Blog 9 more smile: photo and drawing

Blog 2 reading the smile in photos and in drawings

I mean here by reading: recognizing an expression – a universal ability.

These are blog speculations about the illusion of the smile, the fixed smile, the difference between how we look at photos and at drawings. Up to now I had not thought about it so much; usually, if parents wanted me to draw after a widely grinning photo of their child, I would just say, “you realize the eyes are squinted” – and then they’d go for a more serious one.

In a smile, particularly, what is seen is fleeting and in motion – the “fixed” smile waiting for a photograph looks forced and wrong, the caught “flash” of a smile in a photograph works only because we have unconsciously trained ourselves to see it in glimpses. Adults who have never seen photographs cannot read them, it takes training. During the last 3-4 generations we’ve learned to look at the camera’s “caught” expressions in quick spurts. I am convinced that looking longer at such a photograph so that continues to work, must still be interruptive. I have not seen this investigated yet, though I would like to. Some photographs cannot be read at all, because the difference between the expression of pain and of joy must be seen in motion, or it is unreadable. photo 1 and 2 find

This was confirmed for me recently. I was asked to draw a beloved father for an obituary. I was sent several photos and chose to sketch the one where he was lively and smiling. As we corresponded, one adult daughter wrote: “To me, this doesn’t look like him! He looks happy, but tired.”

I wrote back: “This is normal, don’t worry! If you stare steadily at a smiling photo, it will stop working and start to look ‘fixed‘ (or as you say, tired). Jan photo A smile is passing, and we see it in a glance. Somehow or other, after the invention of the camera, we have learned to look at smiling photos in short glances – and I suppose one can also see a smiling drawing this way, but it gets more muddled now – how we see is so fascinating. I guess a smiling drawing is one we might have on the wall but we would not *gaze at it.”Jan sketch

Drawings of big smiles made after photographs, with all the teeth minutely traced in, cannot work because in reality we see the flash only – never the details. Everyone recognizes such a drawing – it looks obviously wrong, amateurish and uncomfortable.* (see note)

In a persuasive experiment, subjects were photographed as they exchanged a neutral look for each of the 6 universal expressions – joy, sadness, surprise, anger, fear and disgust. Next, the features were blanked out. A third series was made from studying these: just blank ovals, with arrows showing only the direction of movement between features. Everyone is still able(try it), to recognize the expressions – It is the movement and direction of the expressive muscles that we read so impeccably. COPY DIAGRAM

*note: But here, repetition is the key: I can draw smiles and other changing expressions if I see them repeatedly, as with these writers conversing animatedly at festivals. 3-4 Cheltenham sketches

some pics in SMILE, some in BLOG


One thought on “Blog 9 more smile: photo and drawing

  1. Very interesting! It makes me think of other smiles, for instance the Pride Smile when one is pleased with oneself. I think this is usually a more private smile, no teeth showing. And what about the Love Smile, when gazing at the object of one’s affection, one’s lover or baby? that one is longer, like the Photograph Smile, but not as set, and the eyes are more focussed, and possibly more squinted than for a photo.


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