Smiling for the Camera: A Modern Invention?

Smiling for the Camera: A Modern Invention?

We’re called Cheesy Smiles for a reason: we expect that most of the people who pile into our photo booths, will have a big grin on their faces as their photos are taken. Nowadays, saying ‘cheese’ is common practice. But it wasn’t always so! If you look back on old photos from the 19th and early 20th century, you might notice that there are fewer cheesy smiles on display. But why might that be?

People back then had a great deal less to be cheerful about; they had to contend what with interstate warfare, flu pandemics and widespread poverty, and they lacked modern distractions like Instagram and Netflix. So it probably isn’t unreasonable to suspect that people actually have gotten happier – though stats on this sort of thing don’t go back much further than forty years.

Another theory you might have heard is that people had to sit still for longer in bygone days, since the earliest cameras required longer exposure times. It’s harder to maintain a smile for several minutes (or longer) and thus more severe expressions were preferred. The next time you’re walking around an art gallery, take note of the paintings of people and count how many are smiling. The answer is probably very few, for this exact reason.

But there’s a problem with this theory – exposure times had come down quite a lot by the turn of the century, and yet the smiles remained absent until after the Second World War (as we can tell from studies of American high-school yearbooks). While the technology was there to capture those cheesy smiles, the habit of smiling for a camera was difficult to pick up, and it took several generations before the necessary cultural change occurred.

This should probably come as no surprise – a small mouth and a serious expression were considered beautiful (or, at least, prestigious). Anyone who could afford to have their picture taken would have been at least slightly concerned with how they were being perceived, and therefore they’d have kept things solemn.

The richest families of the day would have hired out a studio and had their photos taken in the most formal setting imaginable – a far cry from the spontaneous photo-booth sessions you might find at a modern wedding, birthday party of bar mitzvah. Combine this with the famous primness of the Victorian era and you’ve a recipe for some serious moodiness. For a time, subjects were even told to say ‘prunes’ rather than ‘cheese’, as this would have kept their mouths small!

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