I was brought up by my parents to smile for the camera. There was no conceivable alternative. Despite what you might feel on the inside, a composed grin was the face you presented to the lens and, by proxy, to the world. As a result, I have developed an undue fascination with portraits of women who refuse to kowtow to convention.
("The Yellow Glove" by James Cowie, 1928)
No bonus points for guessing that Alice Cowie, pictured here, wore the trousers in the family. Fiercely intelligent and socially ambitious, she practically dares the viewer to meet her gaze, her nose tilted ever so slightly in the air. Husband James was by all accounts shy and retiring and was happy to melt into the background while Alice sizzled. And can we just talk about those gloves for a moment? Yellow was the color adopted by bohemian society back then, code for "artistic", "outré" and all-around fabulous.
Feel the need for your own pair? (I do.) Click here.
This next work is the one that ignited my preoccupation with unsmiling visages.
("Sonja" by Christian Schad, 1928)
I first saw this painting about fifteen years ago when I was living in Manhattan and deep in the throes of an all-black phase. I remember being completely struck by her androgynous sexuality and decadent cool. I was burrowing through the works of Christopher Isherwood at the time, and this lovely creature of the night typified the moral degeneracy of post-WWI Berlin that I had been so avidly reading about.
I think this dress aptly channels the slight sinfulness of the one in the painting.
Photography used to be a much more laborious process, and I'm sure that goes a long way toward explaining the impassive countenances of these next two women. One sat and sat waiting for that infernal "click." It must have been mind-numbing. But the eyes don't hide. Vita Sackville-West may have been bored, but she lost none of her fervent intensity in posing for this photo.
(Vita Sackville-West, c. 1920's, photographer unknown)
I think this jacket from Anthropologie is very Vita. Wear it with a wide-brimmed hat and everywhere you traipse will feel like Sissinghurst.
For some reason, I have waited until now to read Katherine Mansfield, and I'm so glad I did because I have been longing to lose my heart to a new author. She writes with luminous intensity about passionate, often beleagered women who struggle to love and love to struggle, and her stories never fail to deliver an emotional punch-in-the-gut that leave me stunned and wanting more.
(Katherine Mansfield, 1904, photographer unknown)
Here's Katherine in her early twenties -- before the illnesses, before the infidelities, before the loneliness and alienation -- still fiery, still indefatiguable, with so much yet inside her waiting to erupt.
This high-necked blouse would contain your physicality without suppressing your emotional ardor.
So tell me. When it comes to smiling in photos, do you always?