Blog 9: 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 “held” 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 generations, we’ve learned to look at the camera’s “caught” expression in quick spurts. I am convinced that looking longer at such a photograph if it is to continue to work – I mean, to affect us – must still be interruptive. It could be measured (number of saccades, returns etc.). I haven’t read about it yet, but I can hope.

This was confirmed for me recently. I was asked to draw a beloved father for an obituary. I was sent several photos and told them I would sketch the one where he was lively and smiling. As we corresponded, one adult daughter wrote: “To me, this (photo) 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).  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.”

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 to recognize the expressions – try it.  It is the movement and direction of the expressive muscles that we read so impeccably.

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.

pain (injured man), joy (released hostage)

Drawings of big smiles made after photographs, with all the teeth minutely traced in, cannot work.  Everyone recognizes such a drawing – it looks obviously wrong, amateurish and uncomfortable. In reality, we see the flash only – never the details;  it passes too quickly for even the fastest artist to record, unless it is repeated.*( see note)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*note: But in fast drawing, repetition is the key: I can draw smiles and other changing expressions if I see them repeatedly, as here, with writers listening or conversing animatedly at festivals.

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