Paul Cantor “Hollywood Has a Major Problem” (via newspeedwayboogie)
Apart from the technical reasons and the origins of photography, with its requirement for long exposures, I think it’s safe to say that posing is an intrinsic part of portrait art in general, and not just a product of necessity. Historically there was always a tendency for those of importance to use portraits as a means of conveying a sense of themselves upon the world, The old saying ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression' has always being on the forefront of peoples’ minds.
At the turn of the 19th century portraits were accessible to those with money, the lords and ladies of the European court were use to posing. As this portrait of Napoleon shows, staging and costume were important for getting a sense of the subject and what they stood for. It is no surprise that as photography emerged parallel to painted portraits the mentality about projecting oneself was also similar.
Fast forward to 2014 and the medium has changed but the message is very much the same as it has always being. Anyone who has ever worked in an office can attest that every so often you will receive emails from colleagues of their new-born child to the whole office, the kind of pictures, that although charming, can only really be appreciated by close family. These are carefully posed pictures. Nobody ever sends a picture of a healthy crying baby, it is nearly always the baby, asleep in a blanket or wrapped up in its mother’s arms. Generally you see the face, with a caption along the lines of “Mother and baby recovering well”. Apart from ultrasounds this is the first time an image of a the new person is captured. It’s rather dark to think, but this staging is a way of saying that no deformities, defects or death during childbirth occurred, thankfully something less prevalent in our modern world than in bygone centuries. Before medicine developed and enlightened us, the concept of a monstrous birth had lots of different connotations and dubious explanations, these no doubt still sit somewhere deep down in the human psyche, hence the need to present a healthy baby.
As we grow up, the posed photo becomes commonplace, while still young, parents take out cameras, camera phones and other devices, snapping away. They want a nice shot of their child smiling, ‘3-2-1 Cheese' becomes associated with good times, fun and birthday presents. Children embrace the idea of a photo to capture good times, I recently had the pleasure of spending time with an 11 year old boy (mentoring program). The kid made a Lego model and told me to take a picture, so I started to photograph his ‘car-boat’, I was quickly scolded and told “No, I want me in it too”, needless to say smiles ensued. The kid understood the importance of a posing with his creation.
In many cultures posed photos are associated with other happy occasions; Santa Claus, school yearbooks, sport achievements, debutante balls, weddings and biographies of corporate websites. At the most basic level there is a constant urge to take photographs of happy occasions, The aim is to create a waymark at a life-event, characterized by happiness and celebration, the most obvious way to convey this is by capturing the smile.
I recently traveled and went on lots of excursions with various groups and the ‘team photo’ became somewhat of a running joke. I found that there was a formula to creating these photos, a 4 step process; right leg in front of left at a slight angle, hands on hips or around a buddy’s shoulder, a half-smile with the mouth open just a little to show teeth and head-tilt slightly to the right. The world of Facebook allows users to play into posing. often in quite a grandiose and narcissistic way. There is the selfie, the no make-up selfie, the duckface and countless other styles and poses, all are commonplace and very hash-taggable.
In officialdom the portrait is a very powerful and carefully used piece of data, Getting a passport photo correct requires a very particular posing. The photo is not just a visual identifier but a machine readable document, with a very defined set of parameters it must comply to.
Non-posed photos have their charm, but I think humans have a deep-rooted interest in seeing peoples faces, particularly happy ones. I listened to very good interview on the BBC World Service recently (I have mailed them to get a link to the exact podcast), It was with an elderly lady who took up photography in her youth, the 1960’s, after the suicide of her sister. Since then she has always seen photography as way to holding on to something of the ones we love. Photos are certainly a way to capture a sense of a person, the smells, touch and voice of person will change or disappear, but the photo, once developed and stored correctly is immutable and can be taken out of a wallet and treasured in a moment of reminiscence or crisis.