Roland Barthes (1961). []
  2. «With collodion, when the patient had to remain still for at least fifteen or twenty seconds, any attempt to improve the result in terms of the expression would have been futile, whereas today, with the advent of gelatin bromide, the pose only lasts one or two seconds, making it feasible to provoke or catch an expression in motion» (André Courrèges,1898). []
  3.  Social psychology research confirms the discrepancy, describing the smile as a largely gender-based act (Marianne LaFrance, et al. 2000). []
  4. The corpus of these amateur albums is held in the Musée français de la photographie in Bièvres and the Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC) in Caen. []
  5. Such generalisations must be viewed with the utmost caution, considering the fragmentary nature of their sources. A statistical study of selfies posted on Instagram in New York, Moscow, Berlin, Bangkok and São Paulo has uncovered the existence of significant local variations, probably representative of amateur productions as a whole (Lev Manovich, et al., 2015). []
  6. The chronology given here is European but it corresponds to a wider spectrum including among others the United States (Lugon, 2001). []
  7. The study conducted by Pierre Bourdieu (1965), which attributes the practice of amateur photography to the middle classes, can be read as a confirmation of this hypothesis. []
  8. «The photographer, however, needs to face the pitfall of the forced smile, set in a mask in which the unblinking indifference of the eye is belied by the joy on the lips» (de Séran, 1900). []
  9. «Don’t, please don’t ask for a smile!» (Wadenoyen, 1945). []
  10. Many authors fail to differentiate between the natural and the forced smile. In her article, ‘Why We Say “Cheese”. Producing the Smile in Snapshot Photography’, C. Kotchemidova describes the practice of amateur photography but identifies the photographic smile in terms of the professional injunction «Say cheese». []
  11. The first critic to describe the painting, Giorgio Vasari offered a purely pragmatic explanation of the Mona Lisa’s smile, which he attributed to her pose: «Since Mona Lisa was very beautiful, Leonardo employed this technique: while he was painting her portrait, he had musicians who played or sang and clowns who would always make her merry in order to drive away her melancholy, which painting often brings to portraits» (Vasari, 1568). []