The writer Sarah Dunant has recently been sharing a series of opinion pieces through the BBC’s “A Point of View” programme, most recently in a piece that she entitled Mouthing Off, she questioned the American obsession with dental perfection, a subject that I have touched on in a previous blog.

I read the text of her piece with interest, where she attributes part of the rise of the smile in portraiture to a series of different influences; better dental hygiene enforced on WWII GI’s, the popularity of the Kodak camera, and Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific!  (You’ll have to read the piece for a fuller explanation!)

As a photographer I was interested in this because as I have noted throughout this daily portrait project, women generally feel compelled to smile when asked for their picture, whilst men are happy to stand and present their face as it comes.

It wasn’t always so.  A recent programme about the restoration of a Van Dyck portrait of Henrietta Maria (Queen to Charles I) commented on the fact that history records the lady as possessing

“teeth like defence works projecting from her mouth”

Unsurprisingly then her portraits all show her lips clamped firmly shut, but this is true of the majority of portraits painted before the 20th Century.  Even one of the masterpieces of American art; Grant Wood’s American Gothic, painted in the 1930’s, continues this tradition.

American Gothic
American Gothic (Photo credit: Mark Heard)

I was somehow reminded of that image today when I photographed David and Terry, two friends who have worked in the same manufacturing business for the last couple of decades, yet who have managed to go for years without seeing each other.  They were reunited today on one of my training courses so it seemed fitting to capture the meeting, particularly as David is approaching retirement.

Two men = two fairly deadpan expressions, which is doubtless what reminded me of the Wood painting.  The funny thing about that work is that he used models for the farmer and his daughter.  One of that unsmiling couple was the artist’s dentist!


One thought on “Open wide?

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