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Don’t Say Cheese: Why Do the People in Contemporary Art Photographs Look So Blank?

Rineke DijkstraBeth, Liverpool, England, December 22, 2008 by Rineke Dijkstra, courtesy of the Marian Goodman Gallery

The A Smith Gallery isn’t in New York, London or Berlin. The town of Johnson City, Texas, where the gallery is located, is an hour’s drive from Houston and has a population of under 1,500. It’s a homespun place where people greet each other by name, and the art community there—three galleries, one of which opens sporadically—is modest. Yet last March, gallerist Amanda Smith did something fairly radical by contemporary-art standards. She mounted a photography exhibition called Smile.

Why are contemporary-art photographs so devoid of smiles? In many cases it’s not just an absence of joy, but a total lack of emotional affect. Walk into a high-end gallery in any major art city today, and—if photographs are on show—you’re likely to see images of people wearing blank, zombie-like expressions. The style, called deadpan, is ubiquitous.

Consider recent shows by artists Jitka Hanzlova and Lydia Panas, and last year’s Rineke Dijkstra retrospective at the Guggenheim. Look through Susan Bright’s Art Photography Now, which even in its expanded 2011 edition features almost no smiles in 240 pages. Certain successful young photographers—Loretta Lux, Rania Matar, Hellen Van Meene—even pull off what might seem an impossible feat: getting children to display no emotion. How did this happen?

Historically, emotional affect has had a complex relationship with photography. Early photographs are notably serious; smiling for a photograph didn’t become commonplace until the 1880s, when roll film and faster cameras made it possible to capture more spontaneous expressions. But putting on a smile for the camera soon became widespread, and in around 1910, photographers started telling subjects to “Say cheese” (a custom apparently started by a British school photographer).

The 1930s was a golden age for documentary photography, and photographs by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans captured dust bowl migrants with little to smile about—yet the emotional tone of the work was warm, since it took the viewer’s empathy as a given. Known as humanistic photography, this work was often in danger of toppling over into sentimentality, and perhaps because of that, there was a backlash against it in the postwar era, when the most influential photographers—Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman—substituted cynicism, irony, and voyeurism.

Arguably, though, the photographer who launched the current trend of deadpan portraiture was Thomas Ruff. In the 1980s, Ruff shot Portraits, a deadpan series of portraits of his fellow-students at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. Taken in flat light against plain backgrounds, these head-and-shoulders portraits had a seismic effect on the art world. The size of bus-shelter billboards, the portraits were hard to ignore, and along with his Dusseldorf contemporaries Candida Hofer and Andreas Gursky, Ruff became an art world star.

Ruff was influenced by the political situation in 1980s Germany, where a domestic terrorist group, the Red Army Faction, was carrying out targeted political assassinations and the police were surveilling the public. “I realized a photograph could be easily manipulated and misinterpreted; that the person behind the camera is really controlling it all,” Ruff told me. As a result, he directed his friends not to emote in front of the camera, as if protecting themselves from police intrusions.

By the 1990s, Ruff’s aesthetic had spread to Yale, where another group of young photographers—Katy Grannan, Justine Kurland, Malerie Marder—were studying in the MFA program. In different ways, these young women incorporated the blank gaze into their work. In 1999, Gregory Crewdson curated a show at Yale called Another Girl, Another Planet, featuring the work of Grannan, Kurland, and Marder, among others: it became one of the most talked-about photography exhibitions of the decade. At the same time, Dijkstra was picking up the baton in Europe, making portraits of adolescents that turned a meditative but clinical eye on young people’s fragile psyches.

Interestingly, these artists had divorced the deadpan gaze from its original context. Now the subjects’ anomie was no longer a generational reaction to a political crackdown, but seemed to express something almost opposite: its young subjects’ sense of self-absorption and disengagement from society.

Whether or not you see the deadpan gaze as blank, though, is a matter of opinion. We bring our own psychological weather to the images we consume, and to some people, what feels clinical and soulless in the blank gaze is, to others, a welcome reprieve. “I tend to feel that a smile is off-putting unless you have a personal connection to someone,” says Jennifer Blessing, the Guggenheim Museum’s senior curator of photography, who put together the Dijkstra retrospective last year. “It codes to a social superficiality; it’s like when someone asks how you are and you say, ‘Fine,’ and you’re not fine at all.”

All of which brings us back to the A Smith Gallery and Smile—the show that, in its modest way, challenged the deadpan aesthetic. So I wondered, how did it go? “It didn’t attract many entries,” says Smith with a laugh. While the gallery received hundreds of entries for another themed show, Chair, it faced a struggle in assembling material for Smile. “You can have a smirk, an ironic smile, a shy smile,” says Susan Barnett, a New York photographer who curated the show with Smith. “But a lot of the pictures that came in were snapshots; the show didn’t hit all the notes I wanted.”

This suggests that, even when specifically invited to, photographers have a hard time accepting the smile as legitimate in fine-art portraiture. Maybe this is inevitable in the age of Instagram, when art photographers have to work hard to distinguish themselves from the unwashed masses. Yet photography has never been just one thing, and with the advent of digital technology, the possibilities for its expansion are endless. It’s a big tent, with room inside for a range of expression, and expressions. If the art-photography world is to stay relevant, perhaps it will need to explore different corners of the tent.

David NamaskyDavid Namasky, courtesy of the A Smith Gallery

Sarah Coleman is a New York arts critic, fiction writer and blogger at the literate lens.

  • Stefan

    when reading the headline I was anticipating the question to be answered. but I was disappointed. I’m discussing the non-smile expression (I’m not using deadpan on purpose cause I believe there’s a huge difference) at any opportunity and prefer my subjects not to smile either. I do believe that – at least most of the time – a smile is the most untrue gesture if not even an inpenetrably mask covering the ‘real’ person’s nature (if thats depictable is another story). a smile is an emotional short-term reaction an therefore inappropriate for a what I call universal portrait. by universal I mean that a portrait is valid as representation of all various emotions of a person on the long term. at least that is my umderstanding…

  • I hate them.
    These lifeless portraits. The idea that a smile is somehow a falsity. I hate the fact that it has become a stricture, the way pictures should be.
    Sure, they are not putting on a smile for the photograph, but if you are posing for a photograph, in a studio, then you re in the realm of falseness anyway.

    But it’s this weird new orthodoxy. It’s this new conservatism. Pictures, without life, or guts, or joy. Pictures that are aloof, rather than wrestling with or enjoying their subjects.

  • For me it’s funny when photographer says to its model – don’t smile, relax. And what if I do smile when relaxed? The real torture for me is to get passport photos done these days – I really have to work hard to make a dead- like expression. I would leave it to the model to decide whether or not to smile, smirk or stay serious, unless I am doing some project and I need various expressions.

  • S

    Why don’t people smile in business portraits? Why didn’t they smile in August Sander’s portraits? Or Avedon’s? There’s too many holes in this article. But Ruairi is also correct – there is an orthodoxy at play currently. I think it has to do with magazines (who still commission most of the high end portraiture worldwide) and their perceived need for a house style. Plus the fact that 3 minutes is a long time with a subject these days. A poker-faced expression shot into a corner is a safe option for a decent and slightly ambiguous picture.

  • Thanks for the comments! Stefan and S, there is a longer version of this article that may prove more satisfying, you can see it here:

    http://www.aicausa.org/news/2-articles-by-art-writing-workshop-participant-sarah-coleman

    Also, I agree wholeheartedly that there is a big difference between simply not smiling and the deadpan aesthetic that emerged in the 1980s and that has become a staple of contemporary art. Most of the world’s great photo-portraits are serious, for the reasons you state.

  • Pete McCutchen

    I don’t mind the lack of smiles, per se. What I find odd is this embrace of utter blankness combined with flat light and an uninteresting setting. A person standing in the middle of the frame with a blank look, surrounded by nothing interesting — no good light, nothing.

  • Pete McCutchen

    People have expressions. They can look happy or sad, dazed and confused, annoyed, quizzical. I totally agree with you.

  • Noran Bakrie

    I notice this too.

    From what I observe, it is easier to stare at a disconnected subject. These days people are getting more shy – they avoid direct interaction (thanks to spending too much time on social media!), so when they see someone, at a blank state, disconnected from them — it’s more comfortable to notice them. Instead noticing someone who is so full of emotion, or staring back at you directly.

  • user xyyyz

    “If the art-photography world is to stay relevant, perhaps it will need to explore different corners of the tent.” … groan

  • JMinneapolis

    I agree with you. The only challenge will be if people show true emotion, then the critics will say it looks staged. Wonder if in part it’s not only the orthodoxy, but also a damned if you do… type philosophy?

  • I have pretty similar thoughts. I’m getting stuff from magazines and websites like Feature Shot daily. Usually with headlines: author examines this or author examines that. And of course, I go onto those websites to read the articles and look at photography. No matter what the “author examines”, more often than not it leaves no trace in me whatsoever. It’s like we were living in a world of subjects who don’t give a damn and, by extension, photographers who don’t give a damn as well. Commentary is limited to the write-up for such projects, the photos themselves, if taken out of context, would say absolutely nothing. Not in terms of emotion, not in terms of composition… We get snapshots. Of uneventful spaces and blank people. In some other circles, we are looking at the exact opposite: way over done, over complicated and over the top interpretations of human condition. With heavy handed symbolism. Usually being a composite of some sorts, with garish colours and strange colour grading to make the project in question look unique and fresh (which it doesn’t).
    Yes, there are still photographers out there creating really great pieces of art but sadly, their presence in various media is severely limited…

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