Smile For The Camera




The archival function of the camera seems most evident in the frozen images of past scenes. To think about this preserving function therefore leads us most often to dwell on the way photographic images are looked upon and what part they play in the construction of a modern life. But there is a shadow to this specularity which is less considered. In order to capture these images, the camera needs to intervene in the flow of life, to congeal social interaction into a pose. The archival function thus has its shadow—the particular performance made specially for the camera. The focus of this paper is the scene in which the camera enters life: what are the techniques and how does the subject incorporate him or herself into the act of posing?

There is something unnerving about the phrase ‘festive technology’. Pierre Bourdieu employs this phrase in his account of family portraiture (Photography: A Middle-Brow Art (transl. S. Whiteside) Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990 (orig. 1965)). The intimacy of the gathering in front of the camera does not readily connote the coldness of a technology. But it is the oxymoronic nature of ‘festive technology’ which makes it useful as a frame for developing an academic analysis of this personal event. Bourdieu claims that this technology has evolved in response to the decline of collective celebrations in which the life of the family was given substance. The family photographic portrait has as its background, writes Bourdieu, ‘the fragmentation of the grand solemnities, with the disappearance of the public signs of festivity which were formerly able to lend the sense of celebration the appearance of an objective foundation’ (1990, p. 27). The family cult thus requires an abstracted event which gathers the group together as a unit. But this is an early form of abstraction. Bourdieu concentrates on the place of the camera in peasant groupings for which the family is still a relatively solid institution. In her analysis of contemporary American domestic photography, Susan Sontag (On Photography Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979) extends this further to argue that the photo album obscures the actual disappearance of the extended family as a functioning social unit: the portraits that include grandparents and relations are in fact the only moments at which such gatherings occur. As a fish rises to the water’s surface when it expires, so the visibility of the extended family in photographic media is a sign of its demise.

Both Bourdieu and Sontag present the camera as a device which increases in significance as forms of enforced solidarity weaken between individuals. This is a scenario which takes the whole of the western world in its sweep. Striking as this hypothesis might be, it pitches its explanation at a grand synoptic scale. You might say, it’s a wide angle theory. As theorists who belong more to the periphery than the centre, our talents are perhaps best directed at the particular. As such, the abstraction theory is not that useful in attending to the local ecologies that might develop around the camera.

The more particularising elements of Bourdieu’s theory rest in his outline of class difference in the use of the camera. Whereas peasants value ‘frontality’ for the camera—deliberately struck poses that offer full view to the eye of posterity—those of managerial occupations look for the more spontaneous scene where the camera catches the subject unawares. The difference is largely one of the comportment to self. In the first, the peasant habitus, what is identified as individual and unique is to be regarded with suspicion: the self conforms to a collective image in a stoic denial of experience. In the second, the bourgeois habitus, the particular of the individual is to be held as a solid ground for identity: the self rests below self-consciousness as a source of freedom and strength. In the first, the camera asks to look good, and in the second, it invites its subjects to express themselves. The distinction in Durkheim’s sociology between mechanical and organic solidarity roughly corresponds to the peasant and middle class uses of the camera in Bourdieu’s study.

A version of this difference between mechanical and organic solidarity can be found in the status of the smile in public life of Russia and the USA. To Russians, American tourists appear to be imbeciles, smiling at everyone without reason. Similarly, Russians consider that George Bush is an idiot because he is seen grinning constantly. For Russians, the smile is an indication of mental deficiency unless it responds to a justificatory context: you smile at seeing a friend, not a stranger. Public life for Russians demands sobriety—it is not something which an individual could feel free to partake. When asked why Russians smile so little, the typical response is: ‘What’s there to smile about?’ The smile is a passive reflection of the generally sour state of things. There is no sense there that in smiling the world might smile along with you.

This contrasts greatly with the militant optimism of their old rivals. Even to Australians, northern Americans are at ease with the camera. Their repertoire of camera expressions is large: including pointing, eye rolling and shoulder hunching. Reading candidates’ lips seems to be the nature of the democracy for which the camera is the main focus of collective political participation.

The smile seems to be a contested act in various camera ecologies. How might we begin to examine this in more depth? In this paper, I take two approaches. The first is coldly formal: I present the cases of two professional child portraitists working with different festive technologies. The second is warmly speculative: I offer the thoughts of a psychoanalyst on the deeper significance of smiling for the camera.

The two photographers operate in very different worlds. Valerie Bromberg operates a photographic studio in Acland Street in association with Photoexpress. Acland Street supports two social groups that have little to do with each other: the young culturally mobile types sit around loosely in the hi-tempo atmosphere of the Galleon, Delux or Dog’s Bar and the Eastern European émigrés cluster in conspiracies on the footpath or in the frothy air of Deverolli’s. Photoexpress functions as a ticket agency for the numerous acts and films that come to Australia from the former Soviet Union. The shop window is covered with posters and notices of forthcoming cultural events. On the wall of the back room is a sticker with a smile cradled by two hands: the bottom reads ‘Keep smiling’ and the top has the corresponding Russian phrase, ‘Sokhranitsya Ulybku’, which is only an approximately translates the English, meaning literally ‘Preserve the smile’—the phrase in Russian grants a more fragile quality to the smile.

Bromberg came to Melbourne four years ago. His previous position had been the official photographer for an institution in the Western Ukraine known as the Children’s Palace. As well as teaching photography, Bromberg acted as documenter for the official events that marked the incorporation of children in the life of the communist party. Photography was a critical element in these events.

Bromberg tells of a visit by a high-ranking communist Minister who was brought to meet a local factory boss in front of a crowd of a thousand people. Their first handshake was an inauspicious event: the boss was overwhelmed by the meeting and looked down to the VIP’s hands rather than looking eye to eye. To the merriment of the audience, the photographer demanded that the handshake be repeated with the boss taking a more frontal pose. This obvious dislocation of photography from reality is also found in the kinds of titles which Bromberg assigns to his images. This photograph was given the title 106 years old: Bromberg did not know exactly what the age of the man was, but knew that an impressive age would improve the photograph.

Bromberg’s Acland Street business services the Russian Jewish community and he acts as contributing photographer the local Russian language newspaper, Beseda (‘Conversation’). Most of his child portraits are made for display in the homes of grandparents. The portrait is most often enlarged and framed to hang on the living room wall.

Bromberg’s ‘festive technology’ included many devices for eliciting the desired facial expression. Most of these tricks involve hiding an object, such as a stuffed giraffe behind his back, and suddenly revealing it to the child, putting the giraffe on his head. Movement and distraction are important. Bromberg describes his photography as ‘like a theatre’. While I was talking with him, he speculated on a future method which involved a video on wheels that placed highlights of children’s film: this would be moved around with the camera to catch the child’s eager look. Bromberg’s method is dramaturgical: it matters little what the actor’s body is like underneath the makeup, as long as the required look is obtained.

Travelling from Photoexpress, it takes about one and a half hours by public transport to reach David Symmonds studio in Plenty Road Preston. Like St Kilda, Preston also has a substantial migrant camera ecology, though it is the Italians who frequent the studios. In the middle of a Labor heartland, Preston gives the impression of being somewhere out of the action. The shopfronts along High Street and Plenty Road look shabby and unique. David Symmonds is in the interesting position of catering for a clientele whose camera culture is divergent from his own. As a result, much of his work involves negotiation with clients about the kind of photograph which they might want. The Italians want their children to look good, whereas Symmonds argues for a more authentic individual portrait. He is sceptical towards the anxiety of parents that their children put on a good smile: ‘the smile is a veil: there is more going on’. A smile is a ‘social characteristic, a norm’. He says that Italians ‘fuss’ up their children and dress them in the most expensive outfits, such as sailor suits. Italians ‘treat the children as extensions of their personality’. Symmonds claims that he is often successful in persuading his Italian clients to take a less stereotyped portrait by blowing it up and placing it on the wall. Like the profession of architecture, Symmonds sees his job as partly educating the clients.

Generally, Symmonds sees the main role of his photography as memorial. He cites the sad cases of parents who have lost a child but are left with only a badly focussed snapshot to remind them of their loss. In the case of their death, it is important to have a clear positive portrait as something to retain of them when they have left this world.

To obtain the desired response from children, Symmonds said that it is best to talk to them, to get to know them. He describes older children as being sceptical of strangers (‘children are very receptive’), and not willing to open up for someone who they know will only play a passing role in their life. For this reason, he likes to establish a personal relationship with them. The phrases he uses include ‘got to get into the person’, and ‘don’t talk down to them’. He calls his technology: ‘people photography’. It is important to begin talking to the child before the technical process begins so that ‘the photographer is the focus, not the camera’

Another trick is the use of a rag doll, called Charlie. Symmonds would hold the doll up to the child and its head would surprisingly flop down. The intensity of the child’s response to this doll is indicated in the return of them later in life where they are most anxious that ‘Charlie’ be again part of the operation.

By contrast with his Russian colleague, Symmonds draws on psychology rather than theatre. Symmonds is the angler, waiting patiently for the bait to be taken, whereas Bromberg is the fly-fisherman luring his prey with dazzle. Symmonds seeks the inner self, whereas Bromberg is content with the image. What both share is a sense of struggle to pry the desired expression from the child. Why such a struggle? What goes on in the mind of the child as he or she faces the antics of these photographers?

In order to think about this matter, the most fruitful place to begin seemed to be Jacques Lacan’s work on the mirror stage. In the mirror stage, Lacan describes the submission of the infant subject to its reflected image. In the mirror, the subject finds the armour of identity which will protect it throughout life from the anxiety of body fragmentation. Lacan is careful to stress that the mirror stage is not a negotiated process where the subject weighs the pros and cons of specular self versus the ‘real’ body, rather it is a single moment in time, the moment of insight, the moment when the armour of identity is snap shut on the fragile body, trapping selfhood forever in a mode of being where presence is always outside, rather than inside. Such is Lacan’s mirror stage.

There are a host of questions which impertinent students and skeptical audiences raise in an attempt to unbalance Lacan’s edicts on the mirror stage. What is the modal age at which the mirror stage occurs? What if a child does not have the opportunity to see itself in the mirror? To the annoyance of many, Lacan has little time for these questions. The mirror stage is simply the switch with which the machinery of identity is initiated. But Lacan’s obstinacy serves an important function. First, it grounds a formal theoretical system in a singularity which rests independently of human experience. Second, it grants space to those who follow Lacan after his death to explore territory which the master left in the shadows.

This is the kind of space left open for us here. Where I focus in particular is on the catastrophic moment in which the subject takes the blind leap into his or her specular self. Modern technology arches toward the utopia of total capture: eventually, the elusive gesture of life will be incorporated within an abstract grid which grants it replication, translation and rotation. As a diligent lieutenant of technology, the camera works at the horizon of instantaneity: capturing the evanescent moment, freezing the smile at its parabolic peak. The attempts of painters to do the same requires a lengthy sitting and a product intwined with the artistic consciousness and weave of the canvas. The camera seems to capture the instant in a form which is capable of numerous transformations.

It was obvious to me that a psychoanalyst somewhere must have taken this further to examine the child’s response to the camera. When all attempts to discover this were frustrated, I decided that one would have to be constructed. But such an attempt would require a different voice to the one contained in the bulk of this paper. Such a voice would feel comfortable dwelling in the literal dimension of experience. This is a quality we can readily indulge in recent French theoreticians, such as Lacan or Irigaray, but feel awkward hazarding ourselves. To maintain this decorum while at the same time ‘doing the work’ of theory, it seemed reasonable to make up a theorist who might reflect on the ‘camera stage’ of child development. This theory simply re-directs the peculiar dexterity of French thought to a candidate phenomenon: it’s using a foreign recipe with new ingredients. In the context of this paper, Sylvia Tourner’s paper on the camera stage is a fiction necessary to grant us the space to reflect on the place of the camera in a child’s world.

Real child, mirror, reflected child, camera, photograph of child. Through the agency of the mirror, the child can subject him or herself to numerous transformations: pulling a face, turning to the side, moving for a close up. The result of each transformation is immediate. Through the agency of the camera, the child can be subjected to numerous transformations: change colour, be enlarged, replicated. The result of each transformation must be waited upon. As one can see, there is a symmetrical difference between the mirror and the camera: the mirror adheres its product to consciousness in agency and time, whereas the camera makes the self a thing that can be handled by others and requires the intervention of another. Both are abstractions of self, though the camera takes this process further beyond the third dimension to the fourth dimension of time. In terms of the dialectic, the camera is a sublation of the opposition between child and mirror.

The child is a camera in front of mirror. Its reflected image is captured as an image of self and pasted in an album of specular identity. What then, when the child stands in front of a fellow camera? Is this a more authentic mirroring? How does the child navigate its passage through the various specular contraptions which bear witness to the family drama.

The child sits peacefully absorbed in a private theatre of dolls and toys. Lurking in the background, a parent carefully waits for the appropriate atmosphere to arise before advancing on the child with its camera cocked. The child sees a smiling face obscured by a black box whose protruding cylinder points in its direction. By gentle words and gestures, the parent attempts to persuade the child to look in the direction of the box. ‘Look’ ‘Look at the camera’. ‘Smile’. ‘Come on, a nice big smile’. What a strange request: the child has never been asked to smile before. Until this point, the smile has been a reward granted by the parent and a sign of the care enveloping the child’s world. But now it is a service which the child can render the parent. ‘Click’ A flash of light hits the child’s eyes. The parent appears pleased.

What happens in this scene? There are two frames that will serve to ground the smile in a broader context of child development. Both concern the acquisition of agency, though from radically different directions. The smile functions in the give and take of childhood drama.

One is familiar with Freud’s map of the ego’s journey to maturity around the anatomical extensions of the body: oral, anal and genital. The formation of the psyche is inscribed as a series of passages through the dramas located in the body’s orifices. In the anal stage, the child confronts the forces of toilet training. A body function that has previously flowed spontaneously with the movements of the digestive system must now be regulated in accordance with the routine of the family home. This period is paradigmatic of creative activity: the child can give and the child can destroy. There is enough reason to think that the smile becomes involved in this creative drama. The parent, proffering a strange depositary, beseeches the child: ‘Give us a nice big smile’. To perform his or her work on the toilet, the child must relax the sphincter muscle to provide an easy exit of the stool into the bowl below. In order to give a smile, the child must stretch the lips of the mouth pulling on the drawstring muscles—levator labii superioris alaeque nasi—to provide a clear passage through which its image will be happily extracted and contained in the black box. The result in both cases an invisible deposit: one from behind and one from in front.

But the anus is not the only anatomical passage which registers the snapshot. The modality of the gift has its complement in the function of possession. In the prelude to the oedipal crisis, the phallus operates as a hidden talisman of power, receipt of which guarantees omnipotence and exclusive possession of maternal attention. The game of the ‘regarde le petit oiseau qui va sortir’ used by the father to attract the child’s attention provides a phallic flourish to the act of specular consummation. The main qualification of this fantastic animal is its fragile presence: like the penis that slips only momentarily into visibility and whose presence in hand grants an alarming tremulousness. The English accentuate this connection by adding the attribute of ‘dicky-bird’ to this game. Indeed one might consider ‘le petit oiseau’ as the prototype of Lacan’s ‘le petit objet a’. Given the hysterical nature of the camera pose, the offering of a vanishing bird can be understood as a phallic bait, setting the scene for specular technology as a fable of capture. In posing for the camera, the child is invited to mirror its action, to catch the fleeting moment. It is a ruse, not a trap of the gaze, but a gaze at the trap. One can speculate on a moment when the boy is invited to catch the little bird, to assume the possession of the camera device, and the girl to take the pose.


What have we gained from this detour? In all its gallic archness, it perhaps does give pause to think about the nature of the public smile. Like the graphic device of a tick, the smile is easily abstracted and disseminated in a variety of standardised forms, such as t-shirts and badges. But the underbelly of the smile, its semiotic moment, is much darker territory. In front of a camera, the smile is not just a stamp of approval, but a hesitant gesture, unsure of itself. We need not wonder so much that the child portraitists we have listened to go to such lengths to orchestrate the genuine spontaneous smile. And we can begin to think about the political implications of the smiling gesture: how it conforms to a Western investment in the happy childhood as a democratic right and how the Russians may never achieve true democracy until they learn to smile along with rest of the world. In this frame, a smile is not just a smile, but product of certain technologies and practices, like the domesticated version of a wild animal that needs to be captured and tamed. By attending to the vicissitudes of the smile, we might begin to register more deeply the travel from the private to the public, from experience to expression, and one day, maybe, allow the little bird to return from whence it came.