Photographic Display

Smile

9th February - 12th June 2016, Room 19

Charles Augustin LhermittePortrait of a young woman© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
"The only spring smiles at the world in his dawn.&nbsp"
Virgile, Géorgics (trad. J. Delille, 1770)


Benevolence, satisfaction, joy, malice, as well as impertinence, irony, contempt, cruelty... No human

expression displays such an extensive range of sentiments as the smile. Innate, this non-verbal means of communication grows richer as we age. Universal, its meaning varies depending on the culture and the context in which it is given and received.

Just as it is marginal in the sculpted or painted portraits of the time, the smile is rare in photographs of the 1840s and early 1850s: being above all a fleeting movement – stretching the lips and wrinkling the eyes –, its representation was then as much a challenge for the artist's hand as it was for the insufficiently sensitive processes of the daguerreotype and the paper negative.

Since the smile can last a few seconds before it becomes a rictus, the gradual reduction in exposure times soon made it much easier for the photographer to capture.
Starting in the era of the wet collodion process, the proliferation spreaded during the 1880s thanks to the development of snapshot photography. Broad smiles became fully assumed and teeth revealed as moral and behavioural codes became more flexible... and improvements in dental health and hygiene advanced.

"An image -my image- will be generated: will I be born as an antipathetic individual or a 'good sort'? (...). I decide to 'let drift' over my lips and in my eyes a slight smile which I mean to be 'indefinable', in which I might suggest, along with the qualities of my nature, my amused consciousness of the whole photographic ritual."
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. A Note on Photography, 1980


As a key agent for democratization of access to portrait, photography has been at the origin of a radical change in the relationship with oneself and with one's body. In this respect, the snapshot revolution did not change the nature of the experience of the sitter, who, while posing, would always “position” himself in relation to the ideal image he has of his own person.
Once aware of being photographed, capturing his natural attitude where physical appearance and personality are in harmony – the “intimate resemblance” in the words of Nadar - has always been the challenge through which the talent of the portraitist is best expressed.

Whether spontaneous or composed, complicit, shy, inspired and/or seductive, the smiles in this exhibition were shared at a time when this kind of expression was not yet the absolute social standard of self-presentation.
This display is the occasion to appreciate what the photographs convey of the encounters that took place around the camera, between openness to the other and dissimulation.

Curator

Thomas Galifot, curator of photographs, Musée d'Orsay

 

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