Real Men Don’t Smile For Portraits

“Tilt your head to the left, Sir.” I say for the second or third time.  The man turns his head fractionally to the left.

“OK.” I say and smile as I capture an image of the unsmiling man. “That’s good.”

Just as some women are afraid of lifting weights because they think five minutes of pumping iron will turn them into Arnold Schwarzenegger, some men refuse to tilt their heads because they think it will make them look like Peter Pan.  There are rules about Masculine and Feminine head tilts, but they are not all that hard and fast.  The general rule is to tilt the head toward the shoulder farthest from the Camera-this looks good with everyone.  But some people are afraid of tilting their heads too much, so refuse to tilt them at all-others tilt their heads so far I think they are warming up for Yoga.

Real Men like to look mean, never smile, never tilt their heads, and often hunch their shoulder like a linebacker waiting to make a game changing tackle.  This is not exactly the makings of a flattering portrait.

One of the Assembly Line Portrait photographers I work with likes to tell people-This is a TILT, and this is a TURN as he makes an exaggerated head tilt or turn.  Some people just never get it, and I shrug and move on.  The real Old Timer Photograhers walk over and physically adjust the Subject’s head by hand.  This may be satisfying for the Photographer, but the Subject will have moved his head again by the time he gets back to the camera.

Women’s greatest fear seems to be that someone will see their hands in a portrait.  Since two thirds of the Standard Set for women are hand poses, this often leads to a few moments of mad panic for the woman.  Your not going to show my hands are you? They screech in horror.  Just a little, we’ll show off those pretty rings of yours.  The other pose that causes problems is the hand next to the face pose.  They often like it once they see it, but some flatly refuse to do.  It isn’t them, or it’s stupid, or I’m not a little girl.  It’s a good shot-Trust me, I’m a Professional.

Floor poses have been around for a while, but they really took off in the 1980s and 1990s.  Now you can find people laying on top of each other, staring up at the ceiling, and huddled in one fashion or another just about everywhere.  Many of these shots have Dad at the bottom of the pile with Mom and the kids sitting/laying on top of him.  These can be cute shots, but most Real Men won’t even consider laying on the floor-they just flatly refuse to do it.  Of course, most of them are not dressed for full length floor poses anyway-the shot for the Book is waist up, right?

These are often the same people who complain that their portraits look exactly like the last portraits they had taken.  Even with the new options in backgrounds, most people still pick the Old Masters background that we have been using for The Book pretty much forever.

I have had a few of the Real Men who liked the Profile shot.  It’s a little different and it’s the kind of pose you could easily enough imagine some Hollywood tough guy doing.  Profiles are part and parcel of movie making, but it’s a kind of a subliminal thing.  We see it in the movies, but it doesn’t really register what it is.

When I was shooting High School portraits the tough kids were often in the poor schools where everyone walked around with a scowl on their face and murder in their eyes.  These kids could be downright scary, but they were still kids.  So I could get them to smile once in a while, but that would then totally freak them out.  They never, ever wanted anyone to see them smile.   Part of this is that whole teen angst thing as well,  I see that a lot.  Then there is the mystery of Korean kids, they have beautiful smiles, but hide their teeth behind their hands when you try to take their portrait.

Directory work brings in a lot of people who don’t want to have their portrait taken at all, so they all have this idea that they are taking a mug shot.  You don’t smile for an ID shot, do you?  People are kind of funny.  They don’t want ‘posed’ portraits, but they don’t really like super ‘casual’ portraits either.  They want portraits that are posed, but don’t look posed.  This is possible, but again, you need to have some cooperation from the Subject.

Another part of the problem is that we don’t see ourselves all that often and as a result we don’t know what we look like.  Oh, we see our face in the mirror, but we tend to look a little too closely.  People often focus in on some particular flaw, such as one eye being larger than the other or one ear being higher, or some other imperfection that virtually no one else on the planet would even notice.  The result is that they want to hide part of their face or not smile because it causes wrinkles or shows their less than movie star perfect teeth.

We are what we are and the camera captures us in all our mundane reality.  But that’s pretty much the way it is.  One of the Passers likes to look at the Portraits and tell the Subjects-“Ah, you are smiling on the inside.”

Most real men are just a tad grumpy anyway, but surprisingly a lot of them are nice and friendly when they aren’t having their portrait taken.  They will take to you, laugh at your jokes, and then freeze up once you get them positioned for their portrait. When I ask them to smile they shake their heads and say I don’t smile in pictures.  They seem to view it as a challenge to their manhood to do what someone else tells them to do.

I really don’t care if you smile or not.  Just so long as you buy the portraits.

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  • That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? It’s all about how we feel when we look at what our lifetime had done to our faces. If you could invent a machine that could erase regret, anger, despair and worry, you’d be rolling in dough so fast your head would spin.

  • The Photographer wrote:

    Hmm, I wonder where I can find that artist who painted Dorian Grey’s portrait?

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