Say cheese! When smiling in pictures became a thing

Posted on 26 September 2018


Appelsin! Ouistiti! Buncis!

These are just a few ways people around the world say say cheese! to get people to smile for pictures. Of course, those words don’t literally mean “cheese” in Norwegian, French or Indonesian. (It’s orange, marmoset and green beans.)

What matters is that they contain a close unrounded front vowel (/i:/) that’s nearly impossible to say without smiling. Which brings us to this question: When did people start smiling in pictures, and why?

When smiling in pictures was frowned upon

The first pictures were taken in the 1820s, but it wasn’t for 100 years, until the 1920s and 1930s that smiles became the standard expression in photographs. The typical explanation is that long exposure times on early cameras made smiling impractical. It’s a logical explanation, but there’s not actually much evidence to back it up.

In the earliest photographs, long exposure time certainly was the explanation. Photographers told their subjects to get comfortable and not move for up to a minute. But by the 1850s, camera technology had advanced to the point where exposure time was down to a few seconds — certainly long enough to hold a smile.

A few pictures from the period do show people smiling, like this one showing a positively cheesing soldier in the Mexican American War, but they are the exceptions.

Which leaves about 60 years unaccounted for.

This gave rise to the poor dental hygiene theory — that people didn’t smile in pictures because they didn’t want their crooked, mangled or missing teeth captured for eternity in the form of a photograph. Others have argued against this theory, pointing out that because lousy teeth were so common they were hardly something one would have thought to try and conceal.

The most convincing argument is made by Christina Kotchemidova, a professor of culture and communication at Spring Hill College, who wrote an article about the history of smiles in photography. Kodak, she says, the company that revolutionized photography by bringing it to the masses, also revolutionized how people thought they should appear in pictures.

It had a lot to do with Kodak’s advertising. Dating to as early as the 1890s, Kodak ads showed happy people using their cameras while doing fun things. Everyone was smiling in the ads, and people got the idea that that was what you were supposed to do when you were in a picture.

For more photo-history, check out our history of the camera in a flash.

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