When you're smiling

January 06, 2003|By Richard O'Mara

A DOCUMENTARY photographer and ethnographer we know said she spent two years interviewing and taking pictures of the people who live on a single block in Hampden and who are famous locally for the enthusiasm they bring to the decoration of their houses at Christmas.

During this season, the sidewalks of the 700 block of W. 34th St. are busy with smiling "tourists" from other parts of town; cars stream slowly by, their drivers and passengers gawking and grinning at all the glittery lights and the blood-bright faces of plastic Santa Clauses.

The photographer, Jana Kopelentova Rehak, made fine portraits of these people, some of which were exhibited at a gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. To get what she wanted, the image of the true face, she had to persuade her subjects not to smile. It wasn't easy, she said.

"They like to see themselves looking happy," she said. "They are upset when they don't. Even as little children, when in front of a camera they were told to smile."

Ms. Kopelentova Rehak has lived in this country for a dozen years. Her father and grandfather were professional photographers in a town near Prague, in the Czech Republic. "I don't think Czechs smile as much as we do here," she said. "We certainly don't have that public smile. Americans are professional smilers."

She's right: The smile seems to be our preferred national expression. In certain quarters, I believe, it is bad form to permit the face to fall into repose if there is a camera anywhere in the vicinity. It has been this way for so long that many people may have passed through their entire lives without having been photographed without a smile. They show up grinning on the obituary pages.

Still, not everybody accepts without question the benignity of the smile. And not all who do question it are misanthropes.

We know that not all smiles are sincere or spontaneous, or even well-meaning. Among apes, and certain people, they are defensive, such as the grimace of the subordinate primate, the mask of the craven henchman and lickspittle. Broad smiles shrink the eyes and conceal the mind. The smirk is a smile. So is the sneer, the greasy grin of schadenfreude, and the feigned jollity of the full-fledged four-flusher. None of these dignifies us. Yet we like the smile, even when mechanical. And there is a thing called the "true smile." You'll know it when you see it.

In his book The Face, the scholar Daniel McNeill wrote: "Though courtroom judges are equally likely to find smilers and non-smilers guilty, they give smilers lighter penalties, a phenomenon called the `smile-leniency effect.'"

Not even a supercomputer could calculate how many times a day somebody in this land of ours says, Smile! Or is asked to. Nor is it certain which is stronger: the impulse to shoot a picture or the reflex to pose for one.

Everybody these days is socialized to the camera. My granddaughter, Lily, who is only 2 years old, has already developed a public demeanor. Show her a camera and say, Smile! -her face assumes the position.

It wasn't always that way. Leo Braudy records the change in The Frenzy of Renown, his study of fame and its history: "In old documentaries the people being interviewed often regard the camera with wary hostility. It was an intrusion into their privacy and sense of self. Now, of course, it can be considered an enhancement."

When I look at the older pictures in my family's album, especially those taken in the early 1930s, the subjects are not invariably smiling, unlike in later pictures. Also, my wife's family pictures, some taken in the 1920s, rarely reveal a smile. Of course, back then a lot of people had bad teeth.

You can never tell what people with cameras will find worthy to preserve.

I met a woman while fishing from a pier in Georgia once who put her videocam on the railing aimed at the setting sun and turned it on. "I've a collection of sunsets from all over the country," she said.

I turned my attention to my bobber.

Richard O'Mara is a former foreign correspondent and foreign editor of The Sun.

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